The only way to protect New Zealand from future biosecurity threats is for people to realise they have skin in the game, says Roger Smith, head of Biosecurity New Zealand, whose polling shows the vast majority of Kiwis don't think the issue affects them.
“The lack of understanding of biosecurity and its importance is a major obstacle,” Smith said in an interview at Wellington’s Ministry for Primary Industries.
According to Smith, a recent opinion poll carried out for Biosecurity New Zealand that will likely be released Wednesday shows that while people may be aware of biosecurity “only 2 percent think it has a personal impact” on their lives.
That 2 percent is across the board – including farmers – he said. “That means 98 percent of people aren’t going to take any action on biosecurity because they don’t think it has a personal impact.”
Smith argues it does.
“What you eat, where you camp, where you walk, how you enjoy New Zealand, where you kayak, what you do in your garden are all possible because of a good biosecurity system and therefore you have skin the game,” he said.
New Zealand has faced a raft of biosecurity threats that have wreaked havoc such as Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae, better known as Psa, that entered the country in 2009 on a shipment of pollen and resulted in 80 percent of kiwifruit orchards nationwide becoming infected at an estimated cost in lost exports of up to $930 million. Other more recent threats include the brown marmorated stink bug that would devastate New Zealand's fruit, vegetable and wine industries.
Mycoplasma bovis - a cow disease that will cost nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years – is a case in point. The disease will not only hit individual farmers but also the taxpayer, who will front up for the government’s $886 million Mycoplasma bovis bill.
On-farm, farmers are realising “actually biosecurity is really important to me, because it’s directly hitting me,” he said.
Up until now, New Zealand has been “rather relaxed” regarding on-farm biosecurity and farming systems, such as moving cattle to different pastures for grazing, he said.
One of the biggest challenges emerging from Mycoplasma bovis is the fact that only around 40 percent of farmers use a mandatory National Animal Identification and Tracking scheme, rendering it extremely difficult to trace the disease.
Farmers resisted the system - due to added cost of compliance and the fact that it is cumbersome to use – and, in some cases, to avoid taxes through a cash-for-cows market.
“When it comes to the crunch there are no records,” he said.
However, “now that we need it and it’s not working, farmers are starting to understand why it's there,” said Smith. Biosecurity New Zealand will be pumping resources into improving NAIT, making it more user-friendly among other things, he said.
Traceability issues also generated problems in providing compensation. MPI has been accused of being slow to compensate farmers who had to cull their animals. According to Smith, however, compensation is swift when there are records. "If you have been selling cows for cash, you have to be able to verify your claim," he said.
Mycoplasma bovis, however, is just one biosecurity incursion, he said and “we have 10, 20, 30 incursions every week.”
The only way to protect the country is for people to take responsibility, he said. Biosecurity New Zealand is about to launch a major campaign geared toward “getting people to buy in and be part of the system,” he said.
It's teaming up with Australia to develop new technology such as three-dimensional x-ray machines that can pre-screen baggage and find elusive things such as seeds as well as online gaming geared toward biosecurity
It’s beefing up its laboratory facilities with a new state-of-the art high-security lab that will come on-stream next year.
It’s also looking at more policing given the increasing numbers of non-compliance.
“New Zealand has been an environment where you trust people but there are more people who are breaching that trust and therefore we need to boost our ability to deal with that,” he said.