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Industry outrage as Queensland’s protective ‘gate’ left open for two years

Queensland’s biosecurity agency is facing multiple external threats, but its biggest risk could be coming from longstanding internal problems.

Feb 27, 2020, updated Feb 27, 2020
Australian Pork Ltd CEO Margo Andrae remains cautiously optimistic that African swine fever will be stopped at Australian borders. Photo: (supplied APL)

Australian Pork Ltd CEO Margo Andrae remains cautiously optimistic that African swine fever will be stopped at Australian borders. Photo: (supplied APL)

A panel of industry experts charged with advising State Agriculture Minister Mark Furner on measures to help protect Queensland from foreign pests and diseases did not meet for two years, potentially leaving the state’s biosecurity shield exposed to more threats.

The Biosecurity Queensland Ministerial Advisory Council, comprising scientists, farm leaders and former senior agricultural department executives, met on January 29, two years after the previous group was dissolved by the Palaszczuk Government.

An industry source has told InQueensland the group’s protracted absence was due to shortfalls in meeting the Government’s gender equity quota.

It means that Biosecurity Queensland, the agency in charge of the state’s exotic pest and disease defence, had no official dialogue with industry during a period in which banana growers in north Queensland have been on alert to contain Panama TR4, detected on a fourth farm at Tully earlier this month, and prawn farmers in Moreton Bay had their operations severely disrupted from a white spot disease incursion where restrictions are still in place.

It also means the government was devoid of official industry consultation and accountability while it reviewed changes to the Biosecurity Act from October 2018 to June 2019.

The revelations come as a new far-flying pest with a voracious appetite for crops has taken hold in north Queensland, sending shockwaves through industry groups.

Furner has rebuffed the suggestion the two-year hiatus of the advisory committee was over gender equity concerns and has rejected claims biosecurity was weakened as a result, despite the former group recommending 4-6 meetings a year.

“The Palaszczuk Government stabilised Biosecurity Queensland after a 26 per cent cut to jobs under the previous LNP government,” he said.

“Biosecurity incursions are increasing, not helped by a 25 per cent cut to federal biosecurity staff under the Coalition Government.”

Opposition agriculture spokesman Tony Perret said the Government’s approach to biosecurity had been farcical bordering on negligent.

“It’s an absolute disgrace that Queensland’s biosecurity has not been a priority of the Palaszczuk Labor Government,” he said.

“For the key industry advisory group on biosecurity matters to have not met for almost two years shows the level of contempt Labor has for biosecurity and protecting local jobs.

“Farmers and their representatives were shut out while the Palaszczuk Labor Government ignored biosecurity issues.”

Central American moth takes off

Confidence in Biosecurity Queensland has taken another dent this week as federal and state officials scramble to contain a new emergency in the state’s far north, with the second confirmed detection of an exotic moth that has the potential to devastate crops across the country.

First detected on islands in the Torres Strait in the same week the biosecurity advisory group reconvened, the Fall armyworm has spread more than 1000km south to a Gulf region property, forcing Furner to concede that eradication of the native Central American pest is no longer possible.

With the ability to fly up to 500km, the pest feeds on hundreds of plant species, presenting a major challenge for growers of large-scale commodity crops such as wheat, sorghum, sugarcane, horticultural crops and cotton.

The short timeframe between initial detection and ministerial confirmation that the pest now has a permanent foothold in the country, has caught some industry leaders off-guard, prompting horticulture group Growcom chief executive David Thomson to raise questions about the performance of our biosecurity agency.

“What other exotic pests on the national list of priority are known to be on their way to Australia?” Thomson asked in his weekly column in Queensland Country Life newspaper.

“In particular, those likely to leap frog through the Torres Strait? And what can we do to better prepare for their arrival?

“Nobody likes admitting defeat. But as the saying goes, you learn the most when you lose. Now is not too soon to be asking these questions of our biosecurity system.”

While conceding the Fall armyworm was beyond eradicating, Furner is proud of Biosecurity Queensland’s track record that has eradicated Varroa mites threatening honey bees in 2016, fire ant incursions in Brisbane and incursions of the invasive Asian green mussel from Weipa.

“Biosecurity Queensland is also close to achieving proof of freedom of White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV) in Queensland waters,” Furner said.

“Queensland’s success in containing and eradicating these diseases and pests gives us great confidence we have appropriate controls in place.”

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner.

A furious Katter’s Australian Party leader Robbie Katter said the armyworm detection was demonstrating the complete opposite, questioning why Biosecurity Queensland was only now reacting to the pest’s arrival, with an emergency roundtable meeting planned in Brisbane today (February 27).

