MPI needs new thinking and more transparency

[This article is published at http://www.interest.co.nz and is forthcoming at Farmers Weekly]

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is desperately in need of both new thinking and more transparency. It has a culture and internal power relationships which align with the military and police backgrounds of top-level managers.  MPI is also impacted by the dominant thinking from within the overarching State Services Commission, that top-level people trained in management do not need technical knowledge in the fields that they are responsible for.

Currently, MPI is led by a former Major General. The Mycoplasma bovis response team is led by a former policeman. The head of Biosecurity has no science-related qualifications. The next CEO of MPI will be transferring across from being CEO of Corrections.

This situation means that MPI’s leaders lack the skills to question the meaning of information they are receiving. Hence, they lack ability to provide genuine leadership. As long as they accept the advice and pass it on upwards then they have apparently done their duty.

My criticism here is not of people but of the system. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, and round pegs don’t fit in square holes.  However, those at the top do need to be held accountable.

This situation has developed gradually over the last forty or so years. When I started my own career in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (the forerunner to MPI), our leaders were technically qualified people. As such they would question information they were getting from the field.  Debate on important matters was encouraged.  Their key role was to lead, with day to day management being a subordinate function.

As a boy, I recall that my own father, who rose to be the chief telecommunications engineer within Government, would meet regularly with ministers such as Tom Shand and Rob Muldoon – not that he always enjoyed the rambunctious meetings with the latter. There were no managers to filter the information.

There is an argument that MPI’s responsibilities of are too diverse.  Trade-related matters would be better dealt with from within Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Biosecurity and Food Safety have common science fundamentals and could run alongside each other in their own ministry.  Science and systems would run in parallel but separate from enforcement.

That would leave a much smaller MPI to deal with broader industry matters affecting agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It should be led by someone with a professional education in the unique features of biological industries.

Weaknesses in biosecurity have been evident for many years. I recall being invited to a Wellington workshop approximately 10 years ago, set up by Government, to advise on primary industry research priorities. The overwhelming message from the assembled industry leaders was that the greatest industry risks related to biosecurity.

Scratching beneath the surface, it became evident that it was not necessarily more sophisticated research that was needed, but systems and expertise in Government to prevent and manage incursions.  The record shows that has not been achieved.

Since then, biosecurity has been a saga of crashes. The most spectacular was the importation of the Psa bacteria in kiwifruit pollen and the anthers that support the pollen. MPI was found liable in the High Court earlier this year because it failed kiwifruit growers in its “duty of care”.  That ruling is now under appeal to the Court of Appeal on the basis of legal technicalities.

Regardless of the final outcome, a key issue was that a lack of historic evidence as to Psa being present in pollen was subsequently interpreted as meaning that there was minimal risk.  That was a very basic error.  Any expert on horticultural disease would have heard loud warning bells on learning of the importation, with the pollen imported from China where the disease was endemic, with a valid import permit but without any inspection or quarantine.

MPI has also come under criticism for its handling of the parasite Bonamia ostreae in farmed oysters which spread from Marlborough to Stewart Island, with ten Marlborough farms and fourteen Stewart Island farms being culled.  Compensation remains a vexatious issue and there are some very unhappy people.

I am also in in contact with the victim of another biosecurity misadventure who is still seeking compensation five years later.

Authoritarian organisations such as MPI hate criticism and they act accordingly.

MPI boss Martyn Dunne has had a crack at me twice in recent months over my articles on Mycoplasma bovis. In Farmers Weekly on 20 August he wrote a rejoinder accusing me of “hearsay and unfounded speculation”.   I can assure both Mr Dunne and my readers that I do not use hearsay – I always go to the original source before publishing. However, I do on occasions have to protect those sources.

In fact, Mr Dunne’s criticisms of me used three of the oldest tricks in the book. One of these is called ‘ad hominem’, or attacking the man rather than the ball. It is the classic approach when the facts of the matter cannot be refuted.

The second trick was to use correct information but do so in a way that is misleading. So Mr Dunne stated that MPI had paid ‘’nearly 70 percent” of the ‘assessed’ claims.  He did not address the issue of nearly 200 ‘submitted’ claims struggling though the assessment process.

The third trick was to incorrectly state my position – it is called the ‘straw man’ ploy. A false target was set up (of MPI being deliberately slow) which was then attacked.

A problem with authoritarian institutions is that they cannot abide either uncertainty or perceived failure. It takes away from their perceived status. Yet when dealing with complex situations like Mycoplasma bovis, there are always going to be many uncertainties that must be considered. Strong leadership, such as ‘this is the way we are going to operate’, and ‘don’t complicate things by creating doubt’, is not necessarily wise leadership.

MPI has published three reports from the Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  But according to MPI information that I have sighted, the group has met five times. Can we have the reports of the other two meetings? Can we also have the information that MPI supplied to the TAG?  This supplied information is important, because the TAG is spread around the world and its members are prisoners of the information supplied electronically to them by MPI.

If eradication should fail, then the TAG has been set up beautifully to take some of the blame with MPI saying ‘we took the advice of the experts’.

Currently, no-one knows whether eradication will be successful. However, some of us who are following the evidence remain highly sceptical that the disease supposedly arrived no earlier than the end of 2015. We are also highly sceptical as to whether all 225 farms that have been taken off NOD (Notice of Direction) and RP (Restricted Place) status are genuinely free of the organism.

In the meantime, with over 5000 so-called trace properties having been identified, the safest bet for farmers is to trust no-one else’s farm as being clean, without extensive interrogation of the owners about the history of all animals, not only sale animals, on the source farm. I know of sales where full disclosures, including previous NODS, are not being given.

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About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Dairy, Mycoplasma bovis, Science ethics and communication. Bookmark the permalink.

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