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The Nation: Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor

Emma Jolliff interviews Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor

Emma Jolliff: Dozens of infringements and hundreds of warning letters have been sent to farmers who still aren’t complying with rules around cattle movements as MPI works to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis. Under tougher penalties, they could face fines of up to $20,000. We talk to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor about whether eradication is still a realistic goal. But first, we asked him about kauri dieback and whether whole forests, rather than just tracks, should be closed to protect the giant of our forests.

Damien O’Connor: Look, that’s one of the things for the committee that’s looking at the National Pest Management Plan. Normally, a plan like that takes about five years to develop. We’re fast-tracking that—

We don’t have that time, do we?

No, we don’t. And, hopefully, that draft plan will be pulled together by the end of the year, and so we’ll have clear objectives and clear tasks. The problem has been, I guess, the confusion over who’s responsible here. When it was discovered nine years ago, the Department of Conversation, Auckland City Council, iwi — they all thought they were in charge. It went round and round in circles for a few years. We didn’t make the progress that we should have. We’re now developing a plan and getting on, clarifying who’s responsible. Some parks are being closed. DOC are moving. Fish and Game are moving in some of the areas that they own. Land ownership is a crucial part of decisions around what is closed and what is not. MPI — we don’t own any of the land. We can provide advice, we can facilitate the National Pest Management Plan, but we don’t have ultimate authority. That’ll be a joint process once the plan’s established.

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So when you say ‘joint process’, so it’ll be jointly decided who is responsible. So we still don’t know who’s responsible?

There’ll be a plan. And there’ll be buy-in from iwi, from the councils, from DOC and with technical advice from MPI and Biosecurity NZ. Look, the National Pest Management Plan gives authority to action. And I think that’s something that has been missing.

Who’s going to enforce the closure of the tracks? We saw around, sort of, boot cleaning that when there weren’t people there enforcing it that there was patchy coverage at best if cameras detected that people weren’t bothering, if there wasn’t a human there to make sure they did it. How do you enforce that and who’s going to do it?

Well, I think it will be a combination, you know — council, iwi. I think when people understand, you know, what is going on here — and I’ve talked to people who denied the science of the spread of kauri dieback — and so once there’s a better understanding of that— And we’ve got to get rid of some of the pigs, you know? People have been releasing pigs in areas of kauri forest. It’s completely irresponsible. And so we’ve got to, you know, clamp down in a number of areas. I think when the public understand what is going on better than they do now, they’ll be prepared to stay out of areas, because they know it’s worth protecting.

Auckland iwi Te Kawerau a Maki last week lodged a claim saying that the Government’s failed in protecting kauri from dieback disease. What do you say to that?

Well, I think we’ve all failed to move as quickly as we should have. There’s been nine years of uncertainty; nine years of, I guess, confused responsibility. We’re now moving to change that. And when we came in, I said, ‘We need a national pest management plan. Get to it. Don’t take five years. You’ve got a year, because we need to move on this quickly.’

There’s been a lot of criticism of MPI over this. Is MPI the right agency to oversee it?

Look, we’re one of the agencies. I mean, clearly, the Department of Conservation and others own the land. And as I say, if you’re going to block access to the land, you need the consent of the land owner. MPI can’t impose that. That’s why we have to work together.

Can you tell me, is it still realistic to eradicate M. bovis?

Very realistic. And actually, so far, all the indications that we’ve had, all the projections that we’ve made, indicate that we’re on track to eradicate M. bovis. It’s something that has never been achieved anywhere else. But so far, the original advice, the ongoing monitoring indicates that we’re doing the right thing, and we’re getting— we’re heading down the right path.

Initially, you called it a ‘crisis’. Is that still how you’d describe it?

It was a challenge, because nowhere else in the world had people attempted to eradicate. The disease has the potential to have a huge impact on our farming systems. And if we have to live with it, we’ll have to make a lot of changes. So our determination to try and eradicate I think is the right decision. And there were a lot of uncertainties at that initial point of decision, but everything that we have been doing — MPI, our government, in terms of support to farmers, NATE — has been moving in a positive direction.

So tell us where we’re at with the current number of infected properties.

We’ve got 38 infected properties. We’ve got 36 that had been infected, had been disinfected, de-stocked and are now returning to farming. So that’s a really positive indication that for farmers who do face infection that there’s life beyond M. bovis. And so the 38 is a steady number. We’ll have more herds that are discovered to have infection. We expect that as we track and trace more animals that may have been moved quite some time ago, and now we’ve discovered where they are. We’re testing the herds, and if they are deemed to be, and tested to be, infected, then we get on, de-stock, disinfect and restock.

You’re out talking to farmers — what are they telling you it’s like to have to destroy so many head of cattle?

Devastating. It’s a real shock. And we’ve met with some farmers who are in the process of restocking. They don’t pretend that this was an easy process at all. And sometimes frustrating. You know, there have been mistakes made by everyone, I think, because it’s a brand-new process. We’re learning as we go.

What sort of mistakes?

