Friday, December 8, 2023

Research sets out to beef up biosecurity

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Looking into new tools and processes to safeguard precious and productive plants.
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Three newly funded Better Border Biosecurity research projects have been launched to strengthen New Zealand’s borders against exotic pests and pathogens that could cause serious damage to primary industries and taonga plant species.

Better Border Biosecurity (B3) brings NZ’s top scientists together with the government, industry, Māori and communities to provide research for new tools and processes to safeguard precious and productive plants.

B3 director Desi Ramoo said climate change and global megatrends will influence the nature of NZ’s future biosecurity risk.

B3’s portfolio of research provides essential science needed by stakeholders to react to changing pressures through passenger and import pathways, said Ramoo.

The first project will explore ways to safely increase importation of plant tissue culture and allow New Zealanders access to a greater number and wider range of species such as house plants.

Plant material entering NZ, including tissue culture, must be quarantined and tested for the presence of pests or diseases before being released for use. There is an opportunity to grow and strengthen this import pathway so primary industries and consumers have more rapid access to a larger number and wider range of plants.

This three-year project will use the latest and existing technology to examine different tissues of blueberry, hops, radiata pine and mānuka and track how microbial communities persist or diminish during their growth. This will provide a better understanding of the presence, and risk, of microorganisms passing into tissue culture, including on non-symptomatic plants.

The second involves social scientists working with groups in international air travel, such as Auckland Airport, its workers and surrounding communities, to co-develop a plan to safeguard against pests, weeds and diseases entering the country via international travellers.

According to Biosecurity NZ information, more than 400,000 passengers arrived in NZ in June 2023, compared with about 200,000 in June the previous year.

In this one-year scoping project, B3 social scientists will work in partnership with key groups related to international air travel to explore whether travellers, airport workers and community consider biosecurity important, and identify potential areas of vulnerability for unwanted pests or diseases to breach the border. 

The third project is focused on developing programmatic methods for analysing risks from foreign insects, weeds and pathogens to NZ’s plant-based industries in changing climate conditions and designing ways to mitigate against their establishment and impact.

This project builds on previous B3 work in collaboration with partners including the Ministry for Primary Industries, DairyNZ, Forest Owners Association/Forest Growers Research, Zespri and the Foundation for Arable Research to develop a partly programmatic – or semi automated – approach to pest risk analysis for use by stakeholders.

B3 co-director Māori Alby Marsh said the projects involve high levels of engagement with mana whenua, particularly in areas of NZ where research is being conducted. 

Open and ongoing engagement with Māori is key to B3’s collaborative science efforts and its growing commitment to involving mātauranga Māori and its experts in science projects, he said.

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