NPBS – Issues and challenges

Through wide consultation and analysis of a number of recent studies, key issues and important common themes that underpin the NPBS have been identified.

(a) Human resources in decline

Whilst there continues to be a commendable depth of expertise throughout the plant biosecurity system, some areas are beginning to experience shortages of people with appropriate plant biosecurity skills and knowledge. This is compounded by the current difficulties in attracting and retaining people to the agricultural sector.

A number of recent studies have identified these emerging trends. Work undertaken by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture (ACDA) indicates a continuing fall in Australian graduates from university agricultural programs (see Figure 1). Futhermore, estimated demand already exceeds the current supply of agricultural graduates by a factor of three.

Further work undertaken by Howie within the plant pathology and entomology disciplines demonstrated that whilst a relatively even spread of expertise currently exists across all age brackets, almost 50 percent of respondents indicated they were likely to leave employment in these disciplines within ten years. The factors driving this loss of expertise included retirement, a desire to change career and concern about job security, highlighting dissatisfaction with current terms of employment across the sector.

Whilst the number of staff linked to diagnostic work had increased since 1995, the time spent directly on diagnostic work had decreased. This is likely to reflect the increasing reliance on third party research grants to support staff (and therefore the diagnostic resource) as internal funds are cut back.

Due to a combination of retirement, higher rates of attrition, inadequate numbers of skilled professionals entering the system and reduced commitments to key technical areas, the plant biosecurity sector can expect to see a substantial decline in human resources and core capabilities over the next 20 years. Continuing on current trends, the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimates 50 percent of Australia’s biosecurity diagnostic expertise will be lost by 2028.

These issues are further compounded by the general lack of succession planning currently evident in the organisations that provide technical and operational support for plant biosecurity in Australia. A system that provides succession planning and the transfer of knowledge from experienced practitioners to new graduates, in addition to clear career paths for future experts, is required.

Australia’s emergency response capacity is drawn almost entirely from ‘normal’ day-to-day resources that exist primarily to deliver routine functions of pest management, quarantine services, response planning, information and communication services or research and development. Thus, long term plant quarantine incidents have the potential to significantly impact not only directly on industries and communities, but also the fundamental plant biosecurity systems.

(b) A constantly changing environment

Climate change and variability are clearly recognised as a major threats to agricultural systems. Over the coming decades Australia is expected to experience increases in average temperatures and see daily temperature extremes producing more hot days (above 35oC) over summer and fewer cold days (below 0oC) in winter. Climate change and variability will also impact on average rainfall patterns and increase the frequency of extreme weather events.

Such changes are likely to affect crop/pest interactions. However, the extent to which climate change and variability will affect  most pests and their hosts is not yet clearly understood.

Pest outbreaks occur when changes in climatic conditions such as temperature and moisture are most favourable for pest growth, survival and dispersal. Changes in climatic conditions can result in a pest expanding beyond its normal range into a new environment, extending losses and affecting natural plant communities.17 This has been demonstrated by a southerly shift in the geographical range of some pests during the last century.

A predictive study of the potential distribution of Citrus canker (Xanthomonas citri subsp. citri) should it enter and become established in Australia under current and projected climatic conditions, has demonstrated that with increasing temperatures there would be a significant shift in distribution patterns and an increase in the total area potentially affected by the pest (Figure 2).

Similarly, a recent preliminary analysis showed that climatic conditions in central NSW could become more favourable for the spread and reproduction of fruit flies with climate change. Increasing temperatures, decreases in cold stress and milder winters would create more favourable overwintering conditions and a subsequent increase in the number of fruit fly generations that could occur each year (Figure 3).

(c) Conflicting priorities for resources and funding

Australia’s primary production sector exists in a dynamic, ever changing environment. Pressures placed on plant industries can generate the need to constantly shift the priorities of the plant biosecurity system, while others directly compete for its resources.

Whilst climate change and variabilty has significant future ramifications, Australian producers are also currently facing other challenges such as those associated with access to water and globalisation. These challenges not only influence the dynamics of pest management by causing a shift in production areas and pest distribution, but also directly compete for limited industry, government and private sector resources.

The plant biosecurity sector is currently significantly under-resourced. For example, The Beale Review concluded that at the Commonwealth level alone, a funding increase of $260 million per annum was required to implement the review’s findings1. There is increasing pressure on government and industry to fund activities relevant to their sphere of operation. Agricultural funding is under pressure as all governments determine priority spending allocations for areas such as education, health and infrastructure in response to changes in human demographics and evolving policy areas such as climate change, water resources and environmental protection.

