A vine mess

The court se­quel to the out­break of the ki­wifruit dis­ease Psa is play­ing out in Welling­ton.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Jonathan Un­der­hill

The court se­quel to the out­break of the ki­wifruit dis­ease Psa is play­ing out in Welling­ton.

Don Hy­land lost his legs to di­a­betes and fought a life­long bat­tle with pro­found dyslexia. But what fi­nally beat him was Psa. The in­fes­ta­tion of his or­chard with the ki­wifruit dis­ease forced him to sell it at a ru­inous loss, and he holds the Min­istry for Pri­mary In­dus­tries (MPI) re­spon­si­ble. Hy­land sold his ki­wifruit prop­erty in 2012 for $875,000. At the time Psa was first de­tected in 2010, he says, it had a market value of $500,000 a hectare, or more than $3 mil­lion.

“I had been beaten by Psa and I needed to get out,” the Tau­ranga 73-year-old says in his brief of ev­i­dence for the law­suit that 212 ki­wifruit grow­ers have taken against the Crown.

In 1991, Hy­land was 48 and a suc­cess­ful dairy farmer when he was di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes. He and his wife Ju­dith de­cided on a change of lifestyle, so they leased out their farm and bought a Te Puke or­chard.

In the al­most two decades be­fore Psa, or Pseu­domonas sy­ringae pv ac­tini­diae, ap­peared, Hy­land be­came a ki­wifruit cham­pion, achiev­ing yields of up to 22,000 trays of gold ki­wifruit a hectare com­pared with an in­dus­try stan­dard of 8000 trays.

With fel­low grower Rus­sell Baker, he pi­o­neered tech­niques such as al­ter­nate-row crop­ping (ARC) and he joined a se­lect group of grow­ers tri­alling new va­ri­eties for Ze­spri, in­clud­ing the cur­rent cham­pion Sun­Gold, or G3. He was one of three “high-per­form­ing, in­no­va­tive or­chardists” in­volved in a Ze­spri-funded trial with HortRe­search sci­en­tists on in­no­va­tive grow­ing sys­tems.

Hy­land saw gold ki­wifruit’s po­ten­tial when it first emerged here in 1998. He planted the gold va­ri­ety Hort16A and set about do­ing his part to trans­form the in­dus­try.

“I’m mo­ti­vated by money and suc­cess,” he says. “I put my heart and soul into ­ev­ery­thing I do.”

Hort16A was all but wiped out by Psa and Hy­land, forced to sell in 2012, missed out on ki­wifruit’s re­mark­able come­back, led by Sun­Gold. In the year to Au­gust 31, 2017, the value of ki­wifruit ex­ports rose 13% to a record $1.8 bil­lion. Ze­spri en­joyed a 19% gain in global sales in the 2016/17 sea­son.

The lat­est MPI pro­jec­tions are for ki­wifruit ex­port rev­enue to rise 21% by 2021, reach­ing $2.2 bil­lion. Univer­sity of Waikato re­searchers say the in­dus­try will gen­er­ate 29,000 new jobs be­tween now and 2030, by which time its con­tri­bu­tion to an­nual GDP will have in­creased by $3.5 bil­lion.

It helps that ki­wifruit is New Zealand’s su­per­food – a some­what woolly de­scrip­tion that it earns be­cause of its nu­tri­ent den­sity. The coun­try ranks third be­hind China and Italy for over­all pro­duc­tion, but most of China’s crop is eaten do­mes­ti­cally, so Ze­spri ac­counts for about 30% of global sales.

Ze­spri’s Sun­Gold ki­wifruit has a nu­tri­ent ad­e­quacy score of 18.8, based on an as­sess­ment by Plant & Food Re­search that has been ac­cepted into the USDA National Nu­tri­ent Data­base for Stan­dard Ref­er­ence. Green ki­wifruit scored 11.4, or­anges 8.1 and blue­ber­ries just 2.9. It’s also the key in­gre­di­ent in Kiwi Crush, a house­hold rem­edy for con­sti­pa­tion, and con­tains com­pounds that may ward off heart dis­ease, based on a Univer­sity of Oslo study. Re­searchers at Taipei Med­i­cal Univer­sity say it may help with sleep prob­lems, too.

But in 2012, all that was cold com­fort to Hy­land. His or­chard was close to ground zero for Psa: a neigh­bour­ing prop­erty, called RP1 (Re­stricted Place 1), was where the bac­terium was first de­tected. He was 67 when his or­chard be­came in­fected. He fought it for 18 months, “out of bed be­fore day­light, seven days a week” – prun­ing, burn­ing, spray­ing, graft­ing – but his health suf­fered as a re­sult.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, he says, was when his vines, re­grafted from Hort16A to

Re­searchers say the ki­wifruit in­dus­try will gen­er­ate 29,000 new jobs and add $3.5 bil­lion to the coun­try’s GDP by 2030.

Sun­Gold, also be­came in­fected.

