sign up log in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

Keith Woodford explains why MPI needs to bring a science-based culture to the fore

Rural News
Keith Woodford explains why MPI needs to bring a science-based culture to the fore

By Keith Woodford*

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is desperately in need of both new thinking and more transparency. It has a culture and internal power relationships which align with the military and police backgrounds of top-level managers.  MPI is also impacted by the dominant thinking from within the overarching State Services Commission, that top-level people trained in management do not need technical knowledge in the fields that they are responsible for.

Currently, MPI is led by a former Major General. The Mycoplasma bovis response team is led by a former policeman. The head of Biosecurity has no science-related qualifications. The next CEO of MPI will be transferring across from being CEO of Corrections.

This situation means that MPI’s leaders lack the skills to question the meaning of information they are receiving. Hence, they lack ability to provide genuine leadership. As long as they accept the advice and pass it on upwards then they have apparently done their duty.

My criticism here is not of people but of the system. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, and round pegs don’t fit in square holes.  However, those at the top do need to be held accountable.

This situation has developed gradually over the last forty or so years. When I started my own career in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (the forerunner to MPI), our leaders were technically qualified people. As such they would question information they were getting from the field.  Debate on important matters was encouraged.  Their key role was to lead, with day to day management being a subordinate function.

As a boy, I recall that my own father, who rose to be the chief telecommunications engineer within Government, would meet regularly with ministers such as Tom Shand and Rob Muldoon – not that he always enjoyed the rambunctious meetings with the latter. There were no managers to filter the information.

There is an argument that MPI’s responsibilities of are too diverse.  Trade-related matters would be better dealt with from within Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Biosecurity and Food Safety have common science fundamentals and could run alongside each other in their own ministry.  Science and systems would run in parallel but separate from enforcement.

That would leave a much smaller MPI to deal with broader industry matters affecting agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It should be led by someone with a professional education in the unique features of biological industries.

Weaknesses in biosecurity have been evident for many years. I recall being invited to a Wellington workshop approximately 10 years ago, set up by Government, to advise on primary industry research priorities. The overwhelming message from the assembled industry leaders was that the greatest industry risks related to biosecurity.

Scratching beneath the surface, it became evident that it was not necessarily more sophisticated research that was needed, but systems and expertise in Government to prevent and manage incursions.  The record shows that has not been achieved.

Since then, biosecurity has been a saga of crashes. The most spectacular was the importation of the Psa bacteria in kiwifruit pollen and the anthers that support the pollen. MPI was found liable in the High Court earlier this year because it failed kiwifruit growers in its “duty of care”.  That ruling is now under appeal to the Court of Appeal on the basis of legal technicalities.

Regardless of the final outcome, a key issue was that a lack of historic evidence as to Psa being present in pollen was subsequently interpreted as meaning that there was minimal risk.  That was a very basic error.  Any expert on horticultural disease would have heard loud warning bells on learning of the importation, with the pollen imported from China where the disease was endemic, with a valid import permit but without any inspection or quarantine.

MPI has also come under criticism for its handling of the parasite Bonamia ostreae in farmed oysters which spread from Marlborough to Stewart Island, with ten Marlborough farms and fourteen Stewart Island farms being culled.  Compensation remains a vexatious issue and there are some very unhappy people.

I am also in in contact with the victim of another biosecurity misadventure who is still seeking compensation five years later.

Authoritarian organisations such as MPI hate criticism and they act accordingly.

MPI boss Martyn Dunne has had a crack at me twice in recent months over my articles on Mycoplasma bovis. In Farmers Weekly on 20 August he wrote a rejoinder accusing me of “hearsay and unfounded speculation”.   I can assure both Mr Dunne and my readers that I do not use hearsay – I always go to the original source before publishing. However, I do on occasions have to protect those sources.

In fact, Mr Dunne’s criticisms of me used three of the oldest tricks in the book. One of these is called ‘ad hominem’, or attacking the man rather than the ball. It is the classic approach when the facts of the matter cannot be refuted.

The second trick was to use correct information but do so in a way that is misleading. So Mr Dunne stated that MPI had paid ‘’nearly 70 percent” of the ‘assessed’ claims.  He did not address the issue of nearly 200 ‘submitted’ claims struggling though the assessment process.

The third trick was to incorrectly state my position – it is called the ‘straw man’ ploy. A false target was set up (of MPI being deliberately slow) which was then attacked.

A problem with authoritarian institutions is that they cannot abide either uncertainty or perceived failure. It takes away from their perceived status. Yet when dealing with complex situations like Mycoplasma bovis, there are always going to be many uncertainties that must be considered. Strong leadership, such as ‘this is the way we are going to operate’, and ‘don’t complicate things by creating doubt’, is not necessarily wise leadership.

MPI has published three reports from the Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  But according to MPI information that I have sighted, the group has met five times. Can we have the reports of the other two meetings? Can we also have the information that MPI supplied to the TAG?  This supplied information is important, because the TAG is spread around the world and its members are prisoners of the information supplied electronically to them by MPI.

If eradication should fail, then the TAG has been set up beautifully to take some of the blame with MPI saying ‘we took the advice of the experts’.

Currently, no-one knows whether eradication will be successful. However, some of us who are following the evidence remain highly sceptical that the disease supposedly arrived no earlier than the end of 2015. We are also highly sceptical as to whether all 225 farms that have been taken off NOD (Notice of Direction) and RP (Restricted Place) status are genuinely free of the organism.

