New biosecurity research protects border and empowers industry and communities

17 October 2023

Three newly funded Better Border Biosecurity (B3) research projects involving Scion will strengthen Aotearoa’s borders against exotic pests and pathogens that could cause serious damage to primary industries and taonga plant species.

  1. The first project explores ways to safely increase importation of plant tissue culture and allow New Zealanders access to a greater number and wider range of species such as house plants.
  2. A second involves social scientists working with groups involved in international air travel, such as Auckland Airport, its workers and surrounding communities, to co-develop a plan to safeguard against pests, weeds and diseases entering the country via international travellers.
  3. The third is focused on developing programmatic methods for analysing risks from foreign insects, weeds and pathogens to our plant-based industries in changing climate conditions and designing ways to mitigate against their establishment and impact.

B3 brings New Zealand’s top scientists together with government, industry, Māori and communities to provide research for new tools and processes to safeguard our precious and productive plants.

B3 Director Desi Ramoo says climate change and global megatrends will influence the nature of New Zealand’s future biosecurity risk. B3’s portfolio of research provides essential science needed by stakeholders to react to changing pressures through passenger and import pathways.

B3 Co Director Māori Alby Marsh says all new projects involve high levels of engagement with mana whenua, particularly in areas of New Zealand where research is being conducted.  Open and ongoing engagement with Māori is key to B3’s collaborative science efforts and its growing commitment to involving mātauranga Māori and its experts in science projects, he says.

Read more about the projects:

1. Safely increasing importation of plant tissue culture

Cultivating new variations of plants from tissue culture has driven innovation, diversification and resilience in Aotearoa’s agriculture and forestry industries. Plant material entering New Zealand, including tissue culture, must be quarantined and tested for the presence of pests or diseases before being released for use. There is an opportunity to grow and strengthen this import pathway so our primary industries and consumers have more rapid access to a larger number and wider range of plants.

This three-year project will use latest and existing technology to examine different tissues of blueberry, hops, radiata pine and mānuka and track how microbial communities persist or diminish during their growth. This will provide a better understanding of the presence, and risk, of microorganisms passing into tissue culture, including on non-symptomatic plants.

The project will ultimately identify best methods to perform rapid and comprehensive screening of tissue culture at the border.

The project is led by Hayley Ridgway and involves scientists from Plant & Food Research and Scion.

2. Involving airport communities to improve international travel-related biosecurity

International air travel is a significant way for biosecurity threats to enter Aotearoa. According to Biosecurity New Zealand information more than 400,000 passengers arrived in New Zealand in June 2023, compared with about 200,000 in June the previous year.

In this one-year scoping project, B3 social scientists will work in partnership with key groups related to international air travel to explore whether travellers, airport workers and community consider biosecurity important, and identify potential areas of vulnerability for unwanted pests or diseases to breach the border. The collaborative project will culminate in a plan for further research and activity to improve awareness and better engage the public in biosecurity surveillance and response efforts.

Groups involved in the study include air travel and tourism bodies, plus communities near Auckland Airport, councils, and government agencies such as the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Department of Conservation.  Researchers will work closely with mana whenua and local Pasifika communities.

The project is co-led by social scientists Andrea Grant and Simon Wegner and involves experts from Scion, Lincoln University, Plant & Food Research and AgResearch.

B3 has previously successfully employed social science in partnership with Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital and other stakeholders to understand and improve biosecurity awareness and surveillance among Tauranga Port workers, orchardists and nearby residents.

3. Biosecurity risks from pathogens, pests and weeds in a changing climate

A major B3 study of global trends and their potential implications for New Zealand biosecurity found pressures from pests and diseases at Aotearoa’s border will become increasingly dynamic and intense. New Zealand’s biosecurity system will need ongoing improvement to be more alert, efficient, cohesive, responsive and adaptable. This three-year project responds to this need by contributing new knowledge and tools to help:

  • predict when and how biosecurity pressures will change at our border
  • track changes in areas of vulnerability
  • evaluate the adequacy of risk mitigations already in place, and
  • alert stakeholders such as industry and government agencies when extra mitigations should be considered and recommend specific measures.

This project builds on previous B3 work in collaboration with partners including MPI, DairyNZ, Forest Owners Association/Forest Growers Research, ZESPRI and the Foundation for Arable Research to develop a partly programmatic – or semi automated - approach to pest risk analysis for use by stakeholders. Compared to more conventional manual qualitative pest risk analysis methods, programmatic approaches offer benefits including increased reproducibility, transparency and speed, and are more amenable to testing and ongoing improvement. The new project will extend the previous work which spanned insects and weeds to include plant pathogens; increase engagement with Māori; place a greater emphasis on climate warming; and for the first time include surveillance and response expertise to design mitigations for the greatest risks.

The project is led by Craig Phillips and involves researchers from AgResearch, Scion, Plant & Food Research and Lincoln University.