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Post-graduate biosecurity programme

4 March 2008 Media Statement

Launch of Auckland University's post-graduate biosecurity programme It's a pleasure to be here to be part of the launch of this important and valuable course.

It will provide advanced training for graduates and biosecurity practitioners. Graduates will be better equipped to understand biosecurity threats and to help to protect New Zealand from them.

Let me talk for a moment about those threats:

World trade is growing, and we are growing ever more deeply integrated into it.

And as our trade grows, the threat from pests and diseases grows with it.

Our trade is changing: A generation ago our main export product was wool. Today wool makes up barely two percent of our exports.

A generation ago we sent the bulk of our production to Britain. Now Britain is only our fifth largest partner; and though it is still valuable, markets that are very different are taking a much greater share of our produce.

And the quid pro quo is that we import more and more goods from an ever-widening range of sources.

As sources of trade become more diverse, the range of biosecurity threats becomes more diverse.

We bring in a substantial proportion of our imports from new markets like China.

And, moreover, the nature of products we are bringing in has completely changed. One example to illustrate the issue is the iPod. Six years ago, no one had heard of an iPod, and no one knew they even wanted one.

Now Apple sells ten million of them every quarter.

An iPod is designed in California. But the chip that runs a particular model might be designed by engineers in the UK or India.

The chip can then be installed in Hong Kong on a hard drive from Taiwan, with other parts from Malaysia, Singapore and Europe, and the whole thing is assembled in China.

What this shows is that global trade is becoming far more intricate.

If bits and pieces of an iPod come from all over the world - then bits and pieces of everything can come from the same places.

And the more we move around goods that are desirable, like iPods or cars, the more we move about organisms that might be undesirable.

Forty percent more containers arrived in New Zealand by sea last year than five years ago. And the containers are growing larger too.

More trade produces more biosecurity risks.

Risks range from ant pests from the Pacific Islands, to mosquito species and their accompanying disease vectors from Asia, to who knows what from ballast water discharges.

And as our trade relationship with the world changes, we need to adapt out biosecurity system.

It needs to be built to cope with the sophisticated, globally integrated economy we are developing.

Biosecurity issues are especially important to us in New Zealand, because so much of our economy depends on primary production.

We are more dependent on primary industry than any developed country - by far.

Two thirds of the cost of every iPod we import is paid for by exports of our primary products.

We depend on our primary products, and our primary products depend on our biosecurity.

We need to know about biosecurity risks and management techniques. And knowledge requires science.

So our economy is directly dependent on the quality of our biosecurity science.

Our primary sector would be even more valuable if it didn't face massive trade barriers.

One estimate showed that the average horticultural exporter faced direct barriers worth around $26,000 a year to their bottom line profit level each year.

And one of the most insidious forms of protection we encounter is the presence of biosecurity barriers where they cannot be justified.

We have seen an example close to home, in the pseudo-science that has been used to keep our apples out of Australia.

We are taking Australia to the World Trade Organisation over its unfounded claims of concerns about fire blight in New Zealand apples.

But when we respond to those cynical trade barriers, we need to ensure our own hands are clean.

We need to ensure our own biosecurity controls are entirely evidence based. The science has to be sound and the decision-making best-practice.

Science is crucial to the integrity of our biosecurity system - and also to our efforts to ensure biosecurity in other countries doesn't jeopardise trading opportunities for New Zealand.

Science is crucial to our need to be innovative in keeping pests and diseases out of New Zealand.

Science and research across disciplines can help us better identify risks and the best ways to manage them.

Think of the painted apple moth programme here in Auckland.

There was advanced science involved in discovering and eliminating the moth.

And the community is directly involved in this science. The public have a right to know, and want to know, that the management actions are safe (and they were). We want to be reassured about the quality of the science underlying biosecurity management.

And before pests arrive here, science can help us to choose our priorities, too. It can help to decide where the greatest risks, and the greatest opportunities for reducing them, lie.

We need the science and therefore we need scientists.

That demand is behind this new postgraduate course.

There is a demand for science graduates in central government agencies such as MAF, the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment.

Local and regional government manage pests and species established here. They need staff with an advanced understanding of biosecurity science and biosecurity issues.

Crown Research Institutes and others are increasing their focus on biosecurity research, with a consequent demand for biosecurity science experts.

Private companies at all stages of New Zealand's supply chain are also investing in biosecurity expertise: producers, retailers, importers, and shipping companies, are also investing in biosecurity expertise.

So the career opportunities for graduates in this course are exciting.

Let me give you one story that is an inspirational example of how biosecurity scientists might contribute to New Zealand.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of presenting the BioSecurity Awards. One of the recipients helped, in very large part, to bring us to today. He was a pioneer of biosecurity in New Zealand.

His name is John HellstrÃm, and he helped to introduce the term 'biosecurity' into New Zealand statutes.

Back when he started his career, there was no biosecurity programme like this for a promising young scientist to graduate from.

In fact the term 'biosecurity' didn't even exist.

So he qualified as a field vet, for what was then the Department of Agriculture. Over the next thirty years or so, he helped set up a National Agricultural Security Service.

The Agricultural Security Service had a bit of an unfortunate acronym, so they put the word "National" in front of it.

The work of this single pioneering scientist helped us to expand incursion response plans widely and introduced science-based risk assessment.

Later in his career, when the government set up a biosecurity council, he was appointed to chair it.

By that time, we were the first country in the world to use the phrase 'biosecurity' on our statute books. The relevance of his career to you is that individuals can make an enormous difference to the biosecurity of New Zealand.

Every individual is capable of making a contribution that is unique. Others might emulate it, but they can never replace your own decisions and your own effort.

The work done by scientists with an interest in biosecurity contributes materially to the standard of living of all New Zealanders.

So I hope to see biosecurity science become a career choice that excites and attracts some of our best and brightest.

MAF Biosecurity New Zealand is getting behind this course. It has provided some of the funding for a lectureship in biosecurity at the University of Auckland for the next five years.

I've talked a lot today about the value and importance of biosecurity science and the contribution this course will make.

So I also want to reflect that it is a disappointment to me that we still have a system in New Zealand that forces students into debt for taking a tertiary education course - and then puts a special tax on them to repay it.

We need their expertise and their contribution - we should be encouraging study of biosecurity science, not penalising it.

Our biosecurity is crucial to our way of life and our environment.

This course by its nature has an environmental focus and it will complement other biosecurity initiatives being developed elsewhere in New Zealand education that focus more on the threats to primary production.

Together these new steps will help to strengthen our wealth of knowledge and help to keep our plants and our animals, our water, air and soil free from pests and disease.

A stronger New Zealand will take care not only of our people, as we must, but it will also take care of our physical environment.

A stronger New Zealand will ensure we protect our habitat so that it can provide for us in the future as well as today.

Providing for the future increasingly means participating in the world and we need the skills that enable us to allow these goals to be achieved together. It takes knowledge gained from science to manage our biosecurity to deliver all we ask.

This programme will make its invaluable contribution and I congratulate the university and everyone involved n its creation.

My very best wishes for a successful venture.

ENDS

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