A CREDIT card and the internet are all that is needed to introduce Australia’s next major weed, but the ultimate cost will be borne by farmers and the environment.
To prove this, the Invasive Species Council recently ordered packets of three potentially highly destructive weed species, which sailed through quarantine, to be delivered direct to the council’s chief executive officer Andrew Cox’s letter box in Melbourne.
Mr Cox (pictured with the seeds) was in Sydney last week for the final hearing of the federal Senate inquiry into the prevention of entry and establishment of invasive species into Australia.
“The government has been effectively asleep at the wheel in dealing with this growing pathway of illegal sales on the internet,” said Mr Cox, who presented the seeds to the Senate inquiry to make a point that internet trading had become a “highway for seeds”.
One of the orders was for Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima), a relation of serrated tussock.
In 2010 Bunnings was fined $15,000 for selling feathergrass, while in 2008 hundreds of Mexican feathergrass plants were seized at Big W stores.
Mr Cox said the Invasive Species Council was alerted to Mexican feathergrass being available through a seller on eBay from a government contact.
Along with a New Zealand paper (Risks for New Zealand’s biosecurity from internet trading of plants), this created a lot of discussion at the 19th Australasian Weeds Conference, held in Tasmania earlier this year.
The NZ paper listed the online shopping service websites eBay.com, amazon.com, AliExpress.com, Flowerseeds.co.nz and Alibaba.com as sites through which seeds could be bought.
“We saw (Mexican feathergrass) on eBay trading quite openly. It doesn’t restrict sales to Australia, so we complained to eBay and lodged a complaint,” he said.
“It was still there a month later so we thought okay, let’s see how good (the quarantine) system is. What sort of warnings do we get if we do an online purchase?”
The council ordered one lot of 100 Mexican feathergrass seeds for about $2 or $3 from the US and then another 100,000 Stipa sleepygrass seeds from China for about $20.
“We also ordered seeds of Kochia scoparia and this is an agricultural weed of which there was an outbreak in Western Australia a number of years ago and it spread quite a few hundred kilometres,” he said.
“(Authorities) managed to eradicate it entirely from Australia after that initial outbreak.”
However, he said the seed was easy to procure of via the internet.
The Kochia scoparia was the package that really rang alarm bells for Mr Cox and how easy it was for goods to pass through quarantine.
The Kochia scoparia packaging had written on it: “Kochia scoparia 120 seeds. Gift: 120-plus seeds rare Kochia Scoparia grass seeds. Showy E~Z grow rapid exotic hardy.”
The Stipa sleepygrass was labelled as: “Gift: Plastic beads 1 pack”, and the feathergrass was labelled as “Mexican feathergrass 100 seeds”.
When The Land searched for Kochia scoparia on eBay this week, it was still available at a cost of $A1.15 per 100 seeds with free postage from Hong Kong.
In its submission to the inquiry eBay said it "has a plants and seeds policy which was developed in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and incorporated warnings which are presented to eBay users looking for products within related categories and in response to search keywords related to plants and seeds".
A spokeswoman for eBay Aust-ralia said the company recently worked with the Agriculture Department to create a Plants and Seeds Policy (pages.ebay.com.au/ help/policies/plantsandseeds).
"This provides our buyers and sellers with an overview of relevant import/export and domestic transfer restrictions related to plants and seeds," she said.
"We also have buyer and seller messaging in place to address biosecurity issues. These are displayed when certain keywords related to plants and seeds are searched.
"We have had no contact from the Invasive Species Council and no complaints."
However, she said eBay welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with the group and would remove offending listings if made aware of them.
"eBay works in partnership with regulators across many different categories to ensure responsible trading on the site. As you can imagine with 42 million listings on the site at any one time we really rely on partnering with experts like the Invasive Species Council to keep us up to date with happenings related to their line of work."
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said an importer might be subject to an investigation and possible criminal prosecution if any attempt was made to conceal goods, or if it can be shown the item was known to be of biosecurity risk and intentionally sent.
The spokesman said last year about 38 million of the 170m items of international mail were screened.
"The overall biosecurity compliance rate in the mail environment is 99.95 per cent," he said.
"This means that of the 170m mail items that come into Australia in a year we are looking for about 85,000 of them that could pose a risk."
However, Mr Cox said eBay still needed to improve its compliance mechanism and the information on its site warning people about Australian biosecurity obligations.
"The link to the quarantine information was broken (when he used the site)," he said.
A 2014 report - Review of weed management in NSW - by the NSW Natural Resource Commission, said weeds already cost the State's farmers $1.8 billion a year, while the Department of Agriculture says the problem costs agriculture $4b nationally.
The Departments of Environment and Customs both referred The Land to the Department of Agriculture for questions on the matter.
A report on the inquiry is due on December 3.