Biosecurity – looking back in order to look forward

Teresa Fox, AFI Researcher

The biosecurity risks to which Australia’s agricultural sector is exposed are in a state of flux. As the production environment evolves and trade arrangements morph, as tourism increases, climate change implications intensify and as supply chain dynamics become increasingly complex, biosecurity needs are changing markedly.

Australia’s biosecurity system is complex and multilayered, comprising of many components and actions. Measures are undertaken by a range of participants across the biosecurity continuum offshore, at the border and onshore. 

Due to the number and range of participants the application of ‘shared responsibility’ is made difficult. Recent reviews (1) have found that roles and responsibilities across national biosecurity systems are not properly understood, accepted or consistently recognised by all involved. 

In this ‘hindsight’ article, we look back on past AFI outputs on biosecurity in order to look forward at the future challenges the ‘shared responsibility’ approach must embrace. 

The 2016 Spring edition of the Farm Policy Journal explored the relationship between free trade and biosecurity standards, posing the question as to whether our standards can survive in an evolving era of free trade agreements (FTAs). 

A consistent theme across all articles was the need for increased long-term investment and RD&E to future-proof biosecurity. Authors noted that ‘shared responsibility’ must be an enduring mantra, but improved collaboration and communication of such will be key. 

Dr Carol Richards and Dr Vaughan Higgins (2016) (2) expressed in their article that the ‘shared responsibility’ framework can be challenged by FTA partners exercising pressure for import access. They commented that in practice, the current framework may not be sufficient to withstand domestic tensions in making national biosecurity and trade liberalisation compatible goals. 

New FTAs continue to emerge, such as the recent ratification of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) by the Indonesian Government and new opportunities with the United Kingdom post-Brexit. Our ‘shared responsibility’ approach must be strong enough to withstand both the increased political pressure and trade movements brought about by these agreements.

Only as strong as our weakest link

In June 2019, findings of the independent review into the biosecurity risk management of the NSW DPI were released. (3) The audit found significant gaps in the handling of biosecurity by the department, including that the DPI:

  • has not built formal partnerships with state agencies to share data and information on biosecurity
  • does not have a comprehensive picture of current biosecurity compliance activities
  • cannot demonstrate that compliance and emergency response activities are economical because it does not collect specific financial data
  • does not consistently analyse data and lessons learnt to improve biosecurity emergency response practices
  • does not directly address emerging risks to the environment and community amenity but rather focuses solely on risks to the economy.

These findings outline a significant threat to a ‘shared responsibility’ approach in that biosecurity management is only as good as the weakest link. It is vital that agencies cooperatively create formal agreements to share data and information to provide a comprehensive picture of biosecurity compliance activities and remain vigilant to potential incursions. 

Climate change impacts

During the 2019 AFI mid-year conference, Farming in a Risky Climate, one session explored whether Australia has the systems in place to anticipate and mitigate the increased biosecurity risks from climate change. Geographical shifts in production will be necessitated by changing climatic zones in the future, exposing crops and animals to new disease and pest risks. 

AFI Board Member and Chair of the Climate Change Authority, Dr Wendy Craik AM, spoke at the conference about the importance of information and innovation in reducing biosecurity hazards, particularly in an increasingly risky climate.  

Dr Craik noted several international and global examples where a changing climate is already posing new biosecurity risks to agricultural sectors. This included Tasmania’s 2016 detection of Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS), which usually occurs in water 21–25°C. Summer sea surface temperatures around Tasmania were highest on record during the December 2015 to February 2016 period, fostering an environment for the new biosecurity risk to emerge. This experience led to a $12 million impact in lost oyster production. 

Research and commentary on the future robustness of the biosecurity system in Australia must now include consideration of the likely future impacts from climate change and how our systems can best deal with them. Significant impacts to Australia’s economy and environment are a likely result of inadequate response, creating concern as to whether sharing this responsibility is the best way forward.

Awareness is key

As discussed in a 2015 Ag Forum blog post by Mick Keogh, (4) ignorance is a significant biosecurity factor with cases frequently threatening Australia’s maintenance of pest and disease risks. The blog post discusses the remarks from then Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce about celebrity Johnny Depp falsifying quarantine documents to smuggle pet dogs into Australia. Joyce threatened the dogs would be euthanised unless they were immediately quarantined and removed from the country, which prompted an online petition signed by over 20,000 people to save the dogs. 

Despite the high profile this case brought to the topic of biosecurity, ignorance is still an ongoing issue. For example, tourists are continuing to bring undeclared pork products into the country despite promoted awareness campaigns on the significant threat posed by African swine fever.

The increasing divide between the country and city provides a difficult environment in communicating the important responsibilities wider society has in upholding biosecurity standards. As National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar noted in his opinion piece in the 2016 Farm Policy Journal, broadening community awareness through tailored communication and education should be advocated. Tailoring communication through utilising behavioural science approaches and nudge theories may be a future area of exploration in the battle to maintain our renowned biosecurity status. 

Ignorance is not bliss

These future threats cannot be ignored, and we should not assume our ‘shared responsibility’ approach is up to the challenge. Increased political pressure from FTAs, climate change implications and difficulties in communicating awareness are only a few examples of the many tests our biosecurity system faces in the future. 
Although it is unknown whether sharing the responsibility is best, one thing is certain – eternal vigilance is paramount in ensuring our biosecurity system can protect our agricultural industry from future challenges. 

1. Craik, W, Palmer, D & Sheldrake, R (2017), Priorities for Australia’s biosecurity system, An independent review of the capacity of the national biosecurity system and its underpinning Intergovernmental Agreement, Canberra.

2. Richards, C & Higgins, V (2016), Trade Liberalisation and Australian Biosecurity: Opportunities and Challenges Under the ‘Shared Responsibility’ Approach, Farm Policy Journal, vol. 13, no. 3, Australian Farm Institute.

3. Audit Office of NSW (2019), Biosecurity risk management, Parliament House, Sydney.

4. Keogh, M (2015), Ignorance is the greatest biosecurity risk factor, Ag Forum blog, Australian Farm Institute. 

Image:  APAL