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Science Deadline - This Week in Sci-Tech

Science Deadline - this Week in Sci-Tech

Myrtle rust reaches mainland

A fungal disease that could harm some of our iconic native trees has been found on mainland New Zealand for the first time.

Myrtle rust affects plants in the Myrtle family - Myrtaceae: a group that includes some of New Zealand's iconic species like pōhutukawa, rātā, mānuka and kānuka.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was alerted on Tuesday night of a suspected discovery of the fungal disease in a Kerikeri nursery. Five pōhutukawa seedlings had suspected myrtle rust, which has since been confirmed by laboratory testing.

A restriction has been placed on the movement of plants and people at the site and the nursery stock is being treated with fungicide as a precaution.

The disease is already widespread in Australia and Tasmania and as the spores are microscopic they can be easily spread over large distances by wind. It had been expected to eventually arrive in New Zealand, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said.

With no known method for controlling the disease in the wild, early monitoring is a key part of the Government's planned response. Even eradication would likely be short-lived, with the ongoing risk of reinfection from Australia.

The Kerikeri discovery follows news last month that Department of Conservation staff had spotted myrtle rust on pōhutukawa trees on Raoul Island.

At the time, director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge Dr Andrea Byrom said the Kermadecs discovery marked "a significant and very sad milestone in a long history of impacts of invasive pathogens, pests and weeds on New Zealand's unique flora and fauna".

Melanie Mark-Shadbolt from Te Turi Whakamātaki - the Māori Biosecurity Network - said while the severity myrtle rust in New Zealand was unknown, it was likely to infect native plants in the myrtle family. Based on what has happened in other countries, the impact on plant health could be devastating.

See a summary of media coverage of the Kerikeri myrtle rust discovery.

Quoted: Radio NZ

"Rather than spending your money on these over-the-counter drugs... go and get your flu injection.

"That's really the key intervention."

University of Otago's Professor Michael Baker
on a Consumer NZ report about a lack of evidence for cold and flu medicines.

Mega media merger rejected

The big news in New Zealand media this week was the rejection of a proposed merger between Fairfax NZ and NZME.

The Commerce Commission released its final decision on Wednesday morning, following nearly a year of consideration.

The merger would have seen the country's two largest newspaper networks and news websites together, which the Commission said would give the merged entity direct control of the largest network of journalists in the country.

SMC director Peter Griffin called the decision one of the most significant from the Commission in recent years.

"There was a lot of cogent discussion about the impact this move would have on plurality of voices and democracy.

"But when it came down to it, the Commission’s main concern was the market dominance the merged entity would have, a situation that would have been unprecedented in a western democracy."

Former editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald Dr Gavin Ellis outlined some of the possible steps Fairfax or NZME could take, but concluded: "whichever scenario plays out, the prospects for journalism in this country are bleak".

"A merger was always an unimaginative and short-sighted solution to the problems facing the newspaper groups. And they must know it. Seven years after Fairfax Australia's revenue and profit boosting merger with Rural Press in 2006, it was back where it started.

"NZME and Fairfax will now either plough on toward a train wreck or engage fresh thinking to give themselves and their journalists a future."

Some of those fresh ideas have been suggested by other commentators. Clive Lind - former editor of The Southland Times, Manawatu Standard and The Evening Post - said print wasn't dead, "but it dies when it's neglected".

"Just like politics, all news is local. What interests the citizens of Auckland doesn't necessarily bother even their closest neighbours in Waikato," Lind said.

"The answers to the issues that bedevil media companies are more likely to be found in regions, albeit in small ways initially, rather than seeking to match or catch international behemoths with unlimited budgets."

Griffin said Plan B would require innovation that moved away from online advertising.

"It will involve building more meaningful relationships with their audiences who need to be given compelling reasons to pay for content and convenient options – such as bundling news subscriptions with utility bills.

"The paywalls should go up and it would be hard for the Commerce Commission to argue with Fairfax and NZME doing so simultaneously in the wake of this decision.

"There’s a strong argument for “co-operation” between the two companies to work together to generate the breaking and spot news coverage that readers need, but which involve a lot of duplication of resource. A return to the NZPA model may well make sense."

Meanwhile, over the ditch, Fairfax Australia on Wednesday outlined plans for 125 editorial jobs to be cut from the business. That spurred stop-work meetings in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, which ended with staff walking out.

Journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age in Melbourne and the Australian Financial Review decided to strike for a week, which will include missing the federal budget, due to be handed down on May 9.

Policy news & developments

Quake's economic impact: The Kaikōura earthquake will have an estimated impact on Gross Domestic Product of $450-500 million over the first 18 months following the November quake.

Under-13s prescriptions: Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman says the number of prescriptions dispensed for children aged 6-12 years has increased since a policy was introduced providing free GP visits for children under 13.

Low carbon economy: The Productivity Commission has been asked to review how New Zealand can maximise opportunities and minimise costs and risks of transitioning to a lower carbon economy.

Kaikōura's forgotten impact

A new report prepared by Deloitte says the November Kaikōura earthquake highlighted the "catastrophic impact" a large shake could have on the capital.

Image: Allan Bergman, Flickr CC

While the November magnitude 7.8 earthquake had a devastating and on-going effect in Kaikōura, it also affected Wellington, despite hitting the city with less force.

The impacts on the capital should prompt questions about how resilient Wellington is, the Deloitte report The Forgotten Impact emphasised.

The report estimated a $1.25 million hit on regional GDP for every week Wellingtonians were working away from their primary office spaces. That would put the current cost, 25 weeks on from the earthquake, at $20-30 million.

A large earthquake centred under Wellington could hit regional GDP by about $26 billion, according to Deloitte modelling. The impacts on central government of a large earthquake would be far-reaching.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce responded to the report, saying New Zealand has the capacity to respond to such an event.

"Geologically we are a young country, and we are exposed to not just earthquakes, but tsunamis, and volcanoes, and we are a small country that can be exposed to other international risks. We need to have the capacity to borrow and rebuild."


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