Mycoplasma Bovis decision devastating but correct

Yesterday New Zealand farmers found out the likely cost of a major biosecurity menace that has been found

The Mycoplasma Bovis crisis is at a critical level and the Government has made what looks like a gutsy call. Eradication of M. Bovis is the only solution and that it is going to cost around N.Z.$886 million to deal with over the time that the attempt to remove it from New Zealand is in progress.

Farmers, especially those in dairying have not always been popular in New Zealand. Whilst being a significant part of the economy and contributing over N.Z.$15 billion to it per annum in more recent years, there has been a significant environment cost. The cost has not just been a significant degradation of fresh water resources, but also a significant contribution to New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas output.

But if we put the negative aspects aside for a moment, there is no easy way to look at this. 160,000 cattle are going to be slaughtered in the near future, which whilst representing only 1.4% of the national herd, is going to devastate some farmers and their livelihoods. There are some who may have been farming their whole lives who will now find all of that hard work being slaughtered. A few may have to walk from their properties.

Federated Farmers New Zealand finds itself in rare agreement with the Labour Government about the direction that this crisis is going. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern found herself in agreement with F.F.N.Z. President Katie Milne and Dairy New Zealand boss Jim van der Poel who agreed that the one chance to clear M. Bovis from New Zealand is now and that eradication is the solution. All acknowledged the toll that this would place on farmers.

No one wants to see such a huge loss of animal life. It reminds me of the huge medieval response Britain made when Mad Cow Disease broke out there in 2001. That effectively crippled the entire dairy industry in Britain and costing 226 human lives as well as the lives of millions of animals. However the potential cost to New Zealand if M. Bovis is not eradicated is huge. It would have a lasting negative impact on New Zealand farming on the whole and on our reputation overseas, which is not something New Zealand can afford.

In the coming days, weeks and months, thousands of cattle are going to die. But if nothing done in those coming days, weeks and months, the cost is going to be much worse.



Not so obvious effects of climate change to affect N.Z.

People debate the serious nature of the potential effects that climate change may have on the economy, on the environment and on people. But what threat does it pose to our health and society? Below are just some of the risks that we may face for not actively encouraging awareness of changes in the environment.

One of the less obvious problems that is likely to more noticeable is the proliferation of noxious and potentially dangerous pests. Noxious pests are already banned in New Zealand under the Biosecurity Act and individual regional councils will have an inventory of all of the potentially damaging or dangerous animal and plant species that are not allowed in New Zealand. As the climate becomes drier in the east of New Zealand, it is thought that poisonous spiders which currently find it too wet, could become established. If this were the case, such species as the Australian Redback, which is already found in Otago around vineyards may spread further north into places such as the semi-arid Mackenzie Basin. And due to its proximity to New Zealand, it is likely that Australia will continue for the foreseeable future to be our no. 1 source of pests (figuratively and otherwise!).

Another risk animal that New Zealand is already seeing occasional localized incursions by are fire ants. These little red ants can decimate our bird life, cause huge amounts of damage to vegetation. Once established they can breed easily, do not seem vulnerable to climate change. Their nasty sting is lucky to cause a surge in doctor complaints.

A second prospect in wetter parts of the country is that the combination of moisture and humidity will enable the breeding of mosquito species not yet seen in New Zealand. Some of these may be containing diseases or viruses such as the Ross River virus. Mosquitoes generally breed their larvae in stagnant water, which needs to be warm and shallow.

Other changes that are considered likely to affect New Zealand are seasonal illnesses. Hay fever is often advanced in spring as the ready availability of pollen aggravates peoples allergies. As drier weather takes hold, the water level in rivers, streams and other fresh water systems may lower. The combination of sunshine reflecting in a shallow pool of water during summer periods may give rise to cyanobacteria, which is potentially lethal in dogs and may pose a threat to human health as well.

I look forward to seeing what discussion papers come up with about these threats. And whether or not calls to action might eventually persuade New Zealanders that man made climate change or not, we have a responsibility of care to look after our economy and environment, some of the effects are already here.

Biosecurity threats to New Zealand need addressing

I work near Christchurch Airport. Every day I see aircraft of all sizes taking off and landing at the airport. Some are small regional aircraft with seating for up 68-70; whilst the largest is the Airbus A-380, capable of carrying 500 people and is the largest passenger aircraft in the world. With every aircraft movement tonnes of luggage and goods are moved as well. The vast majority is clean, but what about the portion that is not? And more importantly how does New Zealand deal with it?

