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N.Z. Kiwifruit Industry Fights to Survive Bacteria Disease

New Zealand is failing to slow the spread of a bacterial disease that threatens the survival of its kiwifruit industry and could cost the economy as much as NZ$200 million ($153 million) this year.

About 400 kiwifruit orchards, or 12 percent of New Zealand’s total, are infected with Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae as it continues to multiply almost a year after appearing, according to industry body Kiwifruit Vine Health Inc. Export volumes this year may drop 20 percent from last year, Minister of Agriculture David Carter said yesterday in an interview in Wellington.

The disease threatens one of New Zealand’s most iconic exports as the nation grapples with the aftermath of earthquakes and a credit-rating downgrade. Efforts to control PSA are focused on research to grow a resistant type of kiwifruit as growers realize that culling their infected vines is probably futile, Carter said.

“The worst-case scenario is that we lose the kiwifruit industry,” said Carter, a South Island farmer. “I don’t think it will get to that. I think they will find varieties that are resistant to PSA and allow us to salvage the industry.”

New Zealand earned NZ$1 billion from exports of locally grown kiwifruit in the year through March, according to Zespri Ltd., the world’s largest marketer of the fruit. The product is among New Zealand’s biggest horticultural exports, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s website.

NZ$200 Million

While it’s too soon to quantify the losses, the financial cost to the kiwifruit industry from PSA this year may reach as much as NZ$200 million based on last year’s prices, Carter said.

“It’s a very serious situation,” Carter said. “We’re not stopping the spread.”

Initial signs of New Zealand’s outbreak were discovered in a North Island orchard in November. The disease, first identified on green kiwifruit vines in Italy in 1992, is spread by airborne spores and can move easily between plants and orchards. It carries no risk to human or animal health.

Growers have scaled back an aggressive culling program that began at the end of last year and instead are using chemical sprays to protect the vines, Carter said. The disease has two strains, of which the virulent is more common, he said. The other strain is more benign and may have been in New Zealand for many years, he said.

New Zealand’s government, which spends about NZ$180 million a year on biosecurity, and the kiwifruit industry should have been more prepared for PSA, Carter said. It had already spread in South Korea and Italy, where New Zealand growers had investments, he said. The government and the industry agreed on a NZ$50 million rescue package shortly after the outbreak.

‘Seriously Impact’

The failure to curb PSA could “seriously impact” the future earnings of Seeka Kiwifruit Industries Ltd., the company said in a Sept. 19 statement. Shares in the company, based in the town of Te Puke where the first infection was found, have plunged about 70 percent in the past year.

Growers reported 17 new cases of the more virulent strain of the disease last week, according to Kiwifruit Vine Health. The number of New Zealand orchards infected with that strain rose to 312, with most in Te Puke.

Fifty-eight research programs are under way to find a kiwifruit variety that’s resistant to PSA, Carter said.

“It better be sooner rather than later,” he said. “Because this industry’s under pressure.”

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