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Switching Policy Focus to Environmental Biosecurity

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Environmental Biosecurity is re-emerging as a big issue for our protected places. 

For a while now, we took our eyes off the ball, focussing purely on agricultural biosecurity – addressing threats to farming such as the recent outbreaks of cucumber green mottle mosaic virus in the Northern Territory, tomato potato psyllid impacting potato growers in Western Australia, and closer to home here in Queensland, banana Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4) and white spot disease in the prawn farming industry.

Some of the symptoms of the Myrtle rust fungus Austropuccinia psidii (Photos: Department of Agriculture & Fisheries)

The impacts of an outbreak can be devastating.  Banana Panama disease cost the Queensland banana industry over $400M after being discovered on a property at Tully, in far north Queensland in March 2015.  Previously, the soil-borne pathogen had wiped out the banana industry in the Northern Territory in the 1990s.  The emergency and ongoing response have cost the Queensland Government $22 million, with significant investment also coming from the Federal Government and growers.

White spot disease wiped away $25 million from the farmed prawn industry, with seven Queensland prawn farms falling victim to the highly contagious disease which kills more than 80% of prawns in an infected farm.  The Federal Government imposed a ban on green prawn imports two months after white spot disease was first discovered. 

Meanwhile, in environmental biosecurity, we are all facing the huge threat being faced by myrtle rust.  The plant fungal disease myrtle rust was first detected in Wyong, NSW in April 2010 and spread across the eastern Australian landscape to bushland reserves, home gardens, commercial operations, parks and street plantings in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and on the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory.  Affecting over 350 species from 57 different genera of Myrtaceae, It has been declared endemic and cannot be eradicated. 

But there is some hope.  Late in 2018, the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources appointed Ian Thompson as Australia’s inaugural Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer (CEBO) within the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.  A dedicated office will be established to support the CEBO and to oversee the delivery of an $825,000 a year project fund to drive investment in building environmental biosecurity capability and capacity.

But let’s put that in context – Myrtaceae dominate many fragile and essential ecosystems and there are more species of Myrtaceae than any other plant family in Australia.  Myrtle rust will not only threaten one species, but it will also threaten hundreds of species and has the potential to impact on some of most pristine and protected World Heritage properties including Fraser Island (K’gari), the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia and the Wet Tropics.  

The key objectives of the CEBO role are to: enhance understanding and oversight of environmental biosecurity risks, perform a national policy, engagement and leadership role, ensure that Australia’s environmental and community biosecurity risks are better defined and prioritised and improve the maturity of Australia’s environmental biosecurity preparedness, surveillance and response capacity.

With the costs of clean-ups and stakes so high, it’s time to stop mopping up pest incursions and for us all to focus on prevention.  If not, it may just cost us our environment.

Article submitted by Sue Sargent, FINIA

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