A big biosecurity lesson from Nuffield travels

Simon Cook.

When Simon Cook – a third-generation kiwifruit grower from Te Puke, who also runs a kiwifruit contracting business and is a Kiwifruit Vine Heath grower director – embarked on his Nuffield Scholarship last year, he chose ‘biosecurity’ as his focus topic.

“I thought it would expose me more to practices of biosecurity in horticulture and agriculture around the world.”

But, surprisingly, what Simon found was few biosecurity measures in place and a mood of complacency – something he believes exists in NZ’s primary industries too. Now he’s finishing his Nuffield project by focusing on how we fight complacency and achieve a cultural change in practising biosecurity – both here and abroad. Here’s his story.

Simon was one of five Kiwis bestowed a Nuffield scholarship for 2018, with three core components, and began by attending the Nuffield International Contemporary Scholars Conference, in the Netherlands in March 2018, where all 70 scholars from around the world came together for a week of learning and interacting.

Here he learnt about Dutch agriculture, Europe’s history and the devastating effects World War II on Dutch and European agriculture.

After ducking home for kiwifruit harvest, he embarked on the scholarship’s second component – a six-week Global Focus Program travelling Singapore, India, Dubai, UAE, France, Belgium and the USA.

The seven-nation intensive group tour aims to show scholars a mix of agricultural, cultural and political practices in a range of different countries.

And the fun began – a jam-packed schedule of travelling and visiting a range of industries, organisations, government groups, farms, orchards and factories from early morning to late at night – daily.

Then came component three – a self-organized 10 weeks-plus of individual travel to explore a subject of interest. This investigation culminates in a report of findings; and presenting findings at a Nuffield Conference.

Why choose biosecurity? “Given the history of Psa-V in NZ’s Kiwifruit industry and my own involvement with industry biosecurity body KVH, it was only natural my individual travel would focus around biosecurity,” says Simon.

“NZ’s incursion of Mycoplasma Bovis also reinforced the importance of focusing on this area.”

Simon says NZ has very strong border control. “We’re separated from other countries by sea and anyone and anything travelling here has to go through a customs process to enter NZ in an effort to prevent biosecurity threats entering and incursions.”

Simon knew from previous travel through Europe there were no customs operations in place at cross-country borders.

“So I thought I’d look on-farm or on-orchard to see if there were biosecurity practices in place to prevent biosecurity incursions and spread of pests and diseases.

“It turned out there were very few examples of biosecurity happening on farms – it was disappointing,” says Simon.

For example, he travelled from Qatar – a country known for having foot and mouth disease – straight to France. “The next day we arrived on a farm – no questions asked.”

“We did stop in Qatar and disinfect our shoes and equipment ahead of our trip – but anyone could wander to farms in Europe and cause an incursion without biosecurity measures being in place.”

BMSB damage

He visited Alabama and Pennsylvania in the US to see first-hand the damage done by an established presence of Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, plus a recent spotted lanternfly incursion.

 “Virginia and Pennsylvania are where BMSB has really taken hold, so I stayed in the US for one month visiting orchards, farms and towns affected,” says Simon.

He also viewed the issue of citrus greening, or HLB, in Florida. Citrus greening has reduced the industry to half of its previous size, wiping about NZ$6 billion off the local economy. “To put that in perspective the entire NZ horticultural industry is worth around $5.5 billion and employs more than 60,000 people.”

Then Simon went to Chile – the first Southern Hemisphere country to have a BMSB incursion – then onto Australia’s Northern Queensland region, where banana plantations are suffering from TR4, a devastating soil-borne disease.

Simon says he visited many countries not aligned with Nuffield for his project – and met with owners and workers on orchards, farms and factories, the US Department of Agriculture, he spent an afternoon with NZ’s Chilean ambassador, and also met two US congressman.

With NZ’s primary industry markets – kiwifruit in particular – primarily overseas, he took on the scholarship to gain a greater world perspective “and to see how we fit into the global landscape… it was opportunity for me to learn more”.

