On the frontline with our pest busters

Just as agricultural products evolve, so too do the gremlins, varmints, pest and diseases that are destined to take a bite out of production and wallets. But standing between them and your livelihood are some pretty savvy souls, writes Dwight Whitney.

NZ pest bustersAny budding Hollywood director wanting inspiration for the ultimate horror movie need go no further than New Zealand’s Biosecurity website for subject matter and inspiration.

Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plants, animals, insects, birds, fish, parasites and diseases are coming to a farm near you. Consider just a few of some recent ‘visitors’—the likes of Devil’s fig, painted apple moth, eastern banjo frog, fire ant, lesser banded hornet, southern salt marsh mosquito, gum leaf skeletoniser, marron and gudgeon—that have decided there’s no place like New Zealand to call home.

The price of being part of global trade and enterprise is the unintentional open door policy it creates that these pretties are trying to breach.

Exacerbating this—and to keep entry lines at Customs flowing—it’s estimated that over the past 12 months 270,000 passengers walked out of our international airports without having their bags x-rayed. Health equals wealth, particularly when it comes to agricultural products, so this sends the likes of Horticulture New Zealand president Andrew Fenton into frenzy mode.

“All it takes is one Queensland Fruit Fly, found in one monitoring trap, on one orchard and international markets will close to us for at least a year, if not longer.”

Estimates are that over 2,220 species of terrestrial alien invertebrates have established a presence here. Think possums, deer, stoats and rabbits and the impact on the economy comes into frame. On another front alien invertebrate plant pests cost New Zealand around $880 million per year. Factor in additional animal health impacts (coming from the likes of gut parasites) and this figure increases to around $2 billion per year.

Then there are the unthinkable worst case situations that we have to manage as we would any crisis. The Reserve Bank has estimated that a foot-and-mouth outbreak alone could cost the economy $10 billion. Thousands of jobs would be put at risk and the economy would take years to recover.

Which makes it all the more reassuring that one of the key players and leaders in biosecurity is Dr Stephen Goldson. Primary picked him as the country’s leading thinker in the recent Farm 40 and with good reason. A researcher at AgResearch and executive director of Better Border Security, Goldson has the status of a Richie McCaw in the pest busting world.

As far as he is concerned the way for New Zealand to minimise the incursions of pests and diseases that can so easily irretrievably cripple New Zealand primary sectors is for scientifically-informed biosecurity measures.

Though he may be the leader of the pack, he says public input and front line work by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (now part of the Ministry for Primary Industries) is where the first line of battle usually begins.

“The public is always important in keeping a lookout and drawing peculiar looking specimens to MAF’s attention via their hotline. There is also industry surveillance work going on especially by the forestry industry. MAF itself operates various trapping/surveillance regimes especially around ports and airports and then there are working scientists who recognise when something untoward has turned up. Invariably all enquiries are (or should be) eventually directed to MAF who then do the filtering in their specialist diagnostic labs.”

From there a well oiled and orchestrated process begins.

“An appropriate group of scientists is rapidly assembled in the form of a Technical Advisory Group is rapidly to assist MAF in estimating the extent of a new threat. If it is serious then decisions are made to try to eradicate or at least contain an incursion; again science should have a significant role here as neither containment nor eradication is particularly easy to achieve.

“Should the incursion not be eradicable then territorial authorities become responsible for the ‘management’ of the pest or disease. However, this is easier said than done. Effective management may require many years of research (e.g. the establishment of effective biological control agents) and there is often serious contention about who pays for what.”

Price vs cost
The balance between ‘price and cost’ can see some friction between those funding the work and those doing it. Often, says Goldson, the funding agencies consider the job done in pest management before the science community feels the same.

“Sometimes the funders have been correct, but this can evaporate if farming methods or the environment change. Once achieved, stability of pest suppression is likely to remain significant issue and require ongoing monitoring.”

While overseas work and research can prove advantageous New Zealand has specific issues to manage.

“New Zealand has its unique problems because of its lack of natural enemies and the susceptibility of its native plants and animals to invasive and aggressive overseas species. ‘Fast track’ often implies the use of pesticides etc which is rarely desirable or sustainable. Sometime pesticides are used as a stop-gap while long-term approaches such as biological control or plant breeding are developed.”

The pathway from the laboratory to the marketplace is another journey in itself. Rule of thumb says that if a discovery costs one dollar, its development may cost ten dollars and its commercialisation one hundred dollars. The failure rate can be high. Then there is the potential ‘tension’ area of making a discovery, protecting the intellectual property involved but then also having the duty of care and responsibility to promulgate information.

“Excessive confidentiality certainly does elicit problems and sometimes compromises have to be struck around IP protection generation versus getting on with the job. It is better to have a small proportion of IP in a big success compared to a high IP stake in a failure.”

In truth, says Goldson, one of the real difficulties New Zealand has had to deal with is what might turn up next. What has been found repeatedly in New Zealand is that species of often minor importance in their countries of origin can build to very high numbers and create havoc in New Zealand. This again is closely related to the lack of natural enemies.

One who knows full well the journey required from laboratory to farm yard is Hugh Murdoch. He has headed up some of the major multinational animal health companies in New Zealand and has over 35 years experience in dealing to parasites. He is also a ‘hands on’ farmer with a beef unit in South Auckland.

When playing corporate politics finally lost its appeal, he set up his own venture suitably and simply called The Drench Company.

Developing totally new compounds are horrendously expensive, he admits, and traditionally that has been the domain of the multinationals. With many of these coming off patent it allowed smaller players to develop generic solutions and enter the largest segment of the animal health market. While prices may have diminished, application numbers have increased for a variety of reasons.

“Generic solutions are one route plus the ability to combine two to three elements into a new compound that is more powerful and more effective. Innovation is another where you can launch a product that was previously only available by oral administration but which you introduce via a more ‘user friendly’ pour on application.”

Even with these advances Murdoch says parasites clearly have the ability to outsmart mankind and achieving a 100% kill rate in a product is largely the stuff of dreams.

“Parasites evolve over time and what may have worked in one situation can decrease in efficiency as they build up resistance or mutate. Generally the current repertoire of compounds and treatments are working to provide the necessary tools for farmers to manage parasites and bacteria. Should the untoward happen it is up to people like me to find the solution and bring it to market.”

Science and technology will continue to be twin forces that keep New Zealand as pest free as humanly possible.

Watch out for:
• Advanced techniques and technologies for improved surveillance, unwanted organism interception (e.g. sensor technology, pheromonal traps) and ways of speeding up threat identification and origin .

• Increasingly sophisticated statistical and modeling techniques based on large data sets of mixed origin with which to assess risk. Such work must be based on sound ecological understanding of types of organisms and their likely behaviours and impacts on New Zealand’s very unusual ecosystems.

• More socially-acceptable ways of fumigating, containing and eradicating new pests and diseases when they occur.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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