Begging the Question: Biosecurity in our time?

Published: Tue 24 Apr 2001 12:20 PM
So the advertising campaigns have begun. The ramparts are being raised. We have x-rays!
Maybe it was the old scifi movie on at the weekend (It Came From Outer Space) or just a remnant of cold war paranoia but having kept a roving eye on biosecurity of late it’s hard not to wonder at the vagaries of the handling of this greatest-of-all risks.
MAF Quarantine figures apparently indicate that 42 percent of all passengers found with undeclared risky goods are New Zealanders returning from overseas. Forgiving my non-NCEA maths, that must mean that 58 percent of the undeclared goods come in with tourists? So let’s just target the 42 percent - OK?
As the ever accurate finger of Upton-on-line (see under Scoops,), former Biosecurity Minister no less, pointed out recently, tourism could be the most vulnerable industry of all. Luckily the Office of Tourism and Sport website hasn’t moved on from crowing about the America’s Cup and other similar agencies are similarly full of good news.
Yet a more serious gripe can be leveled at other ‘central’ agencies, at the website level, who “miss the link”.
We now have , a mouthful and a bit of a hoot at the same time, but does it link to Customs – duh, no! Worse still does Customs link to footnmouth? Duh, no! Or Quarantine (see below)? Double duh, no!! The only red letter warning obvious on Customs was addressed to naughty drug traffickers. “Be wary of carrying packages or baggage for strangers. Drug trafficking is not worth the risk”.
At the risk of being an office chair website critic I say it’s time that these websites got their s&%t together. (I’d go so far as to warn all webmasters that Begging The Question is gunning for them, but I’m not sure if webmasters read).
By contrast Australian Customs hits footnmouth at the head of its opening page, and equally impressively links straight through to at least one other horse’s mouth - it’s Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry. (Please note the acronym is AFFA not DAFFA, and that Australia does have trees).
Our much-maligned, and as attested to in the 28 April Listener ever-sensitive MAF has a thoroughly good website when you get to it and a potentially excellent Quarantine page. A few quibbles, like there is no Ministry of Biosecurity but there never was one (Listener take note) and the latest news on the Quarantine pages is about a snake found in Petone in March last year.
The nooks and crannies of the MAF site provide some staunch reading. See how we eradicated the ‘mad itch’ from pigs; see how we kept brucellosis at bay; see how low prevalence is good (all at Furthermore who could get to know about any of this without reference to the World Health Office equivalent for animals, with the wonderful monicker of Office International des Epizooties (OIE). And for the very latest OIE/FAO International report on footnmouth, hot on the web as of Friday 20 April, you need only visit But I digress…
The Ministry for the Environment website is a breath of fresh air. No messing with Mr In-Between here, or with the word biosecurity. Its “pests” page comes straight out and says it like it is: “The risk of new animal pests and weeds entering New Zealand is high mainly because of continued growth in trade with high-risk countries. Increased tourism also increases the risk. Tourists (and returning New Zealanders) tend to have a low awareness of the impacts of weeds and pests”.
The ‘good’ news somewhere in this is that less than 10 percent of the world’s pests and diseases occur here. The bad news intoned to us is the introduction of just one new pest or disease could have devastating consequences.
So where are we at with footnmouth? What is the new campaign telling us?
Well, we live in never-never land for a start. The mantra is we’ve never had footnmouth – repeat never. N-e-v-e-r. But if we ever do, please be assured Mr Farmer you will be fully compensated for any loss of stock. Full market value, even if it cripples the economy in the process (a tonguencheek comment). Please know that an outbreak on 100 farms would automatically cost 100,000 jobs! (back to footnmouth). Please realize that the greatest ongoing, not temporary, long term threat is Asia – repeat Asia, not Europe. It will not go away.
Lest we forget, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in a Churchillian flourish has compared this to the Battle of Britain.
