Biosecurity funding boost a 'no brainer'

Biosecurity funding boost a 'no brainer'

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new risks: Australia's disease-free status is under increasing threat from pests and diseases, as government searches for solutions.

new risks: Australia's disease-free status is under increasing threat from pests and diseases, as government searches for solutions.

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Government scrambles for solutions as threats to agriculture and ecosystems escalate.

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Biosecurity incursions are threatening Australia like never before, the government's independent adviser is warning that the protection system is under-gunned, and politicians are scrabbling for solutions.

It's an alarming situation as biosecurity risks rise rapidly as the growth in Australian trade and population brings more cargo into the country.

African swine fever is the latest front-runner from a strong field of nasties risking Australia's agriculture and ecosystems.

The Commonwealth Inspector General of Biosecurity Helen Scott-Orr issued a report in May, which warned the dogs of war on biosecurity had been halved.

Numbers of sniffer dogs in international airports, seaports, mail centres and courier depots have fallen nearly 50 per cent in the past six years, with just 43 dogs operating across the country as of last year.

Dogs discovered more than half of the detections of meat products at the border. A whopping 20pc of detected breaches that come via mail and passenger pathways contain meat.

That's a particular worry, given two-thirds of that meat came from countries bearing the devastating foot-and-mouth disease, which Australia has so far managed to ward off.

Meanwhile, the federal Agriculture Department's attempt to bolster biosecurity has fallen in a hole.

The proposed Biosecurity Imports Levy, which would apply to incoming freight and generate about $300 million over three years, was originally intended to apply from July 1 but has now been delayed indefinitely.

Industry objected to the design of the new tax, arguing the costs fell unfairly across importers and didn't accurately reflect the risks of each cargo.

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They have warned, along with the National Farmers' Federation, that there was no guarantee the tax would be spent on additional biosecurity controls as it was slated to flow back into government's general revenue pool.

Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis Andrew Robinson said increasing biosecurity funding was a "no brainer", but he acknowledged revenue would only stretch do far.

"We could absolutely do with more money at a federal and state level. Agriculture is experiencing a material drop in funding and I think that is very short sighted," he said.

"I think it is a no brainer to put more money into biosecurity. But how much more is a harder question. It's impossible to create zero risks, and it would be very expensive to try."

Mr Robinson said while the levy had its flaws, biosecurity controls must reflect the rise in trade activity.

"The biosecurity levy could be seen as a cost of doing business, because trade exposes us to risk. We have to recognise the people who suffer the most from biosecurity risks are not the ones who benefit from creating the risks.

"Yes, you could figure out the minutiae of the exact biosecurity risk of every action but in a sense that is a strawman argument, because some people don't want to have to pay.

"I respect import businesses' right to protect their bottom line, but they are trying to introduce unnecessary complexity in order to reduce their costs. The levy is at least moving toward the idea that people who create risks should be paying for it."

A recent case against a West Australian pork business highlighted the need for powerful biosecurity controls.

In a breach of quarantine laws, two individuals were gaoled for importing semen from Europe, to boost the productivity of their stock.

Other nasties topping Australia's list of biosecurity risks are the brown marmorated stink bug which could destroy crops and gardens, the Varroa mite which many fear will inevitably take hold and decimate honeybees, and myrtle rust which could decimate native shrubs and trees.

Exotic fire ants have already infested parts of south east Queensland, and our ability to eradicate the highly invasive pest that takes over from beneficial insects in the ecosystem divides opinion in the biosecurity community.

The Queensland Government warns if the population of fire ants continues to grow, their painful sting could make barbecues, picnics and sporting events no longer possible in high infestation areas. It has caused 85 death in the US.

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