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Zespri optimistic despite Psa setback

Dr David Tanner, of kiwifruit giant Zespri, is surprisingly philosophical when speaking about the perpetrator of his industry’s "18 months of hell".

 While some kiwifruit growers may have wanted to criminalise the host who introduced Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa) to New Zealand in November 2011, Tanner was already looking forward.

“People were calling for us to find the people responsible … they were saying our industry was over. In fact, they were using far more coarse language than that.”

Rather than leading a witch-hunt, Zespri, with the support of the then-Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s biosecurity team, implemented a strategy to contain the disease and support Zespri’s growers.

Tanner, speaking at the NZBIO conference, says that in such crises moving quickly rather than squabbling over the cost can help immensely.

Zespri and others spent $16.3 million to set up a breeding consortium with the Ministry of Science and Innovation to combat the bacterial infection.

Even so, the industry and MAF failed to contain Psa, which spread to 35 percent of orchards in two months and now is in 85 percent of New Zealand’s kiwifruit growing regions.

In Te Puke more than 600 hectares of vines were destroyed. Some growers were against ripping out their income source, which only served to further spread the infection.

Although MAF was onsite with the necessary clout to demand extermination of infected vines, “in many cases the bacteria did our work for us”.

“We changed the focus to new opportunities for growers and our newer cultivars [bred hybrid varieties of kiwifruit] facilitated that opportunity,” he says.

Tanner also recommends an open media strategy so information gets to people quickly and rumours can be dispelled.

“We were always on the news, and our growers are the type that habitually sit down and watch the six o’clock news,” Tanner says.

Information and the industry structure ensured that the hundreds of growers, who showed up to meetings, participated effectively. This was in line with Zespri’s goal to “take the industry with us”.

Tanner admits the Psa disaster did not matter to the average supermarket shopper, nor should it.

“We still had to think of the customer as number one, no excuses. You can’t use your crisis as a crutch," he says.

Despite the outbreak Zespri still believes it can reach its goal of $3 billion in revenue by 2025.

Tanner believes it will come from strong innovation, branding and leadership; the same qualities he identified as essential to Zespri’s response to Psa.

“We now actually have a strengthened leadership position, because we were leading the response. That matches our brand as leader in innovation,” he says.