Biosecurity preparedness thoroughly unprepared for, believes Barber

Allan Barber

Meat industry commentator Allan Barber has been examining the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG)’s recent report into New Zealand’s biosecurity preparedness and finds the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) response “thoroughly unprepared” for preventing high-risk incursions, he believes.

The Auditor General’s report into the current state of readiness to cope with potential high-risk threats to our biosecurity makes sobering reading. In the report Lyn Provost, the Auditor General, makes a number of recommendations for improvements, while complimenting the MPI on recent progress. But the overwhelming impression is one of a disaster waiting to happen.

Beneath the carefully modulated tones of her report, which follows the public service principle of expressing any criticisms quietly, there are some worrying conclusions; the most notable being that New Zealand is not prepared for an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). It is estimated that FMD would reduce GDP by $8 billion in the first year and $13 billion by the end of year two, equivalent to more than six percent of GDP.

We have always known that an outbreak of FMD would be catastrophic for our agriculturally based economy and this estimate confirms the likely extent of the catastrophe. Yet, only this morning, Federated Farmers has cast serious doubts on the importing of palm kernel expeller for feeding cows; based on the findings from a visit to Malaysia last year, it appears MPI has no idea which PKE factories are exporting feed to New Zealand, although some are in areas which have had outbreaks of FMD.

MPI is said to be assessing the Federated Farmers’ palm kernel report.

The OAG gives credit to MPI for its response to incursions like PSA after they have arrived in the country, although I know there are kiwifruit growers who think it was all too slow. But in devoting resources to the response phase, there has been too little work on actually preparing to keep new organisms from entering the country in the first place.

Information systems, workforce planning and capability, and performance measurement are also cited as areas of weakness.

An area of potential improvement is through the Government Industry Agreement on Biosecurity Readiness and Response (GIA) – which had been signed by 14 industry groups, including the meat industry, at the time the report was written, but this has now increased to 18 with eight other groups “well advanced” to sign early this year – and is scheduled to come into effect in July. This will involve different agricultural sectors in partnering with the government to identify and work on specific biosecurity threats which face each sector.

However, government expectations of cost-sharing through closer involvement and partnering will only be realised if individual sectors are satisfied with the allocation of resources being applied to resolving potential threats. In addition, sectors will want to ensure equitable treatment, as some threats will be sector specific, while others will be more general. Another issue is the breadth of membership of industry organisations, where not all members may agree with cost sharing proposals in the GIA.

The history of MAF and MPI over the past 15 years shows many restructures, all of them the result of government decisions designed to achieve greater efficiency at a lower cost.

Over that period since late 1997, MAF has lost Fisheries, but regained Forestry, seen its commercial operations split off into SOEs separate from policy, food safety and biosecurity; the Food Safety Authority became a standalone government department for three years before being brought back into MAF; Biosecurity has alternately been a separate division within MAF with its own distinctive brand before being reintegrated under the MPI umbrella with policy and food safety, not to mention Fisheries again, but without its separate brand.

It’s hard to see how New Zealand’s border protection and food safety agency could possibly have maintained its focus on what was really important during such frequent organisational upheavals. So as a result, we now have the OAG’s report which lays out a hard hitting summary of how the Ministry has taken its eye off the ball and what must now happen to bring the country’s biosecurity back to an acceptable level of readiness and capability.

For all our sakes we must hope that Wayne McNee and his team at MPI have a very clear picture of what they have to do to achieve the required performance standard. New Zealand’s future prosperity depends on it.

This article has also appeared at www.interest.co.nz. Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz.

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