By Allan Barber
Last week the Biosecurity Reform Bill passed into law. As it announced in June, the Government wants primary sector groups to participate in the Government Industry Agreement (GIA) for biosecurity decision making and cost sharing.
The Primary Production Committee which was responsible for the final draft of the Bill received more than 40 submissions.
One of the main areas of concern for submitters was the introduction of a new part to the Biosecurity Act which contains provision for an agreement under which Government and industry will make joint decisions about harmful organisms of most concern to individual primary sectors.
Further it also contains provision for cost sharing arrangements between the parties.
This is a significant concern for industry groups which are unsure of their ability to limit the cost implications.
A joint working group of primary sector representatives and Government officials has produced a Memorandum of Understanding that describes how individual industry groups and Government will develop a business case for participation in joint decision-making and cost-sharing.
After the Bill was passed last week, David Carter, Minister for Primary Industries, announced that the Meat Industry Association had signed the MoU on behalf of its members.
However the Foreword to the MIA’s Annual Report is more cautious than the Minister’s announcement suggested, stating:
“while fully supporting the benefits and the need for Government and industry to work closely together on biosecurity, the MIA continues to have real concerns with the GIA proposal set out by the Government. Nevertheless, we still believe it is important to stay involved in this process to ensure officials retain a realistic view of industry’s expectations and position.”
Tim Ritchie, MIA Chief Executive, confirmed to me that the MoU has been signed, as well as a draft of what the meat industry is willing to agree provided the value proposition is acceptable.
The Government has emphasised that the reform process does not mean it intends to reduce its commitment to or expenditure on biosecurity. But it wants industry to play its part in determining which priorities are of greatest importance and consequently which activities it would be willing to invest its own money in.
Federated Farmers which represents 27,000 land owners across the agricultural sector has expressed its concerns about the GIA process, arguing that farmers are exporters not importers and do not have responsibility for bringing pests and diseases into the country - therefore landowners should not have to bear the cost of protecting against biosecurity incursions beyond the requirement to pay taxes.
In the opinion of Feds it should be importers and tourists who should be required to carry the costs of protection.
The Feds are also concerned that the focus is now being applied to readiness and response once a harmful organism has entered the country, because it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to protect the borders.
Slapping a levy on landowners to improve response capability would appear to add insult to injury.
The most significant pest introductions in recent years have been the Varroa mite threatening the country’s bee hives and the PSA kiwifruit virus.
Varroa can only reproduce in a honey bee colony and, while it has affected many countries, it is not clear how it emerged in the North Island at the beginning of this century, subsequently spreading to the South Island in 2006. The arrival of Varroa may not have been due to lack of border control.
However the threat to the bee population and plant pollination from Varroa may prove to have the most serious impact on New Zealand’s economy and lifestyle, even greater in the long term than an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) which has always been considered the worst that could occur.
This raises the question about who should be responsible for managing the spread of the Varroa mite, eradication being no longer an option. Should it be left to the beekeepers to carry the can, all landowners who benefit from pollination or the Government on behalf of all taxpayers, including gardeners?
The answer in the case of Varroa is of course that initially at least beekeepers have had to bear the cost of controlling the pest, in order to minimise the impact on their hives. As it spread, MAF Biosecurity and Regional Councils had to get involved, but the longer term impact will have to be managed by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on behalf of the Government. It has moved well beyond the capability and responsibility of individual beekeepers and has become a national affair.
If FMD arrived in New Zealand, probably on the shoes of a tourist, it would clearly be elevated very quickly to a national emergency. The destruction of whole herds and flocks could not be borne by the average farmer, but would have to be a nationally operated and funded exercise, led by the MPI.
I suspect that, under such circumstances, the Government’s expectation that industry would share the cost of such outbreaks over and above a totally inadequate fiscal cap is completely idealistic.
The cost to individual farmers and processors would inevitably be crippling without having to contribute a further share to the Government under a GIA.
The important thing is to try and ensure such a disaster never gets across the border, but PSA is already here, while Varroa was possibly inevitable.
Agriculture which is our main economic strength suddenly appears rather more vulnerable than we might wish.
Allan Barber is a commentator on agribusiness, especially the meat industry, and lives in the Matakana Wine Country where he runs a boutique B&B with his wife. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog here »