A biosecurity horror story

Biosecurity Minister Jim Sutton isn’t panicking despite a gloomy assessment of biosecurity strategy and procedures by his Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in its post-election briefing.

A Biosecurity Council set up in 1997 produced a draft strategy earlier this year but it has been concluded that it was not sufficiently focused, Sutton said in an interview [on Monday].

“So a smaller group is focusing that down,” he said.

Despite some dangerous recent arrivals, including the painted apple moth, the Ross River fever-carrying salt marsh mosquito and the varroa bee mite, Sutton’s priority is to get a “better methodology for prioritising and having a more consistent framework”, rather than urgency.

“If you push too hard you get a response that you are taking it too lightly,” he said. “It has got to be done properly.”

Sutton says present procedures are “all a bit ad hoc,” he said.

Hear, hear, says the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s (MAF) post-election briefing.

“Substantially more work needs to be done on the biosecurity strategy before it will be at a stage where it can be released for public comment and then be finalised and decisions made on its implementation,” the briefing says.

That it expects to be next year. Sutton is more cautious: he will have it sorted out “this term”, meaning the parliamentary term which runs in theory till September 2005.

By then another 150 new unwanted organisms will have turned up, given MAF’s estimate of 50 a year.

Meantime, MAF says, there is no clear policy about dealing with incursions, no dedicated money (“baseline funding”) for it, “no overall framework for priority-setting and decision-making” and “no guarantee as to whether a response will be mounted”.

And when a pest becomes established “there is no consistent decision-making framework” and “affected sectors, including regional councils, have been concerned about accountability and funding”.

Not surprisingly, the briefing reports that the “sectors” it deals with on biosecurity are “reluctant to become involved” in development of contingency plans now being considered for shared funding in respect of a number of exotic pests and diseases, for fear that might lead to reduced government involvement. These sectors include agriculture, horticulture and forestry, which provide the bulk of the country’s export earnings.

MAF notes that there are “four biosecurity departments”, linked by a “memorandum of understanding”. The ministry also notes “interface” issues between the Biosecurity Act and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

And MAF is not alone in worrying about biosecurity in its post-election briefings. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) gives it considerable attention.

But the MfE briefing also shows just how difficult putting together a biosecurity strategy is.

It will, MfE says, “will need to take account of the interests of central and local government, Maori, all relevant sectors, including environment, primary production, public health, trade, travel and science and research.

“It will need to strike the best balance between maintaining biosecurity and maximising the benefits that arise from trade and travel.”

Sutton adds a complication of his own. “We are consistently having to prioritise between apples and oranges,” he said. It is, for instance, possible to put a dollar value on the painted apple moth’s threat to pinus radiata forests but “how do you put a dollar value on a threat to biodiversity or the health threat of the salt marsh mosquito?”

It is also necessary not to take resources out of immediate problems, such as the painted apple moth.

But critics in the past have noted that MAF has had to divert funds from other work to deal with incursions. Sutton said that is not a real problem.

“It is not the cabinet decision (including on funding) that holds action up,” he said. “It is the technical issues”, which include matters under district council and civil aviation authorities’ jurisdiction.

Sutton said biosecurity is a “whole-of-government” issue, which makes progress complicated. Policymakers have to “try to anticipate every bump in the road”, then “something trips you up which you thought you had smoothed”.