Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Border war tech weapons grow

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Lurking Australian stink bug populations and wind-borne diseases like myrtle rust added urgency and relevance to the second Australasian biosecurity innovation exchange held in Auckland.
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The meeting of minds between the two countries to examine latest and emerging technology for biosecurity control is a natural one, Ministry for Primary Industries chief scientist Dr John Roche said.

“We are really the only two countries that take border biosecurity equally seriously and also share similar threats at those borders.” 

The threats most recently include the brown marmorated stink bug, which has been discovered in isolated instances in Australia, similar to isolated occurrences in New Zealand. If established the bug has the potential to wipe out both countries’ horticultural sectors.

In keeping with NZ’s national biosecurity policy Ko Tatou This is US, biosecurity experts examined technology that incorporates smart phone computing power with citizen agents to empower people to better identify and report incursions.

“We have already had a number of stink bug incursions reported using the technology and there is a lot of work going on around the younger generation to engage with them.”

Technology to help identify hitchhiking pests includes next-generation genetic sequencing that can detect remnant DNA of such pests in imported products.

“This could be applied to seed, fruit trees, any biological material bought in. The pest may be invisible. In the past we may have even had to try and grow it out from samples. This allows us to detect it much sooner.”

With a 40% increase in tourist numbers in only five years the technology has to play a key role to avoid simply throwing more bodies at it, Roche said.

Auckland and Melbourne airports are the only one in the world using state-of-the-art x-ray tomography machines capable of viewing bags in full 3D profile. 

Using latest AI technology the machines are being trained to recognise specific risk items including meat, fruit and seeds.

“It allows us to triage risk items, set them aside and then bring in the people to examine further.”

Ultimately, when combined with digital arrival card data, visitors with nothing to declare will move straight through, leaving staff resources to focus on risk passengers.

The ultimate aim of NZ’s campaign is to engender greater collective responsibility among New Zealanders for biosecurity, boosted with the latest technology.

“A survey done 18 months ago showed 95% of people recognised biosecurity as being important but only 2% that it impacted on their daily lives,” Roche said.

The concern over stink bug incursions becoming a full-scale establishment in both NZ and Australia has also ramped up in recent months now the pest has been discovered in Chile.

“It means we now have a pest with a 12-month season now it is in this hemisphere.” 

Another pest raising concern is the invasive disease xylella, a deadly bacterial pathogen first detected in southern Italy’s olive trees in 2013 and now spread through Tuscany, France, Spain and Portugal.

“We are interested in hyperspectral technology, which can detect what the human eye cannot see. Detection using this sort of technology also removed the risk factor that humans could spread the pest or disease while they are also trying to detect it.

“This technology may also prove useful for detecting myrtle rust or kauri dieback.”

Biosecurity heads have also recognised the need to try to make better use of the petabytes of data now harvested. 

“In 2010 90% of the data harvested was structured data and 10% incidental or unstructured. 

“By next year 95% of that data is expected to be unstructured. It is all usable. We just need to better understand how.”

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