Concerns voiced over planned biosecurity cuts

July 9, 2009

Federated Farmers has voiced its concerns over plans to cut 60 positions from Biosecurity New Zealand.

"Federated Farmers fundamentally doesn't believe cutting staff at Biosecurity New Zealand, particularly experienced frontline staff, is in national interest," said John Hartnell, the organisation's biosecurity spokesperson.

"Most New Zealanders would be shocked to learn that 541,260 sea containers are never physically inspected at the point of entry into New Zealand. That's 93 per cent of all sea containers, not to mention what comes by bulk freighter.

"While Biosecurity New Zealand may contend that it is an acceptable level of risk, the fact is that one in four of the 40,750 containers physically inspected in 2008, contained a biosecurity risk to this country."

Biosecurity New Zealand announced a review of its border operations after a significant drop in trade and passenger volumes in the current worldwide economic downturn.

Cargo volumes had fallen 13 per cent, it said, and passenger arrivals are down by 3-5 per cent this year, leaving it facing a "significant deficit" in its cost-recovered border operations.

Reduced discretionary spending and freezing non-essential recruitment have not been enough to balance the budget, particularly with the reduction in third-party revenue.

Director of Cargo Clearance Steve Stuart said border staff have been given a proposal outlining options and a way forward. "We ... are actively encouraging staff submissions on the options and other alternatives to help us achieve the required efficiencies."

It is seeking to disestablish about 30 existing vacancies and further reduce staff by 30 filled positions among the 700 staff in the passenger, cargo and border standards directorates.

However, Federated Farmers warns it could take just one container to ruin our economy.

"The Southern Saltmarsh mosquito and the Painted Apple Moth didn't walk here," said Hartnell, "but hitched a lift by sea, costing us all tens of millions of dollars to eradicate.

"It's the same with the aggressive and invasive Argentine ant that's now endemic. Better inspection at the border could have prevented this pest, one of the world's 100 worst invasive species, from becoming established in New Zealand in the first place.

"Forget clean and green, being disease-free is New Zealand's real trump card when it comes to market access.

"New Zealand's treasured market access on biosecurity grounds results from not having the nasties found elsewhere. That's already being challenged daily by the amount being imported, let alone by cutting staff in the one area where we need heightened vigilance.

"What we are putting at risk is the $25 billion in exports that come from the agricultural sector. The Reserve Bank models for two economic cataclysms, one is a major earthquake and the other is foot and mouth disease.

"After the massive ocean moat around New Zealand, border surveillance is the last line of defence we have.

"Biosecurity is vitally important to all New Zealanders but the thin brown line at Biosecurity NZ has just got a lot thinner. You don't appreciate what you've got until you lose it and as a country, we can't afford to lose control of biosecurity."