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Forest Research slams bio-terrorism scaremongers

Forest Research challenges speculation around bio-terrorist threats against pine plantations. “Deliberate introduction of harmful pests and diseases is by no means inevitable and shouldn’t be talked about as though it is.” Forest Health science leader, Dr Brian Richardson, says recent suggestions that forest and agricultural diseases will be introduced to undermine the economy are described as “pointless and irresponsible.”

“Any threats around bio-terrorism have been taken seriously for many years. But what is the point of publishing specific options for would-be saboteurs? Idle speculation serves no purpose other than to put ideas in people’s heads that might want to do harm.” According to Dr Richardson, the risk of new pests and diseases entering the country is ever-present, which is why New Zealand has rigorous border security. Also, surveillance specialists carry out routine checks on forest health, and detailed contingency plans are in place, should incursions arise.

“Diseases such as pine pitch canker are well known to us, and the whole industry is very aware of the risks. We have put a lot of effort into understanding these threats. I’m all for providing information to the community, but why invite the possibility of a deliberate attack by suggesting it publicly in the first place?” Dr Richardson says if people have specific concerns about potential bio-terrorist hazards they can raise them with the proper authorities, such as MAF Biosecurity. “Forest owners and forest health specialists are eager to close any pathways through which pests and diseases can enter the country, accidentally or otherwise.”

Pine pitch canker was first identified as a major threat to Pinus radiata in 1986. Seed imports were recognised as a potential risk as soon as the fungal disease was detected in California, the home of radiata pine. Forest pathologist, Margaret Dick, says that extensive pest risk assessment activities have been carried out, including several visits to California, to look at the symptoms and the different factors that influence disease spread. “Much of the work has been carried out in liaison with Australia, because they share the same risks and concerns as us.”

Forest Research has developed molecular techniques for rapid and accurate identification of the fungus. Dick explains that this is a difficult group of fungi to work with because many closely related species look similar. “Over a number of years we have built up a comprehensive knowledge of these related species that we find associated with pines in New Zealand.”

In collaboration with HortResearch, forest health scientists have investigated the effectiveness of induced resistance to disease. They have also carried out research programmes in quarantine to evaluate the effect of the fungus on other nursery plants. “If New Zealand were unfortunate enough to be targeted by bio-terrorists, we would not be caught on the back foot,” says Dick.

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