12 Oct 2020

Bio-threats pose growing risk for New Zealand, Pacific - new report

2:41 pm on 12 October 2020

The Defence Force is predicting it will need to become more involved to manage the various biological threats facing New Zealand, including contaminated food supply, pandemics or chemical weapons.

Flood waters threaten a house at Tupapa, Rarotonga.

Floodwaters threaten a house at Tupapa, Rarotonga. Climate change is a significant threat for New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours, a report says. (file pic) Photo: Minister George Maggie Support Office

The Biodefence report assesses the changing landscape of threats and what can be done to protect the country from both deliberate and accidental events.

In its report, the Defence Force said bio-threats were increasing and changing - influenced by climate change and rapid globalisation.

"Climate change and rapid advances in biotechnology are changing how biological hazards and threats may manifest through the natural environment, accidents, and deliberate acts.

"As a result, the NZDF may be called upon more frequently to assist with a broader range of biological incidents both domestically and regionally," the report said.

The hazards range from the use of bio-hackers, the contamination of the food supply chain, extreme weather events or chemical, biological, radiological and explosive weapons.

"The security and wellbeing of New Zealand or other states can be seriously compromised by deliberate acts.

"These include the release of an invasive species into crops or other ecosystems; engineering a disease to infect a population; using a biological agent to compromise water security; or contamination of food supply chains."

The report highlighted the risks increased globalisation and international connectivity played.

[h[ Pacific region faces risks

There were additional risks within the Pacific region because through tourism and trade, bio-hazards like pests, Covid-19, measles and bio-fouling are easier to spread.

"These risks are compounded by resource competition, inadequate infrastructure (such as ports that are not equipped for increased volumes), evolving security challenges, or weak public health systems."

Climate change was again another significant threat for New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours.

The report said it will have" increasingly complex environmental, whole-of-society, and strategic implications".

Large-scale and small-scale fishing in the waters off Madang in Papua New Guinea.

Large-scale and small-scale fishing in the waters off Madang in Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

The threat has the biggest impact on indigenous communities who rely on the ocean for food.

"Warmer oceans due to climate change will be more vulnerable to invasive species, and fish stocks will migrate into new areas, including previously isolated regions such as Antarctica and the Southern Ocean."

Key role for Defence Force - minister

Defence Minister Ron Mark said they all had a significant impact on the security of New Zealand and its global partners.

"Our unique biodiversity, biosecurity, human health, economic wellbeing, te ao Māori, and way of life could be impacted by biological hazards and threats," he said.

Mark said the Defence Force played an important role in preparing New Zealand to respond to threats.

Defence force personnel are greeted with a powhiri at Hui Te Rangiora Marae in Hamilton.

Defence Force personnel play a large part in security measures being used at the country's managed isolation and quarantine facilities. (file pic) Photo: RNZ

It works with other government agencies such as the Ministry of Primary Industries, Department of Conservation and police depending on the threat, he said.

"The NZDF's role in New Zealand's ongoing Covid-19 response is a key example of this support."

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