There has been a steady decline in the use of public funds for Australian agricultural research, development and extension and the private sector has not been able to adequately fill this void. In 1995 the state governments provided 53 percent of agricultural research and development services and the Australian Government 22 percent. By 2007 this had fallen to 38 and 17 percent respectively, with little coordinated input from the private sector to ensure efficient and targeted provision of resources.

Sharing the cost of plant biosecurity programs, where there are both public and private beneficiaries, is an important issue. This is increasingly becoming an expectation of governments, where beneficiaries are being asked to contribute to funding the implementation of traditionally public funded programs.

Compounding this problem is the ever increasing cost to producers of complying with domestic and international market access requirements, as well as funding the research and development required to maintain or enhance these activities.

Finally, for producers, biosecurity in times of financial stress and low productivity can often be regarded as a secondary issue. If there is no immediate threat or experience of loss, the implementation of biosecurity activities can be regarded as ‘optional insurance’ or something that can be dealt with at a later date.

(d) International movement of produce and people

With ever increasing and more rapid movement of people and produce across state and national borders, the nation’s plant biosecurity status is constantly being tested.

The number of travellers entering Australia each year is increasing (Figure 4). These travellers and the aircraft and ships in which they travel are potential carriers of pests into Australia. This rate of people and produce movement growth is forecast to continue over the next ten years. The risk of introduction of pests is greater when trade vessels with more than 1.8 million containers of cargo and the 150 million mail items arriving in Australia annually are considered.

In keeping with the pace of globalisation, the range of countries from which travellers enter Australia and the frequency with which they arrive from particular regions is also increasing. This is expanding the potential pathways of entry for pests of concern.

The number and geographic dispersion of Australia’s ports, particularly seaports, also poses logistical and resourcing challenges for border biosecurity. In acknowledgement of this, and in acceptance of Australia’s Appropriate Level Of Protection (ALOP) being set at ‘very low risk’, the Beale Review recommended that Australia move away from mandated border inspection targets and instead move towards risk based inspection regimes.

Mitigating the risk of pest entry is made more difficult by variations in the processes used for the assessment of risk across Australia’s various states and territories. Whilst all are scientifically based, differences in processes combined with differences in legislation and regulations have increased the complexity and cost of compliance.

(e) Loss of crop protection products

The range of registered agricultural chemicals available to agricultural producers for the control of pests is subject to change. In many cases, specific products (e.g. disinfestation products including fumigants, post-harvest dips and flood sprays) might become unavailable. In some cases, alternative crop protection products or methods are either not available, are significantly more costly or require substantial new investment in development and infrastructure to achieve the desired outcome.

For example, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is currently reviewing the use patterns of the insecticides dimethoate and fenthion. These products are used in the management of fruit flies in Australia and facilitate the domestic and international trade of a range of horticultural commodities. The current value of interstate and international trade using these products is estimated to be more than $360 million per annum. If the outcomes of the review result in a change to current use patterns of these products, then access to domestic and international markets could be hindered and costs along the supply chain where alternative measures are required could significantly increase.

This issue poses significant challenges to pest management operations and usually necessitates shifts in how control operations are conducted. In some cases, this may dictate whether certain control strategies can be sustained.

(f) Research and development coordination, collaboration and capacity

The current agricultural research and development framework was put in place over 20 years ago where industry funds are matched with Australian Government funding through some 15 commodity centred Research and Development Corporations (RDCs). This system has lead to substantial gains in agricultural productivity and sustainability. Results from an analysis of 59 randomly selected programs in 2009 found that there was a substantial return on investment with a benefit/cost ratio of 2.36 after five years and 5.56 after ten years. The return rises to 10.51 after 25 years. That is, for every $1.00 invested, $10.51 is returned after 25 years.

Funding for research under this system has been divided along industry lines, and cross sectoral issues, such as water and biosecurity, have struggled to achieve the scope and collaboration required. This division has made the national prioritisation and coordination of multi-discipline projects complex and difficult.

These issues are reflected in the plant biosecurity sector, where information and knowledge gaps remain and coordination of expertise and resources has been difficult due to the broad range of stakeholders involved. Ongoing development of surveillance, market access, diagnostics, in-field pest management techniques, refinement of systems approaches, and alternative post-harvest treatments, are some of the areas where broader collaboration is required.

