Secret report warns fire ant failure will cost economy billions

A secret government report into Australia’s fire ant menace has warned the nation’s agricultural ministers that unless the eradication program is quickly scaled up the nation will suffer billions of dollars in damages to people, business and the environment.  

“Fire ants will be a massive hit to our economy, our environment, our healthcare system and our outdoor lifestyle if we do not act now,” Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox said today.

“Until now Australia’s fire ant eradication program has been compromised by underfunding, repeated reviews and lack of certainty.

“If agricultural ministers treated fire ants with the same importance as foot and mouth disease we would have wiped out these dangerous ant infestations by now.”

A special senate motion was needed to force the federal government into releasing the independent review of Australia’s $330 million fire eradication program.

“This secret government report shows eradication is still possible and in our nation’s interest but the time to act is rapidly diminishing,” Mr Cox said.

“We cannot afford to be idle – federal, state and territory governments must immediately commit to fully fund a 10-year eradication program.”

The report reveals that many areas treated for fire ants have been reinfested because of a lack of funds for ongoing treatment.

Fire ants are a pest accidentally introduced into Australia. They were first found in Brisbane in 2001. Since then incursions have been found or prevented in every Australian capital city.

Fire ants found in Gladstone, Port Botany and the Port of Brisbane have been eradicated. However, in south east Queensland fire ants have been found across about 450,000 hectares including most of greater Brisbane and areas to within 50km of the NSW border. They now threaten inland Queensland and northern New South Wales.

The report is to be considered by the next Agricultural Ministers’ Forum in May next year, a full year after it was completed.

“Many of our major trading partners including China and the US waited too long before mounting an eradication of their fire ant infestations,” Mr Cox said.

“Fire ants cost the US economy $7 billion every year and have caused 85 human deaths. It’s too late for the US to eradicate fire ants but we have a world leading eradication program – we just need the resources to finish the job.

“The Invasive Species Council calls on all state and federal governments to get behind the eradication program before it is too late.”

Note: The Senate supported a motion from Greens Senator Janet Rice last week to force the federal government to release the report it was hoping to keep secret.

For comment

  • Andrew Cox, 0438 588 040

Key facts from the report

  • If not eradicated, fire ants will become Australia’s worst pest, worse than the combined impacts from rabbits, cane toads, foxes, camels, wild dogs and feral cats, which cost Australia an estimated $964 million each year.
  • The total impact of fire ants to southeast Australia alone is estimated at up to $45 billion over the next 30 years.
  • All state and federal governments have spent a total of $329 million since 2001 eradicating fire ants from Australia.
  • If the eradication program had not been mounted from 2001, fire ants in Brisbane would now have spread south to Sydney and north to Mackay and Rockhampton.
  • If not eradicated, by 2030 fire ants will cost our healthcare system about 140,000 medical consultations and 3000 anaphylactic reactions each year and possible deaths.
  • There is a 95% probability that eradication will be achieved in 10 years, given a treatment, surveillance and program budget of $38 million each year.
  • There is ‘only a small window of opportunity left’ to eradicate red fire ants.
  • Recent funding shortfalls have meant fire ants have reinfested treated areas.
  • 12 more detection dogs and increased community engagement are needed.
  • Fire ants are a risk to ground-dwelling animals and will cause the extinction of some species.
  • Fire ant infestations in broad scale agricultural areas would result in a reduction in agricultural output of 10% for cropping, 20% for livestock and 40% for beef, immediately affecting Queensland’s Lockyer Valley and scenic rim farming communities where fire ants are already present in low numbers.

The report was prepared by an independent panel, chaired by Bill Magee.

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