Guest Blog: Improving the plant import system to support our innovation

27 Aug 2019

With Mike on leave, Deputy Chief Executive, Leanne Stewart has contributed this week's blog.

This week, I took part in a workshop with representatives from industry organisations and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with the current system to bring new plant material into New Zealand. As it currently stands, the pathway to bring in new propagative material to contribute to breeding programmes that provide growers with new innovative varieties isn’t working and is considered by many in industry to be broken. 

The meeting opened with MPI Director General, Ray Smith providing his thoughts on the current import system and MPI’s new strategic focus – prosperity, protection, sustainability and visible leadership.

Ray said that prosperity shouldn’t just be about growth for growth’s sake, but making sure that people benefit from growth. Prosperity needs to be balanced with protection to ensure the success of our primary industries. Sustainability underlies everything so that we have something to leave for future generations. MPI is committed to working with industry to fix the plant import pathway. 

As we are part of an industry that relies on new plant material for innovation, this message from the top of MPI is encouraging to hear and was echoed by the MPI officials taking part in the workshop.

Discussions throughout the day covered identification of issues causing the bottleneck in the system. Some of the major issues include slowness of the import system, space limitation to bring new material into the existing MPI quarantine greenhouse, and MPI resource limitations. One area we all agreed on was the necessity to have an open discussion about New Zealand’s appropriate level of protection, that is, what is the level of risk associated with trade that we’re willing to accept.

Balancing risk and trade has never been easy and colloquially, we’ve all been much more tolerant of higher levels of risk associated with someone else’s industry.

To rationalise the list of issues identified, we considered what we should start, stop and keep doing, and succeeded in reaching consensus on an approach moving forward. The best way to describe how we will undertake this work is using the analogy of having poor health (that is, the health of the system) which needs to go through a recovery phase in the short term, with long term plans for improvement.

Accordingly, MPI and industry volunteers have been tasked with a recovery project to address the urgent issues affecting the health of the plant material import pathway. A longer term strategic project will follow once the first project has been successfully completed.

Alongside these projects, other existing workstreams will continue, such as development of a business case to upgrade the onshore quarantine greenhouse and laboratory, and completion of the first principles review of the overarching MPI import system.

As a conduit between the recovery and strategic projects, HortNZ will lead the review of the governance and leadership needs to oversee the plant material import pathway in the future.

Currently, MPI, industry and research organisations, and importer groups work together in the Germplasm Advisory Committee (GERMAC), a consultative forum. However, workshop participants, and GERMAC members, agree that its not operating at its optimal level to provide value for growers, nurseries, importers and other groups associated with importing propagative plant material. Watch this space!     

Leanne Stewart, Deputy Chief Executive