(g) Engaging all commodity groups and the wider community

In many situations producers and communities, especially in urban and peri-urban areas, are best placed to detect a pest incursion soon after its arrival. The chances of containing and successfully eradicating a pest significantly increase with early detection, so producers and the wider community play a critical role in Australia’s biosecurity system. Engaging the community in biosecurity matters is therefore an important role for governments and industry. It has been recognised that there has been a large reduction in the network of government agricultural extension officers.

This reduction has lead to the closure of many regional government offices and a loss of expertise in agricultural and horticultural crop agronomy and plant protection. While there has been growth in the numbers of private crop consultants, the nature of their roles may limit their ability to devote time to activities such as plant biosecurity education.

A recent review of the programs run by government and industry aimed at engaging community stakeholders on biosecurity issues has identified an number of shortcomings. These include a lack of:

  • Coordination of biosecurity engagement activities
  • Effective collaboration and networking between government, industry and community groups
  • Trust between stakeholders at all levels, from government down to individuals
  • Inclusion of various stakeholders in engagement processes and practices
  • Identification of target groups
  • Two-way communication
  • Relevant messages and activities aligned with community needs, including appropriate communication of scientific knowledge to non-experts
  • Communication on pests and diseases that are difficult to identify
  • Face-to-face communication between biosecurity agencies and communities
  • Monitoring, feedback and evaluation of programs.

Whilst the review also identified many of the successful aspects of current programs, it highlighted that the current emphasis on top down communication is less effective in generating lasting change than collaborative or participatory approaches.

There is also a need to identify target groups and develop biosecurity messages tailored to these groups. This is an important point considering the diversification of Australia’s agricultural production systems, both in a production and cultural sense. This is also significant when the increasing number of urban and peri-urban producers who physically move or change their farming practices every few years, and tend not to be represented by peak bodies, are considered.

Itinerant backpackers and travellers who follow the National Harvest Trail from Victoria to Queensland, are also an important target group. This group can potentially transport pests between production areas and therefore must be engaged in Australia’s plant biosecurity system.

(h) International market access

Market access issues have become increasingly important over the last ten years, as many developing countries join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). All WTO countries are required to manage their imports under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement). In many cases, this has lead to Australia’s trading partners introducing or upgrading quarantine requirements, which has in turn necessitated greater regulatory control and posed a threat to existing agricultural markets. As the demand for scientific data to support trade grows, it is placing increasing strain on Australia’s ability to gain and maintain market access.

To continue to profit from the opportunities that exist offshore, Australia must not only demonstrate to international trading partners that it can export produce free of pests, but also that many of the economically significant pests that adversely affect agriculture elsewhere are not present in Australia. Ongoing work is required to ensure that markets for Australian produce are maintained and developed, in an increasingly competitive global trading environment.

(i) Uncoordinated plant biosecurity policy

While agricultural pests do not recognise state borders, their management is generally undertaken at the state and territory level. It is recognised that state based control programs are tailored to meet specific regional requirements and risk profiles.

However, when state legislation is not harmonised, significant inefficiencies, unnecessary procedures and costs, and delays in product movement across borders can develop.

For many Australian producers, the domestic market is just as important as the export market. Given Australia’s geographic diversity, many states and territories have different domestic regulations in place to protect their producers from pests not present in their region. For example, cold treatment is widely recognised internationally as a risk management measure for a number of insect pests of horticulture. Industries have completed cold treatment trials at increased temperatures for different commodities, to provide some flexibility in shipping times and temperatures and the Australian Government has actively pursued acceptance of these elevated temperatures with international trading partners. States and territories however, have sometimes been slow to adopt and endorse these elevated treatment temperatures. This in turn has the potential to impact on international market access negotiations as trading partners may question why they should accept conditions not agreed to across Australia.

Ensuring domestic regulations are in place to maintain area freedom improves market access for producers, at both domestic and international levels. These domestic arrangements need to be consistent with the WTO and are part of a tiered approach to managing pests.

Independent evaluation systems applied by all state and territory governments under their own legislation accommodate state sovereign rights. These can undermine the national approach and lead to inconsistent applications of Australia’s ALOP, at least for short periods, with these variations being highlighted by our trading partners. They may also impose additional costs to industry seeking to move commodities between states and territories and have triggered calls from industry for increased harmonisation of interstate regulation.