There are two major types of entry port in New Zealand. Lacking a land border, all inbound/outbound traffic in New Zealand arrive and departs via ship or aircraft. One might have thought that the absence of a land border and thousands of kilometres of sea water would work in our favour. In a past time that might have been true, but with tens of thousands of people flying into and out of New Zealand each day and ships carrying tens of thousands of tons of cargo arriving, departing daily, that is simply not the case any longer. So, how do our marine and airports handle these movements?

Marine ports of entry have become substantially busier as larger container ships and bulk carriers are constructed, enabling larger volumes of goods to be at sea at a given time. Some ports such as Nelson are large handlers of timber, whilst others such as Lyttelton handle coal. Several handle freight movements.

I am off the belief that each major container port should have a facility on site where all containers are physically inspected for threats – exotic/harmful/invasive creatures. The fee for the containers being off/loaded should include a portion to cover operating costs. There should not be any exception with regards to which containers go through the facility or not.

However it is before a ship enters a New Zealand Port that challenges often arise. First and foremost, has the ballast water been emptied out to sea before the ship entered New Zealand waters? This is necessary to stop unwanted aquatic pests, such as weeds and marine life from entering New Zealand waters, particularly if they are of an invasive/destructive nature in the marine environment.

Aircraft arriving from overseas are the other major conduit for unwanted organisms reaching New Zealand. Air New Zealand and other airlines fly into and out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch from out of Asia, north America, south America, Africa, Europe and elsewhere daily. They carry not only personal luggage, but also transport orders for flowers, seafood products such as lobsters and oysters.

In 2003, a fire ant outbreak was detected at Auckland International Airport, where nests consistent with this species of ant were found on the grass median strip’s between the runways and the tarmac. Most likely, the ants stowed away in luggage that had come from Australia, where the ants are established or from the America’s which is their traditional range. The fire ant is capable of decimating native plants and bird species, as well has having a bite which causes severe pain in humans. In this case the ants were contained and destroyed.

Two years earlier, the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak that ravaged Britain, had caused airlines to spray the exterior of their aircraft, require passengers to declare their movements. The outbreak was caused by a highly contagious disease that had afflicted huge numbers of British livestock, leading to massive culling all over the country, quarantining of huge stretches of British countryside and a range of protective measures that had to be applied to anyone visiting a farm. A similar outbreak here in New Zealand today would devastate one of our biggest export earners and cause tens of thousands of job losses.

More recently Asian Gypsy Moths have required Biosecurity New Zealand to conduct spraying operations to protect our horticulture. The Asian Gypsy Moth poses a threat to viticulture and horticultural operations that earn New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

I would happily see more money invested in the New Zealand Customs at the border, to protect me, my country and its superb natural environment. I would happily see more money invested in it so that those wanting to come here and contribute to New Zealand are able to afford the same quality of life as those living here. I would happily see more invested because it is a small and well spent price to pay for being a New Zealander in New Zealand.

A history of biosecurity scares in New Zealand

My last post examined how biosecurity works in New Zealand and why it is important. This post examines some of the biosecurity incidents that have assailed New Zealand over the years, how they were (not)dealt with, and what we can learn from them. People who do not like creepy crawlies should stop reading here.

Two years before I was first introduced to biosecurity via a course at University in 2003, there had just been a fire ant incursion at Auckland International Airport. These rapidly reproducing little red ants, which form colonies with obvious nests, are from South America, but are now found in several countries including the United States and Australia. They are so called from the fiery stinging sensation first described for medical science by a victim. Fire ants are an invasive species that can cause significant damage to crops, whose sting can require emergency medical treatment and can make recreational areas off limits.

But it was probably the varroa bee mite intrusion the year before that has most shocked me. A tiny little mite, less than a couple of millimetres in size was found in 2000. At the time the government of then Prime Minister Helen Clark decided to only expend $3 million on defeating this tiny critter. Around the same time as Minister of Arts she announced $80 million in new funding for the arts. Given that this pest is a potentially devastating thing to have intrude into all of the industries that rely on pollenation by honey bees and the jobs and livelihoods that would be the line, it is possible to understand the outrage. Due to the very nature of honey bees flying about in their business, the introduction of a single mite into a hive was considered to be the death knell for not only the host hive, but every other hive within 5km. The varroa was never fully wiped out and is now established to some extent.

In early 2001, a particularly nasty scare occurred. This was the now infamous foot and mouth disease outbreak in Britain where around 10 million sheep and cattle were slaughtered. The crisis cost Britain around $16 billion and led to the European Union imposing a world wide ban on British livestock, meat and animal products. Limitations are placed on tourist travel in the countryside, which ends up costing a further several hundred million dollars in lost revenue from  cancelled events, bookings and other expenditure associated with tourism. Fortunately for New Zealand an already relatively low  risk due to prior recognition of such a potential issue was lowered even further with the tightening of border controls. In this case it was actually beneficial to the N.Z. meat industry because of the European Union ban on British meat and livestock products.

