One Biosecurity – integrating the environment

Our Work  |  Biosecurity

Agriculture and the natural environment have stark differences that warrant distinctive approaches to biosecurity. Environmental biosecurity cannot just be bolted on to industry biosecurity.

These are points the Invasive Species Council is making as a response to the ‘One Biosecurity’ concept signalling a national intent to adopt a seamless cross-sectoral, cross-jurisdictional approach to invasive species threats to Australia’s environment, industry and public health.

The One Biosecurity integration adopted by all Australian governments (following the 2008 Beale review) is essential in a federal system, with biosecurity functions spread across three levels of government under numerous laws and policies, and with invasive threats having a multitude of pathways and drivers.

Many invasive species have both economic and environmental impacts, and sometimes social impacts as well, warranting a joint approach. However, Australia’s biosecurity system was established primarily to protect agriculture and is managed primarily by agricultural agencies.

The dominant culture and concepts in biosecurity have been born from agriculture.

What are some of the differences that underpin distinctive requirements of environmental biosecurity?

The values to be protected – biodiversity and environmental health

Conservation requires a biosecurity focus on hundreds of thousands of species, from microbes to macropods, and their interactions that constitute ecosystems and ecosystem processes in terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems.

In contrast, industry biosecurity is mostly focused on protecting individual species that are of economic value and number no more than a few dozen (except for the nursery and aquarium industries, which use a wider although largely replaceable range of species).

The values at stake for industry are quantifiable in economic terms and are sometimes replaceable (by new breeds, species or enterprises). The values at stake in conservation are not replaceable – each species and ecosystem is important – and cannot be quantified in economic terms. This means they are often undervalued when biosecurity priorities are decided.

Invasive species threats – scale and complexity

Because of the diversity of taxa and ecological communities to protect, there are far more invasive species that are of threat to environmental values, far too many to compile into a target list.

Both environmental and industry threats mostly derive from global and domestic commerce, but a greater proportion of environmental threats are deliberate imports because of their economic or social value. Environmental threats are typically far more complex, involving direct and indirect impacts arising from biotic and abiotic interactions.

For example, the threat to industry of myrtle rust consists of direct impacts on particular cultivated species (native forestry is the exception) but in the environment it consists of impacts on susceptible species as well as dependent wildlife, ecosystems and ecosystem processes such as fire regimes.

The impacts of Asian honeybees on industry will be reduced crop pollination services and honey production because of competition with European honeybees.

In the environment, Asian honeybees will compete with the pollinators of unknown numbers of plants with flow-on impacts on the unknown numbers of species relying on these plants.

State of knowledge

Much more is known about cultivated species and the invasive threats to them than about biodiversity and invasive threats.

The lack of knowledge about our native biota, particularly invertebrates and microbes, means that most invasive species impacts are not documented or monitored.

As Burgman and co-researchers (2009) say of fungi, ‘far less than about 10 per cent of species scientifically documented… Many … arrive each year. It may be many years before their effects are felt in Australian ecosystems. As a consequence, lists of potentially damaging invaders rarely make reference to fungi.’ Invasive earthworms can have dramatic impacts on soil properties and plant composition but scant interest has been paid to the more than 60 exotic species in Australia (Woodman et al. 2008).

The impacts of even high-profile species are poorly known. Development of the NSW threat abatement plan for bitou bush increased the number of known species at risk from six to 158 (Coutts-Smith & Downey 2006). Because of the vast pool of potential invasive species, including many about which little is known, it is not possible to develop advance guidelines for the eradication of incursions, except for a small subset of species.

Predictability and timeframes

While impacts on cultivated species can be predicted with reasonable accuracy, there are high levels of uncertainty about impacts in the natural environment due to complex interactions, long timeframes (millennia) and lack of knowledge.

Many impacts are facilitated by or synergistic with other threats, such as fragmentation and climate change. Invasive impacts in the natural environment may not be observed for decades due to lag effects, lack of monitoring or their insidious nature.

A cow killed by a new pathogen is much more easily detected than a dead bird in a forest. The combination of great uncertainties, long timeframes and limited management options warrants an especially precautionary and defensive approach in environmental biosecurity.

Management approaches and options

There are many more management options in relatively simple, delimited agricultural systems than there are in complex natural environments.

For example, in response to myrtle rust, plant industries can use fungicides, breed resistant varieties or use tolerant species, none of which are options in the natural environment.

Weeds cannot be controlled with broadacre mechanical or chemical control in many natural situations. Australia’s post-border biosecurity (managed by the states and territories) is more reactive rather than defensive, with the focus mostly on controlling or proscribing a small subset of listed invasive species that are causing proven harm.

A much more precautionary approach is warranted because of the limited options for control once a species is established.

Stakeholders and resources

There are commercial incentives for industry management of invasive species but environmental biosecurity relies on government and community investment for the public good.

Commercial incentives and greater government spending also mean that industry biosecurity is much better resourced than environmental biosecurity. When funding cuts occur, environmental biosecurity suffers more than industry biosecurity.

And when incursions of major economic pests occur, environmental biosecurity is often compromised by the diversion of staff to deal with agricultural incursions. When biosecurity agencies are dominated by agricultural experts there can be cultural barriers to environmental biosecurity.

A multitude of stakeholders, often with conflicting agendas, makes environmental biosecurity a much more socially and politically challenging policy area than industry biosecurity. Some of the most damaging environmental invaders are ignored because of economic or social reasons that are rarely subject to cost-benefit analysis – many aquarium fish, pasture grasses and garden plants for example.

Some implications of these differences for biosecurity laws, policies and programs

  • Biosecurity policy needs to be shaped by ecological principles and address biodiversity priorities, rather than be an add-on to agricultural biosecurity.
  • Because of ecological uncertainties and limited management options, applying the precautionary principle is vital.
  • Biosecurity policy units and advisory bodies need more ecologists and conservationists.
  • Biosecurity should be a high and joint priority for both environmental and agricultural agencies.
  • There needs to be more research into potential environmental invaders, the impacts of invasive species on biodiversity and environmental management.
  • The imbalance in resources for industry and environmental biosecurity needs to be redressed with increased public funds going to public good biosecurity priorities.
  • There is need for an environmentally meaningful way of quantifying and prioritising environmental threats and comparing threats across sectors.
  • Post-border biosecurity needs to be much more preventive and ecologically defensive.
  • Environmental biosecurity needs meaningful involvement of the community and environmental NGOs in policy development.

A new body for environmental biosecurity

In 2012 ISC developed ‘Keeping Nature Safe’, a proposal for the establishment of Environment Health Australia, a national body dedicated to environmental biosecurity.

Improved community engagement

In 2012 ISC prepared a paper, Engaging the Environmental Community Sector on Biosecurity, for the federal Biosecurity Advisory Council. The paper outlines the benefits and costs of community engagement in decision-making and policy-setting in environmental biosecurity, assesses the current state of engagement at the national level and makes six recommendations for engagement reform.


  • Burgman M, Walshe T, Godden L, Martin P. (2009). Designing regulation for conservation and biosecurity. Australasian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy 13: 93-112.
  • Coutts-Smith A, Downey P. (2006) The Impact of Weeds on Threatened Biodiversity in NSW, Technical series no.11, CRC for Australian Weed Management Systems, Adelaide
  • Woodman J, Baker G, Evans T, Colloff M, Andersen A. (2008) Soil biodiversity and ecology: emphasising earthworms, termites and ants as key macro-invertebrates, prepared for the National Land & Water Resources Audit, Canberra.