Look, I think, in assessing— while there should be compensation claims —assessing the processing of those. But also, you know, helping people along the way. And, I think, we just formed a group between industry partners, industry organisations and MPI to formalise the process of support for farmers when they first find out they’re infected. Now, that should have happened six months ago. I had certainly expected that to happen. It took some time, but nonetheless now industry organisations and MPI are working together closely with the Rural Support Trust and ensuring that anyone who thinks they may be infected gets the right level of support.

You’ve said most of the work will be done in one to two years. Is that still the length of time you expect? How long is this going to take?

Yes, I think within two years, we’ll have an indication, firstly, of how widespread this is. And the bulk milk sampling that we’re doing now and that we should have results from at the end of November, early December, will indicate if we’re still on course — that is, a single strain from a single source of infection that we’re tracking and tracing. So if that’s the case, then it’s just a matter of going through with the farmers who have been infected, making sure that any stock movements from their properties can be tracked, and we identify any possible infections from those identified sources. Two years should be enough to round that up, but there may be the odd situation that we haven’t tracked an animal, it pops up, but it will be monitoring from then on.

You mentioned NATE. You’ve strengthened the animal tracking system, because 70% of farmers weren’t tracking the movements of their animals properly. How compliant are farmers now? And have there been any actions or prosecutions under those strengthened laws?

Look, there certainly has been. And what we’ve done is issued a number of letters out of warning— a few hundred letters of warning. There are infringement notices that have gone out and notices of direction that are saying to farmers, ‘You can’t move stock from your property until you tidy up your NATE system.’ This has all been going on. Hundreds of farmers have been contacted, but I know thousands of farmers have upped their game, knowing the importance of this. So it’s still a work in progress. We’re making changes through regulations as well — changes to the system. I think there’s an understanding of its importance that will drive far better behaviour in the future. It has meant that it’s harder as we work through the eradication programme. But that will improve, I think, month by month, as we go forward.

When you say there have been infringements, can you tell us how many?

I think there’s over 40 that had been sent out to farmers. This is in comparison to one infringement notice that was sent out over five years. So the message to farmers has been very clear — we’re going to be able to track your behaviour, your adherence to NATE, and we’ll let you know. We’ve given warning letters to hundreds of farmers — that’s a good start. And where we have any blatant disregard for the law, abuse of NATE, then we will prosecute. Absolutely.

What sort of penalties do they face?

Well, a couple of thousand dollars. We are making changes to the law to make sure that we’ve upped those penalties so that — to both individual farmers and to corporates — that they can face penalties of up to $20,000. So those are the kind of penalties that we need to see that will really drive, I guess, a focus on NATE.

What if you’re still finding new infections, say, in six months or a year? When do you make the call that this has failed?

No, I think we may, indeed, find new infections, but they will be sporadic, and, hopefully, they’ll be traced back to an animal movement that may not have been recorded, may not have been remembered by farmers. I don’t think we are assuming that there will be no more infected properties beyond the one or two years, but that we can identify the source. If it’s from the single strain — and we’ll be able to scientifically test for that — then we’re on track. Bovine tuberculosis is another disease that we’re focused on eradicating. We’ve been at that for 30, 40 years. We’re still determined to eradicate that. I think in the case of M. bovis, it’s actually more possible to do in a quicker time frame, but it does require discipline from farmers.

You’ve destroyed 43,000 cattle already. How many more are you expecting?

Look, we projected up to 150,000 animals. Look, on track, it may be less than that. We certainly hope it’s less. But we will cull as many animals as is needed to eradicate.

So the disease can be difficult to detect in some animals. How do you know, then, if it’s difficult to detect, that it has actually been eradicated?

Well, I think we’re being very thorough. Most tests— There are three or four testing regimes for an individual property, for a herd; two types — ELISA and PCR test. We’re using the best international knowledge and any updates that we can get to ensure that we’ve got, you know, the best testing. It’s not perfect. We’ve known that. But we are repeating it. It’s a frustration for some farmers that we’re going back to repeat tests, but we believe it’s worth making the extra effort now, rather than hesitating and then having to play catch-up down the track.

$27 million paid out in compensation. How much more do you think?

You know, that could double quite easily. And so I don’t think— And I have to thank my parliamentary and cabinet colleagues for that. I don’t think we’ve been hesitating around the issue of money. It’s making sure we do this right and making sure that we pay fair compensation. So the amount— And we don’t want to spend any more than necessary, but we’re prepared to pay what is necessary to make sure we can eradicate.

90% of the agriculture submissions on the Zero Carbon Bill said methane shouldn’t be included in the targets. Do you think methane should be included?

I think it should. It’s a different— It’s a short-term gas, not a long-term gas like carbon dioxide, so—

Still decades though.

Absolutely, but, you know, science is working through the real effects on global warming. And I think our objective is to reduce global warming or to stop any further increase. So how we deal with methane emissions— And it’s, of course, a core part of food production systems across the world, so we’re not the only country that is looking at the issue of methane in terms of livestock production, protein production and how we can reduce that, but continue to feed the world — an ever-growing population.

OK, Minister, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much.

You’re welcome.

Transcript provided by Able.

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