Kiwifruit vine disease, biosecurity and the BWC

Jul 12 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures
Angela Woodward, Christchurch
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Meeting of Experts will convene next week in Geneva. The discussion will focus on improving participation in the Confidence-Building Measure data exchange system, as well as on three standing agenda items for this inter-Review Conference meeting process: cooperation and assistance; a review of science and technology developments; and strengthening national implementation. This is the first time that the BWC community will consider specified topics in successive years, which highlights how challenging these issues are to the regime and how much work remains to effectively address them. In terms of national implementation, for example, VERTIC’s legislative survey statistics show that a significant proportion of States Parties are yet to incorporate all of their BWC obligations into domestic legislation 37 years after the Convention entered into force.
But the challenge of national implementation doesn’t end with the adoption of laws and regulations, as the range of necessary national measures must be adequately resourced, enforced, reviewed and revised in perpetuity. This needn’t be as onerous as it might sound, especially if States cooperate with each other and with their national stakeholders to identify—and act on—lessons identified. A review of the recent outbreak of kiwifruit vine disease in New Zealand starkly illustrated the importance of effective working relationships between regulators, industry and the scientific community in ensuring the ongoing effectiveness of biosecurity measures, even after framework legislation and monitoring systems are in force.  
The New Zealand economy is heavily reliant on primary industry, particularly agricultural and horticultural exports. Historically, the country’s geographic isolation helped to protect these industries from the introduction of foreign pests and diseases. But now, its biosecurity system, which is heavily geared towards preventing deliberate or inadvertent animal and plant disease incursions, is under strain from the scale of imports and passenger arrivals. New Zealand biosecurity targets identified risk goods, particularly organic materials, as well as other vectors for biosecurity contaminants (such as imported used cars which might be carrying unwanted high risk pest species), which means the system is reliant on timely and reliable scientific assessments of potential risks. Unfortunately for the kiwifruit growers, it appears that the system may have let them down in keeping the kiwifruit vine disease, Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa), out of the country.
In November 2010, a kiwifruit orchard in the Bay of Plenty region, which has the highest concentration of kiwifruit growers, was found to be infected with the Psa bacteria, a non-native disease. The airborne disease then spread to 150 orchards within four months and to nearly 1,100 orchards within 16 months. Government research institutes have already spent approximately NZ$1.5m in combating the disease and expect to spend another NZ$5m over the next year to aid the recovery of infected crops and to minimize the disease’s impact in the future. It appears that one kiwifruit variety (gold Hort 16A), which accounts for 30 percent of export kiwifruit value, will be eradicated as part of the recovery strategy. A report by New Zealand’s Lincoln University estimates that the Psa incursion will cost the kiwifruit industry around NZ$500-$600m over the next ten years.
So what went wrong? An independent review by the Sapere Research Group (SRG) released on 29 June 2012 found that, while the exact pathway of the incursion may never be known, there were deficiencies in kiwifruit pollen import requirements and related border control processes before the Psa outbreak. In particular, the government regulator was found to have relied on a scientific review which ruled out the risk of pollen being a vector for bacterial pathogens, failed to conduct a formal risk analysis for pollen imports and didn’t consult with industry when it decided to relax the pollen importation requirements, while border control also incorrectly implemented certain import requirements at the point of entry. The SRG report determined that this was a systemic failure and made a series of recommendations for the New Zealand government regulator (the Ministry for Primary Industries), which other States might prudently consider:
  • reprioritize resources towards managing the risks for economically significant industries, particularly for known or emerging risks;
  • centralize the identification and management of emerging risks;
  • improve transparency over first-time imports of organic matter and consult with relevant stakeholders about related risks;
  • ensure border processes for risk good imports remain robust;
  • improve the regulator’s engagement with industry and research organizations; and
  • consider commissioning research on specific areas of biosecurity uncertainty. 
Participants in the BWC meeting next week could usefully share information on, and discuss these sorts of practical biosecurity challenges, to help each other find solutions to strengthen BWC national implementation and thereby avoid disease outbreaks, whether inadvertent or deliberate, which could cause significant harm to their people, industry and national economy.   

Last changed: Jul 12 2012 at 4:22 PM