Since then there have been numerous gypsy moth and fruit fly incursions. Asian Gypsy moths are the most frequent of the Gypsy moths to arrive in New Zealand. Another one that has shown up from time to time is the Painted Apple Moth which is a hazard for crop species, native forests. Were a Painted Apple Moth incursion to become established in New Zealand the estimated damage over 20 years is several hundred million dollars.

In 2004 it was discovered that a serious fresh water algae called didymo, but also nicknamed “rock snot” reached a biological threshhold in the United States where it suddenly began to very rapidly spread through natural fresh water courses. It is very difficult to get rid of in small streams and rivers once established and only larger rivers in New Zealand such as the braided ones in Canterbury which are prone to flooding can stay clean because it cannot get established due to the high flows. It is unclear how didymo got here. It harms the ecosystem by smothering it and looks like great wads of sewerage hanging off the rocks and is just as unsightly. Unfortunately here to stay. Will eventually get into the North Island river catchments. Could clog the intakes of small irrigation schemes and hydro-electric power schemes. Can be transported by not cleaning gumboots or waders if one has been fishing.

My biosecurity lecturer in 2003 wrapped his final lecture with conclusions from the course. One of them was that Australia will always remain New Zealand’s number one (!)source of biological pests due to its proximity to New Zealand and the large number of flights between the two countries on a daily basis. Another was that despite some clear failings and a need to improve funding and resourcing, our regulatory environment is amongst the best in the world for biosecurity. There is hope yet despite his final comment that probably 2-3 pest types a year will find a way to get into N.Z. unnoticed.

So the struggle to defend the border continues. Maybe we are more Australian than we want to admit.

*Dives for cover*

The importance of biosecurity in New Zealand: Part I

I have a preserved Australian red back spider at home as a paper weight that my parents bought back from a holiday in Queensland. It is a species that has arrived from Australia on hard wood that was intended to be used for power poles in Otago and Taranaki, and never got fumigated. Small colonies of this poisonous spider which is related to the Black Widow and the New Zealand Katipo now exist in these provinces. If this could arrive on wood intended for power poles then what else could have arrived in New Zealand and what could arrive in the future. And every time I look at it I wonder what the future holds for biosecurity in New Zealand.

The recent discovery of multiple fruit flies and larvae in Auckland might be seen as a reminder about how vulnerable we are to natural invaders from overseas. Some would argue that there is no point in trying to stop the incursion as they will eventually take over. Others will argue we are not doing nearly enough to protect ourselves from biosecurity threats, be they disease, insects, unwanted plant matter or marine pests. But what is biosecurity to New Zealand and why should we take it seriously?

Biosecurity is the protection of a nation from biological pests or matter or disease that cause economic and/or social damage and/or environmental damage. It might be something like the fruit flies that have been discovered in Auckland, or a maritime pest that arrived in ballast water from a ship that was not properly disposed of, or an invasive species such as fire ants. The damage that can be caused could be small scale issue such as the arrival of Australian huntsman spiders in Christchurch a few years ago, or large scale such as the foot and mouth disease crisis that was an international emergency and resulted in restrictions being placed on travellers in many countries.

Biosecurity works through several stages. At the border when you leave, customs check your suitcase and so forth for any prohibited goods or material that might be going out. At ports custom boats go out and check ships before they come into port. Because New Zealand has no land border, these are the only entry/exit points for people and goods going in/coming out of. However, their number, combined with the relatively small budget of New Zealand biosecurity, the large number of people arriving and leaving daily cannot be all screened properly. Every year we hear about the biopests that made it through the safety net – spiders, scorpions, ants, snakes, fruit flies. All that says nothing of the diseases, viruses and so forth that could have potentially come across the border, somehow incubated until after the mode of transport had cleared customs.

But biosecurity is about dealing more than just what might have arrived accidentally. A few examples of potentially deliberate threats include:

  • Bioterrorism – highly unlikely in New Zealand, but a nonetheless high consequence event, which would assume a group or individual with access to an agent such as anthrax threatening the country with violence if the Government did not comply with a demand
  • Biocrime – not terrorism, but the deliberate introduction/creation of a disease/pest or other harmful agent that is capable of doing significant economic damage or harm to people
  • Bioincident – not a crime or terrorism, but perhaps an emergency at a bio-lab testing highly contagious substances

In Part II we look at some of the scares of the last two decades and how they were (not)overcome.