A Fruit Fly Has New Zealand on Biohazard Lockdown

An Auckland suburb has descended into World War Z-style hysteria after finding a fruit fly: a bee-in-a-bike-helmet that could destroy the country’s fruit export economy.

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Mar 31 2015, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

New Zealand often feels like the beginning of a horror movie. You know, the creepy, quiet bit before the whole thing turns to shit. The lawns are all neatly mown, the trees are heavy with lemons, the sun is shining—and the houses even have white picket fences, for Christ's sake.

It makes it even more striking when a whole suburb slides into David Cronenberg, World War Z, Resident Evil-style hysteria over a fruit fly. Yes, a fruit fly. Not one of those flying freckles that hover above brown bananas—which is what I think of when you say fruit fly—but a Coca Cola bottle-bodied bastard from Australia that looks like a bee in a black bike helmet and could bring New Zealand fruit exports to a halt.

I first became aware of the threat when—driving down a picturesque little street of pastel clapboard villas with my cousin, swapping stories about our bearded fathers—we suddenly came across a huge white billboard, framed in hazard tape. "You are now entering a Controlled Area under section 131 of the Biosecurity Act 1993," it screamed in huge black and red letters. I looked across at my cousin, expecting the colour to have drained from his face. I waited for clouds of smoke to envelop us, for my lungs to start gently fizzing, but nothing. The next day I heard an announcement: anyone travelling to the Cricket World Cup Semi Finals in Glen Eden would be prohibited from taking any fruit or vegetables out of the stadium. Who takes a courgette to a cricket game, I wondered? And why were they allowed to take a bag of carrots to an international sporting event but banned from taking them home again? Precisely what the fuck was going on?

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So yesterday, I found myself walking through the small, recently-gentrified area of one-storey villas known as Grey Lynn. Back in the 1980s, Grey Lynn was a working class Auckland suburb with a strong Polynesian community; people fixed up their cars in the driveway and dogs would wander around sniffing at lamposts. Now it's awash with cupcakes, coffee, and muted restaurants selling vegan slaw. I walked past a little red Presbyterian church where hymns floated out of the open windows across the sun-baked street and nearly got run over by a tiny, leather-faced man in a tank-like Volvo as he swung into a parking lot outside the Grey Lynn butchers. It was hard to imagine this as the centre of a biohazard storm. And yet, on the 16 February, Grey Lynn became the Patient Zero of New Zealand's latest pest scare, after a Queensland fruit fly was found in one of the Ministry of Primary Industry's 7500 surveillance traps.

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You see, New Zealand is a long way from anywhere. Tasmania, its nearest neighbour, is still over 2,300 km away. So they take pests pretty seriously—hence the surveillance traps. At New Zealand customs, nobody checks your tobacco, wallet, or mobile phone, but god help you if you try to bring a banana into the country. There are huge bins in which to dispose of any organic matter—all of which is incinerated before it can pose a threat to the fruit bowl of the southern hemisphere. In fact, after the World Cup, ten tonnes of rubbish from the stadium was destroyed at Auckland Airport just in case a Grey Lynn fruit fly had snuck in to one of the bags.

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Food waste bin designed to reduce the risk of fruit flies.

Also, the Queensland fruit fly is a nasty little beast. They lay their eggs under the skin of unripe fruit, which eventually turn into maggots. The maggots then either lie in wait in the centre of the fruit (revolting) or cause the fruit to ripen prematurely, falling to the floor and ruining your crop. And Queensland fruit flies aren't terribly picky about where they lay their eggs either; cherries, apples, pears, tomatoes, grapes, kiwi fruit, plums, peaches, and avocados will do. In short, they'll shack up in pretty much every fruit that grows in a New Zealand garden.

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Round the corner from where the first Queensland fruit fly was found, I stepped into the Farmville Fruit and Vegetables shop. The shelves were heaving with incredible New Zealand corn, tomatoes, avocadoes, and peaches. Partly out of hunger and partly out of a desire to know what danger tastes like, I bought an apple. "So, I can eat this out here?" I asked, "And at the bottom of Williamson Avenue. But not at the top of Williamson Avenue, on Ponsonby Road?" "That's right," answered the woman behind the counter like it was a stupid question.

"This would never happen in England," I said to a waitress outside the Occam cafe, as she collected up scraps of tomato and melon to go in the special food waste bins. "No. But England is beyond saving," she joked. And she's quite right. Centuries of international trade and industrial farming have blasted Britain with everything from beer contaminated with arsenic in 1900 to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. New Zealand, on the other hand, still has a lot to lose. Horticulture accounts for over 7 percent of the country's total merchandise exports that all may grind to a halt if the Queensland fruit fly were to take hold. Tonga has already banned Auckland fruit imports for that very reason.

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As I walk up the Great North Road out of Grey Lynn, I suddenly realise with a sinking horror that I am holding an apple core. I have fucked up. I may well have just carried a hazardous piece of bio waste out of the quarantine area. In fact, I'm not exactly sure where the control area ends. What if I just eat the apple core, I think? But then again, what if I eat the apple core in Grey Lynn, but do a shit in Mount Eden? Does that count? Luckily, before I have to speedball the stalk, pips, and flesh, I come across a yellow-topped bin. I am saved.

Let's just hope New Zealand is too.