Time to give the environment equal billing

Feral Herald |
One idea to increase funding for environmental biosecurity includes a $5 levy on air containers, $10 on shipping containers. Photo: Dirk Dallas | CC BY-NC 2.0
One idea to increase funding for environmental biosecurity includes a $5 levy on air containers, $10 on shipping containers. Photo: Dirk Dallas | CC BY-NC 2.0

Environmental biosecurity will be greatly strengthened in Australia if we can achieve the changes recommended by a major review of the nation’s biosecurity arrangements.

The final report of the independent review of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity has just been released. It was prepared by an independent panel of three headed by former National Farmers’ Federation head, Wendy Craik.

Addressing a major disparity

As we flagged last month when reviewing the draft report, the final report strongly emphasises the need for much more focus on protecting the natural environment from invasive species – to put it on an equal footing with agriculture and human health. More than any other review we’ve seen in our organisation’s 15-year history, it grapples with the disparities in biosecurity and offers some far-reaching solutions, including to funding shortfalls.

The review explains:

“One of the strongest areas of debate during the course of this review concerned the adequacy of the national system in addressing biosecurity risks impacting on biodiversity and the environment. Incursions of exotic organisms harmful to Australia’s environment and social amenity are a regular occurrence and have been the focus of recent emergency responses, but national environmental pest and disease risks are yet to be systematically identified, prioritised and planned for.

“Community and environmental biosecurity considerations should be comparable to human health and primary production, and national arrangements need to be explicitly developed to address environmental risks. Environment agencies must play a far stronger and direct role in development of national biosecurity policy and in response arrangements, particularly in those situations where the primary impact of a newly introduced pest is environmental or impacts heavily on social amenity.”

Governing for the environment

Four recommendations focus mainly on the environment, with proposals to improve governance and institutional arrangements. One of the strongest lessons we have learned from our reform work over the past ten years is that these factors are key to environmental biosecurity, for they determine the priority that is accorded to environmental risks.

With biosecurity at the federal level and in most state and territories administered by agricultural departments, the review found that “environment agencies and stakeholders must be more engaged in the formulation of national policy positions on biosecurity and provide agriculture agencies with the technical expertise on environmental risks”.

At the federal level the agriculture department has formal memoranda of understanding with the department of health and with customs and border protection services. No such arrangement exists with the environment department despite its clear need for input and formal role in aspects of biosecurity such as the import of live animal and plant imports, threat abatement planning, threatened species recovery and other obligations.

The review has called for formal arrangements at the federal and state level between the agricultural and environmental departments such as memoranda of understanding.

It also calls for a clear recognition of environmental biosecurity in the national intergovernmental biosecurity agreement, including by referring to the principle of ecologically sustainable development and Australia’s responsibilities under the international biodiversity convention, and the need to develop environment and community partnerships.

Institutions for the environment

Proposed institutional changes could drive progress. The review proposes a new role – that of a Chief Community and Environmental Biosecurity Officer – to lead “national environmental biosecurity investments and efforts”.

This senior officer would oversee planning for priority risks that could impact on the environment, chair a new stakeholder committee and liaise with the community. The review states that without the new senior leadership, the “more strategic and transparent approach to addressing national environmental biosecurity risks is unlikely to occur”.

There is debate over whether the position should be housed in the environmental or agricultural department. Resistance to the review panel’s (and our) preference for the position being with the department of environment is due in part to a chronic lack of resources within that department.

In a major shake-up that plugs a gap in the committee structures, a new Community and Environmental Biosecurity Committee is recommended made up of government and external environmental and community biosecurity experts. It would sit under the National Biosecurity Committee, alongside the existing industry-focused Plant Health and Animal Health committees, and support the new Chief Community and Environmental Biosecurity Officer.

Under the new arrangements, the environment department would take a stronger role in overseeing environmental biosecurity, including:

  1. Hosting the Chief Community and Environmental Biosecurity Officer.
  2. Taking responsibility for the environment and community research and development strategy.
  3. Servicing the Community and Environmental Biosecurity Committee.
  4. Hosting environmental biosecurity forums.

Resourcing the changes

Possibly the most important reform – fundamental to most of the recommendations – is to find new ways of funding environmental biosecurity and other under-resourced aspects of biosecurity.

While imports and tourism arrivals have grown, expenditure has generally declined within the agriculture departments at the federal level and in the larger states. Even with the four-year boost from the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, federal allocated funds have declined 10% over the past five years.

Regarding funding for environmental biosecurity, the review sums up the situation well:

“The national biosecurity system has, in large part, evolved around the agriculture and trade sectors, with funding mechanisms naturally developed along similar lines. Environmental biosecurity was achieved more as a by-product of those systems than as a core objective. But that has changed, with an increasing expectation that environmental biosecurity should be on an equal footing with animal and plant [industry] biosecurity. It follows that funding for environmental biosecurity needs to evolve too. The worst outcome would be for existing, limited biosecurity funding to be spread even more thinly by diverting funds away from the animal and plant sectors to the environment sector.”

The panel makes a strong case for better funding Australia’s biosecurity system. For example, the $340 million the department of agriculture spends on biosecurity avoids a $24 billion long-term economic cost. The panel proposes that recurrent funding from all Australian governments be maintained at current levels and that new funding for environmental biosecurity, national monitoring and surveillance activities, research and innovation and national communications and awareness activities be obtained by a $5 levy on air containers, $10 on shipping containers and non-containerised imports, and $5 on passenger arrivals.

States are encouraged to levy land managers with properties greater than 2 hectares.

Research coordination

The limited capacity and lack of a coordinated approach to biosecurity research and innovation was identified as another weakness. Research is currently funded from federal and state governments, research and development corporations and cooperative research centres. The panel argued that the environmental research and development strategy, currently unfunded and without a home, needs to be assigned a coordinator and driver – the federal environmental department.

A broader national set of research and development priorities needs to be developed and a $25 million National Biosecurity Innovation Program established to co-invest in national priorities. This should address among other things the limited funds available for environmental biosecurity research.

Other important measures

The review also recommended the completion of a national priority list of priority pests and diseases by 2020 that includes a specific list for the environment. The list must be developed with “system participants”.

The environmental list would be developed by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences. There is already agreement that it would avoid duplicating our joint efforts with Monash University to identify priority insect pests and pathways.

In an important recognition of the tensions between international trade agreements (such as the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures under the World Trade Agreement) and Australia’s environmental responsibilities, the panel suggested the federal government review the inconsistencies between the precautionary principle and world trade rules.

The formation of a new Industry and Community Committee that meets twice a year with the national biosecurity committee is proposed to provide a formal conduit for industry and community stakeholders.

A ten-year roadmap

The review is comprehensive and strategic. It has been described by the federal and state agriculture ministers as a “national roadmap” to strengthen the national biosecurity system over the next five to ten years.

For anybody wanting to understand Australia’s immense biosecurity challenges and how to address them, the review report is definitely worth a read.

More importantly, the review makes 42 recommendations. The National Biosecurity Committee has been asked to report back to the agriculture ministers before the end of 2017 with a response to the recommendations and to draft a new biosecurity agreement by mid 2018.

To spare Australia’s environment from new invasive species threats over the coming century, these reforms will be critical.

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