An unlikely partnership in New Zealand leads the way on biosecurity

An unlikely partnership in New Zealand leads the way on biosecurity

A recent biosecurity scare in New Zealand resulted in mass decimation of apple and stone fruit trees across New Zealand; and New Zealand’s onion industry took note. Biosecurity New Zealand and Onions New Zealand have begun to work together to ensure that they are prepared for biological threats – a partnership that could serve as an example for other countries.

An incident involving apple and stone fruit trees earlier this year likely was a result of plants being infected prior to arriving in New Zealand to be planted and grown. Fruit growing companies ended up unknowingly planting these trees, which likely infected the surrounding soil in which the trees were planted. Some individuals within the industry suggested destroying the trees, however this action would have little effect if the trees had already been planted and contaminated the soil in which they were planted.

Those affected in the agricultural industry are blaming the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in New Zealand for the failure in maintaining proper biosecurity practices. MPI, however, is likely underfunded to take on the sizeable task of patrolling the entire agricultural industry in New Zealand. Though New Zealand has taken initial steps in protecting specific sectors within its agricultural industry from biological threats, there is more to be done in both New Zealand and elsewhere.

With areas like biosecurity not receiving the same attention within governments as other, more traditional areas of security (like defense, for instance), what could a biosecurity breach in agriculture industries look like – and what would such a breach mean for local economies and food supply? 

Implications for industry

MPI asked New Zealand fruit tree growers to destroy or contain the trees. In the end, the fruit tree growers spent millions destroying their trees. However, destroying the trees did not resolve any kind of soil contamination that could have resulted from the contaminated trees being planted earlier in the year. The process of soil excavation and laying new soil would add an additional expense for the fruit tree growing industry on top of removing the contaminated trees from the ground.

The costs for dealing with contaminations might be prohibitive for the agricultural industry, particularly for smaller, local growers. The economic implications as a result of a biosecurity threat to agriculture would likely be felt throughout entire societies as food becomes more expensive and there is less supply of the affected foods at grocery stores.

Economic instability and threats to food security

The implications for economic and food security could be overwhelming. Though crops like fruit trees and onions are a fraction of what a country produces and consumes, the contamination and subsequent destruction of these crops could have significant consequences.

Fruit tree growers would likely experience losses in profit and could suffer financially from the expensive destruction and soil excavation processes that might occur in the aftermath of a biocontamination. Likewise, the dearth in local fruit production would affect the availability of certain kinds of fruits. The lack of supply but stable demand would likely drive up prices for some varieties of fruit that the contamination affected. Food prices would rise for food products that the country once produced locally; it is possible that many would stop buying the pricier, imported products.

If a biosecurity threat impacted an industry like wheat that is found in a variety of finished goods such as pasta, bread, and baked goods, the contamination could have even further-reaching unforeseen effects on food supply and economic well-being.

The future of biosecurity policy in New Zealand

Though MPI in New Zealand is working with onion growers across the country to prepare for potential biosecurity risks, onion farmers are a small sector within the greater agricultural industry. The onion biosecurity partnership between Biosecurity New Zealand and Onions New Zealand only provides joint funding to ensure biosecurity readiness against biological threats to the onion industry.

To protect against broader biosecurity threats, Biosecurity New Zealand and similar organizations in other countries will need to target grain, dairy, livestock and fruit and vegetable farmers. Partnerships between national biosecurity organizations and organizations that represent a variety of agricultural producers would likely be the best way of funding future biosecurity projects.

Given the lack of priority assigned to biosecurity at the present time, many countries will have difficulties achieving broader biosecurity without partnerships between the government and agricultural organizations. The risks to industry, economies, and food supplies is too high to ignore for much longer. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and biological substances travel within countries and across international borders, protection against potential biological threats to agriculture is even more necessary.

About Author

Hali Czosnek

Hali Czosnek is a graduate student at Georgetown University pursuing a Masters in Security Studies. She currently works as a research assistant for Professor Elizabeth Saunders researching U.S. foreign policy and the use of force. In August 2017, Hali graduated summa cum laude with honours from the College of William and Mary. Her personal research interests include global health, biological weapons, and dual-use technologies.