Only two more months and those dastardly carriers of undeclared goods will be slammed with $200 fines. A 1997 (yes 1997) MAF media release cited 50 seizures a day, so that’s 10K a day - which makes a nice jingle if nothing else.
But back in 1997 we were already a world leader in biosecurity enforcement, and again on 24 March 1999 when MAF could say its biosecurity success “has other nations looking to New Zealand as the model of biosecurity enforcement”.
But is it true, has it ever been true to state that “New Zealand, being an island country, enjoys natural quarantine barriers and hence is able to implement effective control systems”.
[The following digression appears in italics so that it can be scrolled over…]
The only writer to effectively suggest this was Aldous Huxley in his nuclear holocaust book Ape and Essence (1948) which describes global destruction, bacterial warfare, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, media violence, widespread drug use and cloning.
In this distopia so I’m told, Dr. Poole, a scientist from Australia, embarks on a journey to California from New Zealand to see what remains there following the worldwide collapse of civilization. What he discovers is a society that has turned to worship of Belial (the devil), because in their minds the apocalypse can only be attributed to the final victory of the Prince of Darkness in his ages long struggle with the Lord of Light. What other explanation could there possibly be for the complete breakdown of the world's ecosystem, along with man's technology? At first, the good doctor is to be put to death, but the Arch-Vicar, the religious authority of this kingdom, spares Poole when he realizes that his scientific knowledge can be useful. Poole is ordered to analyze the soil to determine what if anything can be done to improve their meager farming efforts. In his report to the Arch-Vicar, Poole manicly exclaims that during the 20th Century, mankind must have declared all out war on the environment—there is simply no other explanation for the thorough state of toxification of the soil. Dr. Poole's analysis rules out the possibility of an accident or even a global Armageddon. No, what must have happened is that, at some point, man declared war on Mother Nature.
Even better is Huxley’s description of New Zealand society in the book, the last remaining life raft: “And these are some of the survivors of that Judgment. Such nice people! And the civilization they represent - that's nice too. Nothing very exciting or spectacular, of course. No Parthenons or Sistine Chapels, no Newtons or Mozarts or Shakespeares; but also no Ezzelinos, no Napoleons, or Hitlers or Jay Goulds, no inquisitions or NKVD's, no purges, pogroms or lynchings. No heights or abysses, but plenty of milk for the kids, and a reasonably high average IQ, and everything, in a quiet provincial way, thoroughly cosy and sensible and humane”. [Ape and Essence, p34]. But I digress really badly.
If we lag behind Australia on biosecurity as stated by ACT Agriculture Spokesman MP Gerry Eckhoff, isn’t it curious that we put biosecurity, legislatively and bureaucratically, out front earlier.
Will “Stand together. Protect New Zealand” do it? (Why not “Stand and Declare” or “Abandon Hooves All Ye Who Enter” or “Globalise and Perish”?)
Is Hill & Knowlton spending its $1.2 million wisely and will the biosecurity campaign to follow against “other foreign invaders” be better? Will the earnest Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment now concede that biosecurity has been given the same priority as national defence and withdraw his claims that of the $103 million to be spent on biosecurity in 2000-01 the amount being spent on public information and awareness campaigns is just as good as Australia?
Actually what worries me most is the widespread absence of biosecurity from all manner of dictionaries, including the Macquarie Dictionary. Is this a good sign? To do one small bit the aforementioned dictionary was emailed a request to add ‘biosecurity’ whereupon senior editor Alison Moore replied: “Thanks for sending in `biosecurity'. We will investigate further”. I somehow feel safer just knowing a lexicographer is on the job.
And lastly another bright spot from all the potential gloom: maybe more politicians will enter voluntary quarantine. And this IS a serious issue.
If you’re feeling insecure about biosecurity I’d recommend you immediately read the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s New Zealand Under Seige (
If that isn’t enough and you have nothing better to do with your time you could key in any/all of a list of the www.. links below or just surf the wondrous word of biosecurity.
Down under…
All over the random place…

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