“I thought it would expose me more to practices of biosecurity in horticulture and agriculture around the world.”

In Chile, Simon also found much complacency of BMSB’s entry. “In Chile, BMSB will severely impact horticulture and agriculture if it spreads to rural areas. But two hours south, where orchards are located, there is no interest in the topic. It will also have significant social impact if the population explodes where it has established in Buenos Aires. But until the bugs land in their orchard and start disrupting production will they start to take notice and act.”

Dropped the ball

Simon thought he’d find much stronger emphasis on biosecurity at individual European farms “but since the 2001 Foot and mouth outbreak in England they’ve really dropped the ball and got complacent”. “All those biosecurity practices and hygiene practices they had in place have gone.

“My Nuffield project is now focused on how do we fight complacency and achieve a cultural change?”

Simon believes the same thing could be said NZ for orchardists – only eight years after vine-killing disease Psa-v was first detected in Te Puke in 2010, ripping through orchards decimating crops until Hort16A was replaced with new variety G3.

Simon, who owns a Te Puke kiwifruit contracting business, says orchardists have ditched biosecurity practices they had in place post-Psa.

“After Psa we’d stop after visiting each orchard and spray all of our equipment, to prevent spread of pests and diseases. This took about 30 minutes so I’d charge orchardists $30 for the service.

“Within a few years we were asked to stop this practice because orchardists were no longer willing to pay the $30.

 “So that’s the big challenge – how do we solve this complacency among our primary producers?

“In NZ we have this cultural psyche of: ‘She’ll be right’ – how do we change this approach to biosecurity?”

In Florida Simon learned of how grapefruit growers, when first facing the threat of citrus greening, decided to not to do anything because they thought it was oranges and not grapefruit the disease would affect.

Still not enough

“Now this region produces only one-tenth of the grapefruit it had done pre-citrus greening.”

Back home, Simon says “we’re light years ahead in our biosecurity efforts – but it’s still not enough”.

“We have KVH for the kiwifruit industry, which was created when Psa was first detected in NZ and has carried on its work, and we do now have Government Industry Agreements in place for most primary sectors – but more needs to be done at individual level.

“You can see this with NZ’s incursion of M. Bovis. If farms had double-fencing to stop interaction with neighbouring farm animals, and if farmers had used the NAIT system properly so all cattle could have been traced, the bill to try to eradicate M.bovis would have been halved.”

“It’s the same thing with the kiwifruit industry. Before Psa we had no hygiene or biosecurity practices in place.

“In the early stages of Psa, orchardists were employing all sorts of biosecurity practices to limit its spread, now those have fallen away. In one way we recovered too quickly from Psa, because bouncing back has built in that attitude of us being bulletproof.

“Some growers now say: ‘I don’t need to worry about biosecurity because KVH will look after us’. “Overseas I saw countries fighting what’s in front of them and not being able to look at what else could potentially be a threat in future so we’re really lucky to have an organisation like KVH that’s so focused on identifying and trying to prevent future incursions – but I think in some ways we’ve dodged a bullet with Psa.

“We were lucky to have G3 in our plant breeding programme so close to release. It was sheer luck G3 has psa-tolerance, has a great taste and is as good as it is. In Florida I saw the citrus industry hit with citrus greening and have nothing to go on to.

“They’re still trying to breed disease tolerance and genetically engineer fruit and still getting nowhere despite spending US$250m on research.

 “If we didn’t have G3 as a last resort that worked half of our kiwifruit industry would be gone.”

Simon’s Nuffield travels finished last November. This summer he’s writing his Nuffield project report, to be published after March. He’ll then speak publicly to educate primary producers about his learnings – and the need to better their biosecurity efforts at every level.

Simon says the last horticulture-hailing Nuffield scholar was Horticulture NZ chair Julian Rain, in 1997.

He’s hoping to inspire more young horticulturalists to apply for the privilege. “It’s an amazing opportunity and it’d be good to get another person from the horticulture industry to gain the scholarship for their future benefit and that of our industry.”



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