Contact tracers will be on high alert to ensure they can catch any outbreak of COVID-19 when borders re-open, but another group has being keeping out unwanted infestations long before the pandemic.
- Pests hidden inside imported fruit and vegetables can cause great financial problems for farmers
- Some trade deals are reliant on a region’s pest-free status
- More than two million individual pieces of produce were inspected in 2020-21
And should biosecurity personnel officers miss anything, the consequences could be disastrous.
The agricultural worker shortage caused by international borders restrictions has caused fresh challenges for biosecurity staff.
Some farmers have abandoned crops because they could not find enough pickers, and Biosecurity Tasmania general manager Rae Burrows said staff shortages could provide the “perfect situation” for pests like the Queensland fruit fly “to explode in population”.
The agricultural labour shortage is one of many potential threats Biosecurity Tasmania is monitoring as the warmer months make it easier for pests to propagate.
And every year, the organisation uses these risk factors to help develop their “top 10” biosecurity hit list.
Biosecurity’s most (un)wanted
Ms Burrows said its biosecurity program and operational groups examine what is happening across Australia and the world to understand “what are our greater risks for this year”.
“For example, Victoria had avian influenza last year, they had khapra beetle, and they’ve also got Med fly and Q Fly in South Australia,” she said.
This information helps determine how Biosecurity Tasmania prioritises its resources, but sketching out a top 10 can only go so far.
“But at least you can look across the world and in particular the Australian mainland and look at what’s actually happening,” Ms Burrows said.
Pests on Biosecurity Tasmania’s radar range from Chilean needle grass, which can injure sheep and their wool, to the aphid-like insect phylloxera which chews through the roots of grapevines.
Acting principal biosecurity officer for the north-west Alex Matthews said if a pest penetrates Tasmania’s borders there can be “really serious implications” for international trade, economic activity, and agricultural communities.
One line of defence is a laborious procedure known as The 600 Count.
Inspection and detection
When a high-risk shipment of fresh food arrives at the border, 600 individual pieces of produce are inspected for any signs of pests or disease.
Mr Matthews said 600 was a large enough sample to ensure that if an infestation was lurking inside a shipment it would likely be detected.
In 2020-2021, more than two million individual pieces of fruit were inspected as part of the 600 Count protocol.
Janet Dunbabin is an inspector on the “front line” and said she looks for any sign of insects, unexpected blemishes, “soft parts or any usual bruising”.
“Whilst we do this regularly, we’d also encourage the general public, orchardists, and everybody else to keep an eye out as well,” she said.
Growers feeling ‘vulnerable’
Vegetable grower Marcus Brandsema knows all too how devastating a biosecurity breach can be.
During the 2018 fruit fly outbreak his farm got trapped inside a biosecurity exclusion zone and all produce had to be fumigated before it could leave the farm.
His family had just started growing eggplant, but the entire crop had to be ripped out because eggplants will start to decompose in just a few days after they are fumigated.
‘So that meant we couldn’t sell them anymore. We had to pull up stumps with our eggplant prematurely,” he said.
“It’s quite devastating.”
Mr Brandsema is happy Biosecurity Tasmania has “stepped up” their efforts since then but he nevertheless feels “vulnerable”.
“They’re doing quite a good job, but they too are at the whims of the general public,” he said.
A never-ending war
The 2019 Biosecurity Act introduced new legal obligations that require everyone to take reasonable and practical measures “to prevent, eliminate, or minimise biosecurity risks”.
Biosecurity Tasmania has also recruited 20 additional part-time inspectors to handle the increased risk during the warmer period of the time.
But despite these efforts, Mr Matthews is frank about the fact that Tasmania will “never be able to keep 100 per cent of everything out”.
Ms Burrows said “something else will come through”, but that’s why Biosecurity Tasmania had a detection apparatus and an “early warning system”.
“That’s really important. If something does come in, we have to catch it as quickly as possible so we have a chance to eradicate it,” she said.