Thu 31 Aug 2017

Biosecurity: the answer could be in our hands

Plant genetics expert Richard Winkworth says New Zealand must switch to field testing if it is to effectively tackle threats to native flora and fauna.

Dr Winkworth, Senior Lecturer in Plant Genetics at the Institute of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, was the speaker at the second WITT public research seminar series, Nga Ara Rangahau, on Wednesday.

His address was all the more relevant because he discussed the issue of the fungal disease myrtle rust, which threatens native plants such as pohutukawa and manuka and was found in Taranaki in May. It has since been detected in Waikato, Northland and Bay of Plenty. One theory is that it arrived in Taranaki wind-borne from Australia, where it threatens entire green spaces.  

Dr Winkworth said DNA testing when unwanted organisms are found in New Zealand involves laboratories, trained staff and lots of time.

He presented an alternative already used in the United States where portable equipment was taken to the site and tests carried out immediately. It was, effectively, a triage process which had the potential to make New Zealand considerably more efficient at responding to outbreaks or organism issues.

The tests could be used in a variety of areas including border biosecurity, conservation medicine, food security and water safety.

The speed of the response to the Hasting water contamination incident in August 2016 was another example where field testing would have produced results more quickly, he said.

The area of Dr Winkworth’s expertise is in determining where diseases such as kauri dieback, myrtle rust – and even a fungal disease in tuatara  - come from, and how they developed in New Zealand. The information can then be used to control the diseases.

He remains frustrated by the slowness of New Zealand’s response to outbreaks.

He quoted Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI) figures of $250 and $180 for animal health and plant diagnostic DNA tests and a standard 10-day time delay.

Thousands of tests had been carried out following the discovery of myrtle rust in Taranaki, and they were fast-tracked, he acknowledged – but the cost of that was the dropping of other testing.

Most recently the discovery in the South Island last month of Mycoplasma bovis, a bacterial infection in cattle has tested resources.

Field testing was not “futuristic” he said – it was already working in the US.

The opportunities offered with field testing went well beyond  biosecurity incursion reports.

“We could swab imported fruit, which we simply eyeball now, and not add any significant time at the dock or airport.

“For water – a 16 hour culture check at present. What if we could do it in real time? You could turn off the tap immediately and issue warnings.

“In the area of translocating animals, you could swab an animal and in five minutes have a result. You could also ensure you are increasing genetic diversification at the same time.

“Commercially –wine: has it been watered down? The same with manuka honey.”

Dr Winkworth showed his audience  a hand-held device which could do the job – the only one on “active duty” in New Zealand. He said he was not advocating an end to lab testing, but offering the field test as a triage which could rule out certain things at a fraction of the cost.

It would determine whether a pest or disease was present, and in what quantity.

He acknowledged MPI was not embracing the technology, suggesting it had been soured by a previous experience using different technology.

“I think they are coming round, but it’s a slow process,” he said.

He also argued the system was designed as a business model and did not enable change.

“It is set for short term and does not promote collaboration, but we will suffer if we don’t change.’


·         The MPI website has a lot of information about myrtle rust here:             

·         Check out more on rapid genetic  testing at the Bio-protection science for New Zealand website -