Albanese government unveils national biosecurity plan amid ‘multiple risks on multiple fronts’

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The Guardian

The agriculture minister, Murray Watt, will launch a new national biosecurity strategy on Tuesday, warning that climate change, Covid and online shopping have contributed to a biosecurity environment that is “more threatening than ever before”.

Watt, who will launch the plan in an address to the National Press Club, says it is the first ever federal plan of its kind and will involve authorities undertaking more regular national exercises to prepare for pest and disease outbreaks.

The strategy warns that Australia is dealing with “multiple risks, on multiple fronts, at the same time” and will require stronger partnerships across governments, more skilled workers, and a coordinated preparation and response plan.

“The management of Australia’s biosecurity system is becoming increasingly complex, creating new challenges,” Watt said in a statement.

“Strong and efficient biosecurity is even more important as we respond to emerging challenges including diseases on our doorstep including Foot and Mouth Disease, African Swine Fever, Lumpy Skin Disease and Xylella.”

Last week, Watt further strengthened Australia’s response to keep out foot and mouth disease, which affects cloven-hoofed animals, and lumpy skin disease, which affects cattle and water buffalo, amid outbreaks in Indonesia.

The agriculture department has listed the fast-spreading xylella bacterium as a top priority plant pest, saying the “devastating disease” affects 550 plant species, including agricultural crops like grapes and fruit trees from pears to stonefruit. In recent years xylella has ravaged olive trees in Italy.

A large foot and mouth outbreak could cause $80bn of economic damage to Australia, the document states, while a xylella outbreak could cost up to $11.8bn.

Senator Murray Watt, the agriculture minister. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The biosecurity strategy identifies several factors complicating the picture, including climate change creating new habitats in Australia’s south for parasites previously limited to the north.

“As climate change increasingly affects global plant and animal habitats, it will have flow-on impacts for biosecurity risks … and the effectiveness of our existing control measures,” the document says.

Changes to trade and travel patterns, including supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic, are also of biosecurity concern.

The document warns increased online shopping has “inadvertently opened new pathways for illegal plants and animals to reach Australia”.

In a foreword to the strategy, Watt wrote: “The risks we’re facing are closer and more threatening than ever before.” He says Australia’s biosecurity system “needs to be continually strengthened”.

Under the plan, the government will boost awareness and education campaigns, review state and federal responsibilities, enhance surveillance and early detection programs, and undertake regular preparedness exercises to test responses.

Watt noted the strategy had been in train for more than a year – since the previous Coalition government.

August 8, 2022 at 11:15PM Josh Butler

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