“Biosecurity Queensland’s failure to prepare for what is coming instead of reacting once it gets here is a clear symptom of the state’s weak biosecurity protections, which are a result of continued ignorance from policymakers in Brisbane,” he said.

“Biosecurity in Queensland is grossly under-funded, and we are seeing constant reductions in the number of staff who are actually on the ground identifying problems before and when they arrive.

“The KAP have warned for many years about an invasive pest disaster such as this one.”

Scathing reports

Thomson and Katter are not the first to air concerns about Biosecurity Queensland.

Three separate reports have been damning, slamming the organisation for a lack of strategic direction, inability to secure proper funding and staff resources, and an unwillingness to engage properly with industry stakeholders.

A 2015 assessment of Biosecurity Queensland’s capacity conducted exclusively for the Queensland Government, which included the organisation’s co-founder Ron Glanville on the panel, concluded the agency was besieged with cultural and organisational challenges hampering its ability to confront Queensland’s growing pest and disease threats.

InQueensland has viewed the 350-page report, in which the panel called for more investment and the establishment of a new biosecurity response unit and network in concert with a recommended skills audit and organisational redesign.

“The panel’s recommendations will take time to implement,” the report’s authors said.

“An action plan to improve the capability of the Queensland biosecurity system and a transformation plan for Biosecurity Queensland are both needed.”

Furner is convinced key recommendations from the Glanville report have been implemented, tabled in a five-year strategic plan published in 2018 and including a $10.8 million spend on the Biosecurity Capability Implementation Program (BCIP) in 2016 aimed at improving engagement with stakeholders.

“During 2016, over 30 peak agriculture and land management groups helped develop the strategy,” he said. “Our approach has been applauded by partners at biosecurity forums.”

Sweating on African swine fever 

The mobilisation around armyworm containment comes as the Queensland Government starts a new campaign to raise awareness of the heightened risk posed to Australia’s pork industry by African swine fever, now sitting on our northern doorstep in Indonesia.

Raging across the globe since 2007 when it first entered the European Union, African swine fever has spread across Eastern Europe, Russia, China and South-East Asia since 2018.

A highly contagious disease only dangerous to pigs, African swine fever is estimated to have killed a quarter of the world’s pig population since the latest global outbreak.

There is no treatment and no vaccine for African swine fever. Once it enters the food production chain it spreads fast, killing pigs with a 100 per cent mortality strike rate.

With our large coastline and exposure to near northern neighbours, Queensland is the frontline of Australia’s biosecurity defence, battling more pest and disease threats than any other state.

Based on international experience, halting the spread of the rampant African swine fever will be a major feat requiring military-like coordination between all levels of government and industry.

Feral pigs are considered a major gateway to African swine fever taking hold, a particular concern for Queensland with the majority of Australia’s estimated 25 million wild pigs roaming the northern half of the country.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced funding for a national feral pig coordinator last week, with Australian Pork Limited’s Dr Heather Channon due to start in the role next month.

Australian Pork Limited CEO Margo Andrae said it only took one feral pig to make contact with an infected animal or carcass on Australia’s northern islands for African swine fever to travel easily to the mainland and take hold.

“Once it’s here it will spread fast and kill every pig it comes into contact with,” she said.

“Even just having African swine fever confirmed in our feral pig population could see our pork export markets shut down overnight.”

Estimated damage bill massive

Andrae said modelling done last year by ACIL Consulting estimated the Australian economy would take a $2 billion hit if African swine fever entered the country.

Queensland is Australia’s second largest pork producing state, employing hundreds of people and reviving industry in towns like Kingaroy and contributing $240 million annually directly to the Queensland economy.

Andrae said she had confidence in biosecurity officials to keep swine fever at bay, although warned that operations could fray if the threat escalated.

“While we are in relative times of peace the states and federal departments are working well, sharing information and coordinating,” she said.

“What we don’t want happening is jurisdictions disappearing into silos should we get an outbreak.

“Piggeries have been on high alert, with lock down and additional biosecurity measures.

“The Australian Government has also committed an additional $66 million in biosecurity funding to assist the pork industry.

“This has included an increase in the number of sniffer dogs and x-ray machines to detect pork being brought into the country, plus more biosecurity staff for incoming passenger arrivals.

“Since the Government increased its border checks, they’ve seized considerable amounts of illegal pork products. In fact, many of these samples were contaminated with the virus and could potentially threaten our Australian industry.”

The Queensland Government’s new campaign launched this week is targeting members of the public to be more vigilant and not feed human food to pigs.

“The biggest threat is from the illegal importation of pork or pork products through incoming passenger movements and mail and these products being eaten by pigs,” Furner said.

“Prevention is the key, so we really need everybody to understand the risk and that’s why we’re running this education campaign.”

 

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