Shake-up would put environmental threats on equal footing

Invasive rats and mice have been responsible for the extinction of five bird species on Lord Howe Island. Eradicating the rodents would help save remaining birds like the endemic Lord Howe Island White-eye. Photo: Eric de Leeuw – Flickr CC licence 2.0

Is Australia finally putting protection of its incredible natural heritage from pests and diseases on a par with agricultural biosecurity? Photo: Lord Howe Island white-eye | Eric de Leeuw | Flickr | CC licence 2.0

An independent review of how Australia protects itself from dangerous new invasive species has finally recognised the fact that we don’t pay enough attention to environmental pests and diseases.

The five-year review of Australia’s national biosecurity arrangements (the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity) could lead to a major shake-up. It called for environmental agencies at the state and federal level to play a ‘far stronger and direct role’ in most aspects of the system.

It pointed out that ‘national environmental pest and disease risks are yet to be systematically identified, prioritised and planned for’.

The draft report proposed six recommendations that would elevate national environmental biosecurity concerns and lead to greater parity with agricultural and public health biosecurity.

The reforms would be a game-changer for the environment, properly establishing the environment’s place in Australia’s biosecurity system.

We strongly endorse five of the six environmental recommendations, including:

  •  The creation of a Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer.
  • A new Environmental Biosecurity Committee of the national biosecurity committee that includes non-government experts.
  • An updated biosecurity agreement that includes a program to address the shortfall in work on priority environmental pests and diseases and a reference to ecologically sustainable development as well as Australia’s international obligations under the biological diversity convention.

The sixth recommendation was that the existing agricultural bodies, Animal Health Australia and Plant Health Australia, should undertake the work needed to better prepare Australia for environmental incursions. This is unrealistic. It would require agreement from the agricultural industry partners in those bodies. The environment would understandably be a low priority for them and community representatives would probably not be meaningfully involved in the work. It fails to acknowledge the differences between environmental and agricultural biosecurity.

There is no doubt the draft report contributed to the increased activity we are already seeing on environmental biosecurity in Australia.

The big question is whether the proposed structural reforms relating to the environment will be implemented. For this to occur they must overcome a major hurdle. The decision of state and federal governments on whether to adopt the review’s recommendations will predominately be made by agricultural ministers and agricultural departments.

The final review report will be publicly released at the meeting of state and federal agricultural ministers in late July.


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