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Speech Ruapehu Federated Farmers,Taumaranui

Hon Jim Sutton
Speech Ruapehu Federated Farmers,Taumaranui

President Ian Corney, ladies and gentlemen: thank you for inviting me here to speak tonight.

It is appropriate at an annual general meeting to sum up the past year. And at this mid-point in the electoral cycle, I can tell you it is good to be minister of agriculture.

Farming is a hard job ? you're at the mercy of the elements, the international money markets, and customers' whims.

But just now, all three of those variables seem to be going our way. In my 40 years of involvement with farming, this is a unique combination of circumstances and farmers are getting the benefit.

Pastoral agriculture, particularly sheep and beef farming, has been in the doledrums since the mid-1980s. That's had a severe negative effect on farm incomes and expenditure within your district and the economic and social health of your towns which service surrounding farmland.

However, the 1999-2000 season saw a significant increase in farm incomes, which have improved again during this current season. MAF figures from the central North Island sheep and beef farm monitoring model show that economic farm surpluses have almost trebled over the past two years ? from $7.20 a stock unit in 1998-99 to $20.78 a stock unit this season. It's estimated to be almost as high next season.

The MAF forecast for lamb, beef, and wool indicate that prices have peaked this season. But the outlook for the next 3-5 years shows only small declines are expected in prices, mainly due to the expectation of the New Zealand dollar appreciating. This augurs very well for the continuing good profitability of sheep and beef farming in the medium term.

Obviously, there are still issues you have that Government needs to deal with. But all in all, this is a good time to be agriculture minister!

One issue that I have foremost in my mind is that of biosecurity.

I became minister of biosecurity in March ? I think it was the same day that Britain confirmed it had a foot and mouth outbreak. That was something that concentrated the mind terribly.

Biosecurity is something I know is important to you as well. Shortly, you'll have a stampede of Wellingtonians, Australians, and probably people from further-flung regions, heading for your skifields.

Hopefully, you don't have to worry about the Wellingtonians ? at least not the ones that come straight here from Wellington - but whenever people or goods come into this country, there is a biosecurity risk.

The Labour-Alliance Government recognises that risk and has put a considerable amount of money and effort to ensuring it is properly managed.

Since the 1999 election, the Government has put an extra $20 million into border controls and biosecurity measures. Now, 100 per cent of all mail, passengers, and their baggage are x-rayed or searched on entry ? so far as I know, we are the only country in the world to do that.

MAF Quarantine Service figures collected since 100 per screening started in April show that, compared with the previous year, significant increases in airport seizures have occurred, far greater than what would have been expected from increases in passenger numbers.

At Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington airports, international passenger and crew numbers in April 2001 were 2.4% greater than in April 2000, and 7.5% greater in May 2001 than May 2000. At the same time, the number of seizures in April 2001 was 25.0% greater than in April 2000, and the number in May 2001 was 28.8% greater than in May 2000.

The increase in seizures, over and above the passenger increases, is likely to be a result of recent changes in MAF's passenger inspection programme.

Since mid-to-late April 2001, all passengers and crew have had their bags either searched or x-rayed by MAF.

The number of passengers processed by MAF (searched or x-rayed) at these airports during April and May 2001 increased by 82% compared with the same period the previous year. The number of seizures per 1000 passengers increased by 21%, from 28.0 in April-May 2000 to 33.8 in April-May 2001.

Even though the additional passengers processed have been at the lower-risk end of the spectrum, the increase in seizures demonstrates that as a group, even "low-risk" passengers carry significant amounts of biosecurity risk material.

The number of seizures declared on the declaration form during April and May 2001 increased by 41% compared with the same period last year. In particular, seizures of contaminated equipment, including footwear, increased by 100% compared with last year. This suggests that quarantine awareness messages and publicity surrounding the FMD outbreak have resulted in passengers paying more attention to the quarantine declaration.

The number of seizures either undeclared or declared once the passenger had been sent for further processing increased by 24% in April-May 2001, compared with 2000. This is likely to be due in part to searching or screening all arriving passengers' baggage. The 100% search or x-ray regime may also have contributed to better compliance, as passengers begin to realise that MAF is likely to detect any undeclared goods.

