High Court orders MPI to reconsider ruling on destruction of 47,000 fruit trees

A decision by MPI to contain and potentially destroy more than 47,000 thousand plants using a certain provision under the Biosecurity Act has been deemed unlawful by the High Court.

MPI was taken to court last week by a group of five apple and stonefruit growers, as well as a Nelson company, over its decision to seize the trees.

The Ministry claimed plant material imported from US facility Clean Plant Center Northwest over six years were “unauthorised goods” after the American institution failed an audit this year and its accreditation was later pulled.

Many testing records were missing, and in some cases had records suggesting that the material had failed the relevant tests.

MPI said it couldn’t be certain that plant material from the facility was free of pests and diseases.

Therefore, using section 116 of the Biosecurity Act, it directed 32 orchardists, nurseries, and importers based in Hawke’s Bay, Waikato, Nelson and Central Otago to contain and/or destroy affected apple and stonefruit plants.

AgFirst has valued the loss to up to $1.5billion.

But in a judgement released today, Justice Cooke concluded that MPI used the wrong set of provisions in making its order because the trees weren’t “unauthorised goods”.

Cooke also found that trees already planted in the ground in New Zealand could not be considered “goods” because they had become part of the land.

He said the appropriate biosecurity powers are instead found in a different part of the Act, which may allow growers to get compensation.

An interim order is in place for five days while MPI and industry work through the review and ongoing biosecurity concerns.

MPI response

A spokesperson for the Ministry says they are carefully considering the judgement and their next steps.

“We note that the Judge found the diligence and care demonstrated in our decision-making cannot be faulted, that we very carefully and thoroughly researched the situation, and our decisions were reasonable,” said Pete Thomson.

Growers relieved

The apple and stonefruit group say they’re encouraged by the High Court judgment.

“We have now proven, and the High Court Judge has recognised, that MPI was using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.

“This now provides us with the opportunity to define a course of action for the different varieties and for the plants at different stages of growth.

Waimea Nurseries, who took legal action independently, told 1 NEWS it is pleased with the outcome and now expects “an open dialogue” with MPI.

Ripe apricots on a tree branch
Apricot tree. Source: istock.com