Launch of the Biosecurity Authority

  • John Luxton

It's a pleasure to be here tonight for the official launch of the Biosecurity Authority. I have always seen my biosecurity portfolio as one of, if not the most important role I undertake as Minister. That is because it is the portfolio that carries the highest stakes should the worst happen and a serious pest or disease establish itself in New Zealand.

New Zealand has a unique biodiversity, and as a nation we see the benefits of this on a daily basis. It impacts on so many different areas - our way of life, the productivity of our farming, the acceptance by overseas markets of our products and our tourist industry to name a few.

Because of the importance of protecting New Zealand's biosecurity and biodiversity, I see the creation of the Biosecurity Authority within MAF as a very positive move that will mean greater focus and co-ordination of the biosecurity risks that New Zealand faces on a daily basis.

By bringing together within a single group, over 80 biosecurity experts, we are looking for the Biosecurity Authority to be the leader and co-ordinator of not only MAF's biosecurity activities, but also the Governments total biosecurity programme.

The Biosecurity Agency will also have responsibility for animal welfare. This area has its own unique challenges, and continues to increase in importance from an international perspective. New Zealand is committed to welfare standards for animals that are science based, and are based on an animal welfare rather than animal rights philosophy. The new animal welfare legislation will reinforce this commitment.

The Government sees biosecurity as one of it's most important areas of responsibility. The establishment of the Biosecurity Authority follows a number of previous initiatives by this Government in the biosecurity area which honours our commitment to biosecurity, including the establishment of the biosecurity portfolio, the creation of the Biosecurity Council and the establishment of the Biosecurity Act.

There are four departments with biosecurity responsibilities - Agriculture and Forestry, Conservation, Fisheries and Health.

The concept of one Minister being responsible for biosecurity accountabilities in four different Ministries, was a totally new approach when introduced by Simon Upton in 1997.

The result is that the relevant departments now work more closely together on biosecurity issues.

MAF is the Government's leading biosecurity agency, and has over the years developed advanced systems and procedures to identify and manage risks posed by unwanted organisms in the agricultural sector. In addition MAF has the responsibility of biosecurity border protection, operating the quarantine service at the border. This activity benefits all areas of biosecurity by excluding unwanted organisms from New Zealand.

Every day there are many challenges to the biosecurity status of New Zealand, and fortunately the majority of these are intercepted by MAF's quarantine service - for example each year 86,000 risk goods (eg. apples, meat, honey) are seized, and 4,500 unwanted organisms (eg. fruit fly, gypsy moth, blackwidow spiders) are stopped at the border.

The Government, and I as Biosecurity Minister, have always been proactive in our approach to the risks involved in the biosecurity area. We are looking at more effective ways of managing the biosecurity risks, better co-ordination across our biosecurity needs, and to be more responsive to the rapidly changing biosecurity challenges.

Many of you will be aware that in recent weeks the Government has been re-examining how food will be regulated within New Zealand. We recognise that in some areas there are close relationships between food and biosecurity, which must be carefully managed, and we are currently working through these.

In our examination of how we can regulate food standards, we are also looking at whether the biosecurity authority should be taken out of MAF and put into a separate Ministry of Food and Biosecurity. Of course biosecurity is far more than just food, so we are also looking at what is the best longer-term option to manage biosecurity risks.

I am also looking at how we can more effectively manage the biosecurity risks to this country and have two main initiatives underway.

The first is to re-examine the functions that are delivered at the border. Most of you will be well aware of the Border Review that is currently underway, being led by Sir Ron Carter, and their report was released last week.

This is obviously a challenging area especially given the increase in passengers and cargo coming into New Zealand. In the last 10 years passenger numbers have more than doubled from 1.5 to 3.16 million. In the last 5 years the number of sea containers has increased from 200,000 to 316,000, and used vehicles over the same period have increased from 50,000 to 120,000.

Being a dynamic area with constantly changing risks, and technology available to manage these risks, I welcome the review currently underway to ensure we have the most effective arrangements that we can at the border.

The second area that I am examining, is how we regulate risk management activities across the biosecurity area. I do not want to see time and resources unnecessarily duplicated. I think everyone in this room would want to see more biosecurity action, rather than more biosecurity bureaucracy.

As the one group within Government that has traditionally had biosecurity responsibility, MAF has identified within it's structure dedicated resources and expertise for managing biosecurity risks. The other departments with biosecurity responsibility have not been able to mirror this to the same extent.

It is my objective to have the Biosecurity Authority operate as a more generic biosecurity resource that is key to the biosecurity programmes of the four government departments. The alternative would be to have each department develop it's own 'biosecurity authority', a move which would be unlikely to result in closer co-ordination, or more effective management of the biosecurity risks.

Another reason for such an initiative is that I need to be satisfied that all biosecurity risks are assessed and managed in a consistent manner. This includes border control, surveillance activities and the ability to respond to incursions of unwanted organisms.

While there are always problems with comparisons, I as Minister need to know if Salt Marsh mosquito carries a risk of the same magnitude as Clover Root weevil, or Painted Apple moth, so I can ensure that resources are being used effectively.

Incursions will occur no matter how hard we try to exclude them from our shores. It is a fact of life that we will always have new incursions. It is therefore essential for New Zealand to retain a biosecurity regulatory risk management capacity to enable biosecurity risks to be identified, assessed and managed in a consistent and effective manner.

I have high expectations that biosecurity departments are consulting and communicating effectively with groups that are affected, or that have an interest in the area. While I am satisfied with the efforts so far, I am asking for continual reassessment of the committees and groups that are currently in existence, along with their terms of reference and membership.

New Zealand is a small country, with limited resources and expertise, so it is important that all groups work together to ensure our biosecurity systems are able to protect our unique biodiversity.

In conclusion I congratulate all those involved in establishing the Biosecurity Authority, and look forward to the future that will see the Authority firmly established as the centrepiece of the Government's biosecurity risk management programmes.