Cargo being loaded into an airplane

Is Australia’s biosecurity up to scratch?

Australia is one of the world’s top 22 importers, which means our biosecurity standards need to be up to scratch.

A recent report by the Inspector General of Biosecurity says otherwise.

The report on Pest and disease interceptions and incursions in Australia by Australia’s Inspector-General of Biosecurity Dr Helen Scott-Orr, reveals gaps in the way the biosecurity risk associated with Australia’s $35.55 billion imports industry, and incoming passengers and mail is managed.

Annually, more than 18,000 vessels, 1.8 million sea cargo consignments, 41 million air cargo consignments, 152 million international mail items and 21 million passengers arrive in Australia, with numbers growing each year.

“Intercepting pests and disease-carrying material along these pathways before they enter and cause incursions in Australia is a huge challenge for the Department,” Dr Scott-Orr said.

The report, along with another report discussing the effectiveness of biosecurity measures to manage the risks of brown marmorated stink bugs entering Australia, was released a week before the inaugural Australian Biosecurity Symposium.

The symposium was an opportunity for 360 of Australia’s biosecurity experts to discuss these new findings. Preventative biosecurity practices was the theme for this year’s symposium, allowing for conversations to focus on research and innovation to transform Australia’s biosecurity systems.

Cargo being loaded into an airplane

The state of biosecurity in Australia

The report revealed that in the six years to 2017, the Department intercepted over 272 tonnes of meat products arriving at the border with incoming passengers and mail.

More than 60 per cent of this material came from countries known to be affected by foot and mouth disease, which is considered one of the biggest threats to Australian agriculture. Control costs for a multi-state outbreak of foot and mouth disease have been estimated at more than $50 billion over ten years.

Twenty-two per cent of meat interceptions were undeclared and detector dogs were by far the most effective tool for identifying these products – responsible for 53 per cent of interceptions. Concerningly, while the biosecurity task continues to grow, the number of detector dogs almost halved between 2012 and 2017, meaning less international mail and passengers were screened.

Dr Scott-Orr has recommended that the Department increase the number and prioritise the use of detector dogs in a range of screening environments.

While the more than three million sea containers that arrive each year may be carrying hitchhiker pests or contaminants, only eight per cent of these actually undergo biosecurity inspections. This is due to the risk profiling approach used by the Department and declarations made by importers.

The Department has a compliance system for verifying these importer declarations by inspecting random samples of sea containers, but since 2016 two thirds of these inspections were not carried out – due to frontline biosecurity resource constraints.

“The Department must strengthen arrangements for intercepting pests, diseases and biosecurity risk management, pathway by pathway, to ensure that effort is being directed to areas of highest risk.

“It should also prioritise and properly resource these screening and verification programs irrespective of other crises.

Failure to implement them increases the risk of incursions.

Inspector General of Biosecurity Dr Helen Scott-Orr.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson is in full agreeance with the Inspector-General of Biosecurity.

“Robust biosecurity procedures and policy are essential for the health, safety and prosperity of Australian agriculture and those whose livelihoods rely on it.

“For the industry to reach a $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030 more resources and training are needed to manage biosecurity risk at our nation’s borders,” Ms Simson said.

NFF Farming Systems Committee Chair Melinee Leather is a lifelong advocate for biosecurity and the 2019 Farm Biosecurity Producer of the Year and is astounded that resourcing of the biosecurity system is not being taken more seriously, especially when dealing with increasing volumes of international trade and passenger movements.

Biosecurity is a shared responsibility, and the success of the system relies on governments, industry and the community all playing a role.

NFF Farming Systems Committee Chair Melinee Leather

“It is absolutely critical that the Department of Agriculture has the resources it needs to deliver its role – managing biosecurity risk at the border and pre-border. Stopping pests before they arrive onshore is far more cost-effective than dealing with incursions or with ongoing management when a pest becomes established.”

“These reports shine a light on some serious issues, and make practical recommendations for improvement. A strong border biosecurity system allows us to maintain and grow our agricultural trade opportunities, and protects the environment and community from damaging pests,” she said.

Stopping the bugs

One of the biggest biosecurity risks to Australia is the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) – an exotic pest that can infest and damage over 300 host plants, particularly temperate vegetables, fruit and nuts, and imported agricultural crops.

Dr Scott-Orr found that efforts by the Department to keep BMSB out in 2018-19 stretched Australia’s border biosecurity system close to breaking point.

“BMSB could cause major losses for the agricultural industries of Australia and New Zealand and both countries are working to keep it out.

“Departmental resourcing is inadequate to meet the BMSB challenge. It is hard to see this changing unless biosecurity funding is improved,” Dr Scott-Orr said.

Andrea Martinello

Andrea Martinello

Andrea is the Community & Engagement Officer at the National Farmers' Federation.

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