Connecting the biosecurity dots

May 11, 2022

After three years, the much-anticipated 2nd Australian Biosecurity Symposium brought over 400 of Australia’s key agricultural, government, research, and community sectors to the Gold Coast last week.

The symposium is a flagship event of the Biosecurity Collective – a shared initiative consisting of Animal Health Australia (AHA), Invasive Species Council (ISC), Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS) and Plant Health Australia (PHA) intended to influence the direction of Australia’s biosecurity system towards 2030, particularly in engaging all Australians in building a stronger biosecurity system and building a mass biosecurity movement.

The event is proudly sponsored by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Biosecurity Queensland, the National Biosecurity Response Team (NBRT), James Cook University, CEBRA, Wildlife Health Australia and Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Day 2 focused on connecting the dots between broader national activities that enhance and strengthen the Australian biosecurity system and mainstreaming biosecurity to the general public.

“We all know that biosecurity outbreaks are continuing to rise in volume and complexity. Over the next decade, Australia needs a biosecurity movement to meet the challenges facing the national biosecurity system and influence the direction of the future biosecurity system,” said Sarah Corcoran, CEO of Plant Health Australia in the opening address.

One of Australia’s most well-respected health journalists and host of Radio National’s Health Report and Coronacast, Dr Norman Swan shared his experiences and knowledge in mainstreaming important messages to a broad audience in the keynote address.

Dr Swan’s address provided delegates with key takeaways on how we can mainstream the importance of biosecurity practices, bringing about positive and sustained engagement from the broader population.

He said every pandemic in history has highlighted the poverty gap and that we need to bridge the gap from awareness to practice change.

“We need to have a plan, it needs to flexible, sustainable and we cannot leave people high and dry,” Norman said. “Biosecurity is not a nice to have or a five-year plan, we need to get communities mobilised.”

“A lack of cooperation provides a fertile environment for biosecurity risks to spread,” he said.

In the first panel discussion of the day, environmental, agricultural and industry leaders explored a range of measures to help strengthen Australia’s biosecurity system. The panel focused on key activities such as the national biosecurity strategy and how it can effectively integrate to ensure a resilient Australian biosecurity system.

Dr Bruce Christie, Chair of the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, has always been a strong advocate for a National Biosecurity Strategy.

“A National Biosecurity Strategy is really important to give us the direction we need to manage risks on a national scale. We now have a workable version that all parties can talk to,” he said.

Invasive Species Council Ambassador, Christine Milne AO, urged delegates to join the dots and make themselves heard to ramp up the movement to make biosecurity a bigger issue with more funding.

“The key in joining the dots, is for people working in government to bridge to the community, get activists to act and to put pressure on decision makers to free up dollars,” she said.

Nathan Hancock, CEO of Citrus Australia and Chair of the Plant Industries Forum Committee said that it is important to consult with industry in biosecurity matters.

“We need to engage more. We need to allow industry to participate and set the direction of biosecurity decision-making,” he said.

“Primary industries are at risk of incursions and many of us have had personal experience dealing with incursions,” Nathan said. “Having dealt with an incursion, my mission is to communicate to industry on the importance of being prepared and involved with biosecurity.”

President of Agforce, Georgie Somerset said: “Biosecurity has been an industry focus because it’s an economic driver. Primary industries are engaged in biosecurity, we are aware, we have biosecurity plans, but it’s about how we engage the community.”

Sal Milici, Head of Border & Biosecurity with the Freight and Trade Alliance said khapra beetle incursions have quadrupled over the past few years. He also said risk is usually based on the quality of a container or where it ships from, but the latest pests were found in low-risk goods from low-risk countries.

“Khapra beetle recently made its way from a shipping container into packaging and when it was found by the community, they didn’t know what to do and rang Crime Stoppers. It is clear that we need to educate the community, but we also need some sort of contact tracing for shipping containers.”

Concurrent Session #4

Genetic technology 2030

Social attitudes to mainstream biosecurity

Advances in science and engagement for invasive ant management

One Health

In the session about Genetic technology 2030, Stacey Lynch from Agriculture Victoria, presented ‘Infectious disease high-throughput sequencing, setting us up for 2030’.

“High-throughput sequencing allows us to understand and control infectious diseases,” she said.

In the panel discussion about social attitudes to mainstream biosecurity, Sonia Graham, Senior Research Associate at the University of Wollongong said: “To create movement, we need to get emotional, talk to people’s hearts and connect on a deeper level.”

Concurrent Session #5

Turning data into intelligence and information

Northern Australia/ Indigenous

Digital surveillance innovation

Citizen science/general surveillance reporting

CSIRO’s Rieks van Klinken set the scene for a panel discussion on turning data into biosecurity intelligence, saying there is huge potential to generate insights from biosecurity for businesses, industry and government.