“When Psa struck Te Puke, we were heart­bro­ken, dis­ap­pointed and an­gry. We were an­gry be­cause some­thing so de­struc­tive to our in­dus­try had been al­lowed into the coun­try by MPI and it didn’t seem like se­ri­ous ef­forts had been made to keep it out,” he says. “I hold MPI and the Gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­ble for my losses.”

SU­ING “COUN­TER­PRO­DUC­TIVE”

Hy­land’s story is quite at odds with the in­dus­try nar­ra­tive. In 2014, Ze­spri chair Peter McBride urged grow­ers not to sup­port the law­suit, which is now be­fore the High Court at Welling­ton, say­ing it would com­pro­mise the in­dus­try’s re­la­tion­ship with the Gov­ern­ment.

Ze­spri’s sin­gle-desk seller sta­tus is un­der­pinned by reg­u­la­tion and McBride said the in­dus­try struc­ture “is a priv­i­lege granted to us by gov­ern­ment” that cre­ates “huge value to New Zealand ki­wifruit grow­ers”.

The Crown’s wit­nesses have in­cluded out­go­ing Ze­spri chief ex­ec­u­tive Lain Jager, who told the court it was “coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to sue your part­ner”, es­pe­cially now the in­dus­try’s per­for­mance is “bet­ter than it has ever been”. Jager also ac­knowl­edged that some grow­ers suf­fered loss and haven’t ben­e­fited from the cur­rent cy­cle.

The 212 grow­ers in the $376 mil­lion law­suit, led by Strath­boss Ki­wifruit and Seeka, claim the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Forestry – which be­came part of MPI when that min­istry was formed in 2012 – was neg­li­gent un­der the Biose­cu­rity Act when it al­lowed ki­wifruit pollen an­thers to be im­ported from China in 2009, be­cause reg­u­la­tions for­bade the en­try of plant parts, and it failed to in­spect the con­sign­ment at the bor­der. The an­thers al­legedly car­ried Psa bac­te­ria.

John Loughlin, who was Ze­spri chair from 2008 to 2013 and is still chair of ki­wifruit pack­ers EastPack, says there are “mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives on this”.

“The peo­ple bringing the lit­i­ga­tion feel there was a poor per­for­mance on the part of the Gov­ern­ment on biose­cu­rity, that the de­ci­sion to al­low the pollen to be im­ported was a poor one made with­out con­sul­ta­tion with in­dus­try and it should be held to ac­count,” he says. “The other view is that na­ture is big­ger than all of us and the Gov­ern­ment can’t guar­an­tee biose­cu­rity. I can’t imag­ine the Gov­ern­ment will back down and set­tle this.”

Hy­land’s mate Rus­sell Baker isn’t so sure. The 72-year-old took a dif­fer­ent route out of the ki­wifruit in­dus­try after his fi­nal harvest of Hort16A gold ki­wifruit in 2011. Now he grows ki­wiber­ries, an­other mem­ber of the Ac­tini­dia fam­ily, grape-sized fruit that are eaten skin and all. It is a sec­ond cousin of the ki­wifruit and doesn’t suc­cumb to Psa. The fledg­ling crop hasn’t yet been as­sessed as a “new su­per­food”.

Baker’s small Bay of Plenty or­chard is at a higher al­ti­tude, away from the main grow­ing area, but it tested pos­i­tive for the rapidly spread­ing Psa in De­cem­ber 2010. The ki­wiberry is cur­rently ex­cluded from the Chi­nese market – where it is pop­u­lar – un­der our free-trade agree­ment, be­cause its ed­i­ble skin puts it in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory from ki­wifruit.

Baker says Ze­spri’s op­po­si­tion to the law­suit may also be to avoid scru­tiny of its own per­for­mance as a mo­nop­oly body, hav­ing been “fully aware” at the time of the dis­as­trous im­pact Psa had on its grow­ers in Italy and play­ing a key role through its sci­ence and re­search arm in how New Zealand re­sponded. In fact, Ze­spri’s off­shore op­er­a­tion, Ze­spri Global Sup­ply, was re­search­ing Psa in Italy in 2009 be­cause it was af­fect­ing its gold ki­wifruit grow­ers there.

The Gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial state­ments for the year to June 30 have a con­tin­gent li­a­bil­ity of $93 mil­lion re­lated to the law­suit, which is based on sec­ond plain­tiff Seeka’s as­sess­ment of its losses.

The MPI ex­cuse – that it can’t be ex­pected to pre­vent ev­ery pos­si­ble biose­cu­rity in­cur­sion across por­ous bor­ders – doesn’t hold wa­ter, Baker says, be­cause in 2009 when it rub­ber-stamped the con­sign­ment of ki­wifruit plant an­thers from China that the lit­i­gants claim car­ried the Psa bac­te­ria, it was in breach of its own biose­cu­rity reg­u­la­tions.

“It ap­pears some­body slipped up and it was al­lowed in when it shouldn’t have been. MPI ig­nored its own leg­is­lated rules,” he says. “I think we could def­i­nitely win.”

Don Hy­land, left, and Rus­sell Baker: Psa refugees.

For­mer Ze­spri chair John Loughlin: “I can’t imag­ine the Gov­ern­ment will back down.”

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