In the meantime, with over 5000 so-called trace properties having been identified, the safest bet for farmers is to trust no-one else’s farm as being clean, without extensive interrogation of the owners about the history of all animals, not only sale animals, on the source farm. I know of sales where full disclosures, including previous NODS, are not being given.

*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. He can be contacted at

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Professor, your analysis applies to all ministries and departments in NZ.

Even worse, it looks like not only the top managerial jobs in public sectors do not require technical expertise but all managerial jobs do not require them.


A current (sorry) analogue is with the parlous state of electrical generation in SA: where the direction and configuration of the assets has been bent right out of shape by a combination of political zealotry, complacent bureaucrats, and energetic PR. The result is the highest power prices in the developed world, a state-wide black-system event, reliance on an interconnector to VIC which will trip out and island SA if demand exceeds capacity, and de-industrialisation as organisations defect to less stupid jurisdictions.

Systems such as electrical grids, biosecurity measures, and other very technical areas, certainly need to be engineer/science/evidence-based in their operation, management and internal processes. Anything else is just going to generate Yet Mo' Fusterclucks....and we are a small, increasingly poor country which can ill afford this.


Yet again the real story. Thank you Keith.
My information follows. Apparently MPI are so understaffed, they are only following I shall call them target 1s. That is an animal that has come from an infected property.
So imagine a calf being sold from an infected dairy farm. Farm 1. It goes to a rearer Farm 2. It lives with many other calves, Target 2s. It is in very close contact of course. Target 1 is then onsold to Farm 3 along with 20 other Target 2 calves. But these calves were acquired from clean farms. Yet they were reared with Target 1.
Farm 3 fattens and sells target1 and all of target 2s.
Farm 2 sells more of her target 2 animals. To farms 4, 5 and 6
Many months pass Farm 2 and 3 are put on a NOD and bloodtested etc.
As for Farms 4 5 and 6, these farms are ignored and left free of any MPI interference.
Now tell me your chances of eradication.


This approach would require MPI employing people both educated and familiar with the scientific method. This type of evidence based decision making is unheard of in any Government department.


Good morning,

Keith, this is a well written piece and really captures the heart of the problem. In my dealings with MPI, it was exactly this issue that resulted in years of problems and ongoing dialogue. They work under a 'scalable response model', which is supposedly designed so that the response that they deploy is directly proportional to the level of risk. Unfortunately however, the people that I have had to deal with there, with one exception, simply apply a blanket level of force and use 'blanket orders' which are in no way proportional to risk and, to coin a phrase, they use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

Certainly any attempt to reason with them, to explain circumstances, facts, botanical principles, or even to discuss that actual level of risk is regarded as belligerence, and if one tries, their file is noted with phrases such as 'he thinks he knows it all', and rather than noting what you have said accurately, they simply note their opinion of you and they do so in a way which is derogatory and unfair.

Worse than that, my experience has been that they completely misquote you, and record misquotations down as a basis for employing a draconian response to your so called 'incursion'. In my case, they threatened to bulldoze my property if I didn't comply with an Order, and the requirements of the Order were completely insane and impossible to comply with without destroying my enter operation!

If the NZ Police took this approach in prosecuting cases, then such evidence would quickly be appealed and disallowed in Court because of the inherent bias against the defendant which is evidenced throughout case notes and writings. Of course, with MPI, very few people get to see their files, and so they get away with this.

My recommendation to everyone who has the misfortune of having to deal with MPI is this: ALWAYS make a Privacy Act request, formally and ALWAYS make a second request at the same time pursuant to the Official Information Act. GET FULL DISCLOSURE, and when you get it, check it, to make sure that it is full and complete. In my case, I had to make 4 requests and areas that were redacted were done done so inappropriately, and presently, I have still not received full disclosure months later, but they're obligated to provide it. Their consistent failures to do so will only shoot them in the foot if legal proceedings commence.

When you get your information, read it carefully; the chances are that you'll be staggered at what is there. I ran my information through a lawyer and suffice it to say that our options are plentiful.

My second piece of advise is don't be afraid of them. Many of their Investigators lack any form of qualification or industry related expertise. For this reason, they don't have the ability to provide a reasoned and moderate response; they simply employ draconian response, which is often not proportionate to risk and they treat the expertise of people who are connected with the industry as an inconvenience and something best ignored.

DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Get your expert statements sworn as affidavits in Court. And don't give in. Make formal complaints internally. If these are not successful, then you have every right to refer the matter on to the Ombudsman, and / or the Privacy Commission or to take the matter to Court.

The same deficiencies in MPI's approach keep on evidencing themselves in the news media. The public are growing increasingly aware of them, as are other agencies.

AVOID telephone calls if possible. Ensure that all communications are by email, so that you have an audit trail.... and keep everything.

Lastly, try to work WITH MPI, and initially at least, take the least intense approach necessary with them to get a result. Employ good faith in your dealings with them, but if they don't respond in kind, then go the full hog.

And keep smiling. At the end of the day, remember, tomorrow the sun will shine regardless of MPI.



They key point is that we cant trust anyone - including any farmer's, stock agents etc! What a sad world we live in!!!


Leadership in a science culture in my experience has always been a round the table co-operative venture. I can imagine an authoritarian leader feeling very inadequate when dealing with a highly technical topic. Using military strategy on scientific personal may be very problematic at the interpersonal level.