Panellist Rich Keane, Chief Data and Analytics Officer from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), presented the department’s data intelligence vision.

“DAWE’s vision is a robust, risk-based, data-driven biosecurity system that protects Australia’s health, economic, environmental and national security interests against biosecurity threats,” he said.

David Gale from PHA’s presentation was about using AUSPestCheck™, a data aggregation software system designed to collate and provide disease and pest surveillance data, to connect the dots.

“Opportunities exist for industry and government to work together to collate data for specific pests to support trade and market access,” David said.

In the session about digital surveillance innovation, Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn, Research Scientist at CSIRO, presented: ‘Mobile identification of biosecurity threats using image recognition’.

“Fast and reliable identification is critical. The earlier we detect something, the sooner it is less likely to establish,” he said.

In a panel discussion on the Northern Australia Biosecurity Surveillance Network (NABSnet), Pauline Brightling, Harris Group Principal, said: “We’ve been talking about connecting the dots and NABSnet has been doing this for a long time by bringing private vets into the biosecurity system.”

Greg Owens, Industry Development Manager, NT Farmers Association, talked about an integrated approach to biosecurity and a shared vision for Northern Australia.

“In the Territory we’ve built a community of trust that underpins biosecurity resilience. We’ve built a strong system through a series of very small steps,” Greg said.

Concurrent Session #6

Empowering action

Connecting the dots

Myrtle rust advances

Opportunities to mainstream biosecurity

Talking about myrtle rust, Michael Robinson from the Plant Biosecurity Science Foundation, called for an action plan with national coordination, developed over several years, and underpinned by a substantial technical review.

“What is good for the land must come first. This sentiment needs to drive us with more courage,” he said.

Dr Lucy Tran-Nguyen, National Manager, Diagnostics at PHA, presented: ‘The evolution of technologies in plant pest diagnostics – where are we now? What is on the horizon?

“Accurate and timely diagnostic identification is critical to manage plant pest incursions,” she said. “Diagnostics support surveillance programs, pest control and risk mitigation.”

Callum Fletcher, Biosecurity Coordinator at AUSVEG, presented: ‘Solving the collaboration conundrum: a meaningful approach to improving industry and government collaboration in biosecurity’.

“We’ve taken a systematic approach to recommendations and actions in various strategies relating to Northern Australia to highlight key areas and how to address them. We’ve also looked at creating legacies with things that can be done,” he said.

Marta Hernandez-Jover, Professor in Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health at Charles Sturt University, presented: ‘Small-holder, big biosecurity opportunity’.

“Only 51% of small holders surveyed belong to a group that offers support,” she said.

In closing, the Biosecurity Collective’s four CEO’s, Kathleen Plowman from AHA, Andrew Cox from ISC, Andreas Glanznig from CISS, and Sarah Corcoran from PHA, concluded the symposium.

“It’s been an amazing symposium that has highlighted the enormous amount of change that has happened over the past three years since the last symposium. I was really pleased to see how we are gaining momentum in innovation and transformation of the biosecurity system, the progress in environmental DNA detection, and the work by the University of Adelaide around e-commerce surveillance,” said Andreas.

“The top outcomes for me over the past two days have been the linked themes on connecting the dots and mainstreaming biosecurity. We’ve heard about programs already in place delivering on this,” said Sarah.

“In order to achieve our reach, we need to amplify the biosecurity message. This means more engagement, more participation, and more space for diverse views,” she said.

In closing, Kathleen reiterated what Norman Swan said about community-based action, and what Christine Milne said about a bottom-up approach to sharing the biosecurity message.

“We need guerrilla campaigning – it’s communities and people who are going to lead us out of this. We need to have a platform at the top, so the people at the top can hear us. We need parliamentary friends of biosecurity,” she said.

Andrew Cox said invasive species are the biggest driver of environmental loss and extinctions, the destroyer of whole industries and livelihoods.

“Biosecurity is our problem. It’s our chance to make things right to save what we believe in, and what we value,” he said.

“As part of the Decade of Biosecurity, we can only reach our goal of 25 million biosecurity champions by all bringing a spirit of generosity and courage. And by living and breathing biosecurity,” he said.

During the symposium, PHA held an online biosecurity resilience survey to assist in understanding biosecurity resilience perspectives. Key biosecurity stakeholders shared their thoughts on how biosecurity resilience could be supported, boosted and enhanced. Kevin Taylor from the Nature Conservation Council of NSW completed the survey and won a $200 gift card.

Outcomes from the 2nd Australian Biosecurity Symposium and the launch of the Decade of Biosecurity will be made available online in the coming weeks. Follow the discussion and keep the conversation going by using and following #BioSym2022 on social media.