Since their installation in late April or early May 2001, the new x-ray machines at three regional airports (Palmerston North, Dunedin and Queenstown) and two military airports (Ohakea and Whenuapai) have detected 64 seizures, most of which were undeclared. This represents 13% of the seizures recorded in April and May 2001 at these airports.

At Dunedin airport, declared seizures increased 86% in April-May 2001, compared with April-May 2000. However, undeclared seizures increased by 445%. The undeclared seizures included items such as nursery stock, seeds and meat, which were only found when declared in April-May 2000.

At Queenstown airport, declared seizures showed no change, while undeclared seizures increased by 92%. Undeclared seizures have also increased dramatically at Hamilton and Palmerston North airports.

The increase in undeclared seizures at the regional airports, from 41 in April-May 2000 to 135 in April-May 2001, is almost certainly a direct result of the 100% search or x-ray programme.

Previously, passenger profiling was the main way of detecting undeclared risk goods at these airports: however, most of the passengers arriving at regional airports fit the "low-risk" end of the passenger risk profile.

The dramatic increase in undeclared seizures after implementing the 100% search or x-ray programme again demonstrates the risk that "low-risk" passengers as a group can still pose.

>From Monday, anyone entering New Zealand with undeclared plant, animal, or food material is being fined $200 immediately. So far, about 50 people have received instant fines ? and that's in only two days of operation.

Preventing potential disease or pest-carrying material entering New Zealand was important to all New Zealanders. We have a special environment here in New Zealand and we want to keep it that way.

We are heavily reliant on agriculture. It's what we make most of our money from. Two-thirds of our export earnings come from animals, fruit and vegetables, and timber, and from processed products of those.

New Zealand, as an island a long way away from anywhere else, doesn't have a lot of natural pests or diseases ? so when something makes its way here ? say Asian gypsy moth ? potentially it has a huge effect.

We have a lot to protect in New Zealand.

This will have been brought home to all of you last week, when a suspected foot and mouth outbreak at a meatworks in Te Kuiti was notified to MAF. Luckily, the lesion spotted on a cow's tongue by a worker proved to be nothing but a trauma wound.

Every year, MAF gets alerts of possible foot and mouth cases up to 20 times a year. This year, it looks like it might get to 50 alerts ? because of the heightened awareness amongst farmers, meat workers, and veterinarians after a public awareness campaign and the shocking news reports and pictures from Britain about their outbreak.

Normally, these are handled on-farm by MAF and no-one hears about them.

Last week's case was unusual because it was at a meatworks and because so many people got to hear about it ? thanks to neighbours of the affected Taihape farmer contacting friends and news media about it.

By now, you probably know the New Zealand dollar dropped half a cent on unconfirmed rumours of disease here and it took three days to calm overseas markets and contacts down.

On the whole, journalists here were very responsible. They held off running any stories till it was confirmed that it was NOT foot and mouth disease. TVNZ, our premier news source where more people get their news from, ran nothing at all ? on the principle that a story about nothing happening is not news.

The government can't do anything about the people in the know who rang and emailed all their mates ? New Zealand is after all a small country and you can't hide anything here.

I'd just point out that you're not helping anyone by passing on the news when it's not confirmed.

And you can rest assured the Government wouldn't be doing any covering up. Under the Biosecurity Act, I don't have any control over the measures ? they are the responsibility of the director of the Biosecurity Authority in MAF. The act gives him emergency powers to deal with any outbreak as he and technical experts in the Biosecurity Authority see fit. He is also responsible for alerting international organisations about any possible outbreak within 24 hours of MAF first being alerted of it.

Foot and mouth disease, pitch pine canker, glassy winged sharpshooter, fruit fly and a multitude of other serious pests and diseases are not things I or my colleagues treat lightly. Our officials in MAF and other agencies are working hard and well.

We are all well aware of the serious nature of our responsibilities and we are working hard to ensure our border controls and biosecurity measures are the best in the world.

Thank you for your attention tonight and I look forward to answering any questions you have.


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