Under pressure: 30,000 biosecurity risks intercepted in less than a year

Under pressure: 30,000 biosecurity risks intercepted in less than a year

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CROP MUNCHERS: Fall army worms is one of the latest biosecurity breaches.

CROP MUNCHERS: Fall army worms is one of the latest biosecurity breaches.

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One of the nation's most senior public servants has admitted the system is under pressure

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THE government has intercepted 30,000 biosecurity risks in less than 12 months and one of the nation's most senior public servants has admitted the system is under pressure

The nation's biosecurity strain was put under the spotlight, as officials from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment were grilled in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday.

DAWE head honcho Andrew Metcalfe said while biosecurity was well funded, he was concerned the risks would become increasingly difficult to manage.

"It would be remiss of me to say the system is not under pressure," Mr Metcalfe said.

"Certain diseases or pests, should they become established, will have catastrophic consequences - foot and mouth, African swine flu, African horse fever and kharpa beetle, just to name a few."

The government has committed $873 million to biosecurity in 2020/21.

However, a recent CSIRO report found the nation's biosecurity system would struggle to meet future challenges, even with a tripling of investment over the next 10 years, and was in need of an overhaul.

Last year, a plan to increase biosecurity funding through an export levy was suddenly scrapped, which Mr Metcalfe said was in response to the "deeply worrying" economic impact COVID-19 had on exporters.

"Effectively the funding has remained, [with the levy] there would be more contribution from users of the system and less from the taxpayer," he said.

"There's been no diminution in biosecurity effort, it's a question ultimately of who pays."

DAWE biosecurity deputy secretary Andrew Tongue said so far in this financial year, the department had counted nearly 30,000 interceptions, or more than 3300 a month.

"The most recent one was a container of rice from overseas where we found one live khapra beetle," Mr Tongue said.

The department was reluctant to single out what the number one biosecurity risk was, but Mr Tongue said the biggest issue was "pest and disease pressure".

"What we're seeing is a build up of pests and diseases poised on pathways that lead to Australia," he said.

"Those pathways could be natural ones from surrounding regions, or they could be trade pathways."

Mr Metcalfe said biosecurity risks all tended to follow similar pathways, so the department focused on putting levels of prevention throughout the system.

"What we have seen in 20/21 is a different travel pattern with the advent of COVID, international passenger arrivals have dropped dramatically, but we've seen a significant increase in mail items and shipping containers," he said.

"Because of the reduction of flights, we've been able to redeploy people because the reduction in passengers coincided with this big uplift in items coming by mail."

The National Farmers Federation has called on the government to establish a national biosecurity strategy.

"The industry feels like we've been lucky, and our fear is that our luck will run out and there will be a major incursion," NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said.

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