9 Nov 2010

Dozens of orchards being checked for disease

8:45 pm on 9 November 2010

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is investigating dozens of kiwifruit orchards following the discovery of a potentially destructive vine disease on Monday.

MAF confirmed on Monday that an orchard in Te Puke was affected, and on Tuesday it quarantined a second property across the road, where brown spots have appeared on leaves.

A further 18 orchardists, also from Bay of Plenty, have sent in photos of vines that could be infected.

MAF's head of biosecurity, Barry O'Neil, says tests should confirm whether the disease has spread beyond the two orchards by the end of the week.

He says the severity of the infection in the first orchard indicates the disease has been there for some time.

His staff are fairly confident that the second property is infected, he says, even though test results will not be available until Wednesday. Movement on both orchards has been restricted.

Dr O'Neil says MAF hopes to identify the strain of the bacteria next week.

Matter being treated as very serious

Agriculture Minister David Carter, who will meet growers and other industry representatives in Bay of Plenty on Wednesday, told Parliament on Tuesday that the Government is treating the matter very seriously, and will work hard to minimise any trade restrictions by keeping trading partners informed of developments.

Mr Carter, who is also Biosecurity Minister, says the best possible people are working night and day to manage the threat to one of New Zealand's crucial primary industries.

How it got here remains a puzzle

MAF says it is still struggling to work out how the disease got a foothold in New Zealand. It has caused millions of dollars' worth of damage in Italy and affected orchards in Japan, South Korea, Portugal and Iran.

MAF biosecurity response manager David Yard told Nine to Noon that the ministry is "really struggling" to work out how the disease got into the country for the first time.

"It's never good news for containment once you've isolated a disease," Mr Yard says. "But we are putting all our scientists' capability into attempting to trace the pathway that this organism's actually entered New Zealand."

MAF says six consignments of kiwifruit budwood have been imported since 2000 - including two from Italy. There have also been six consignments of pollen from China and Chile.

Varying reactions

Zespri chief executive Lain Jager told Morning Report that it is important to determine the strain, because some strains are more virulent than others, with varying reactions from country to country.

In Italy, the disease has reduced crop yields by up to 50%, but in Korea and Japan another strain has had minimal effect.

"We just don't know how this is going to play out in New Zealand," Mr Jager says.

He says information packs have been sent to growers so that the spread of the disease can start to be assessed.

$1 billion industry at risk

Mr Carter told Morning Report on Tuesday that the disease has the potential to upset New Zealand's $1 billion trade in kiwifruit.

Zespri sells the fruit to 60 countries, with 54 million trays going to Europe and 41 million to Asia. PSA is on China and India's quarantine list.

Mr Carter is urging growers to stay calm and proceed with caution until test results are in; and MAF is asking members of the public to stay away from kiwifruit orchards in Bay of Plenty.

An organic kiwifruit grower in Te Puke, Leo Whittle, says it would be safer for everyone if MAF identified the locations of the quarantined orchards.