Statement from Secretary and Director of Biosafety Andrew Metcalfe, to the Senate for Rural and Regional Affairs and Transportation

Statement by Secretary and Director of Biosecurity Andrew Metcalfe AO, to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee for its inquiry into the adequacy of biosecurity measures and preparedness for Australia’s response, particularly in this concerning foot-and-mouth disease and varroa.

Good morning, Mr. President and senators. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to make an opening statement. I am joined today by a series of senior officers from my department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Border Force to provide evidence to your hearing, in addition to the informal briefing provided to you last week. We will also provide a detailed written submission upon your request.

National Biosafety Strategy

Yesterday Minister Watt launched Australia’s new National Biosecurity Strategy (2022-2032), building on the Commonwealth Biosecurity Strategy 2030 launched last year. The National Strategy was developed over the past year by my department, in collaboration with all jurisdictions and key industry sectors, guided by a reference group. I have copies available here today.

I am delighted that the strategy was endorsed by all Commonwealth, State and Territory Agriculture Ministers at their recent meeting. This is a first for Australia to have a national strategy, and reflects an increased awareness of the need for all parts of the biosafety system to work together.

The strategy is our roadmap for the Australian biosecurity system over the next 10 years. It focuses on growing and changing biosecurity threats that are closer and more threatening than ever. It makes clear that our biosecurity system must be continually strengthened, so that we can collectively better address challenges as they emerge as a connected, resilient and shared responsibility.

Biosecurity in Australia

The first incursion of an exotic pest or disease in modern times came with the First Fleet. Prickly pears were imported as hosts of scale insects used to produce the distinctive red dye used in the uniforms of British soldiers at the time. Subsequently, other varieties were introduced as hedges and fodder, and quickly spread through the dry inland climate west of the Great Divide, eventually rendering 40,000 km2 of agricultural land unproductive.

My grandparents were forced to abandon their farm in South Queensland in 1929 due to prickly pear infestation – just before the widespread introduction of Cactoblastis cactorum, a moth from South America, whose larvae eat prickly pears. He eventually succeeded in eradicating most of the prickly pear infestation in Australia. This case is often cited as an example of best practice in biological pest control and is an excellent example of evidence-based science. Travelers along the Warrego Highway will notice that the Cactoblastis moth is celebrated by a Memorial Hall at Boonarga, near Chinchilla, west of Toowoomba.

Commonwealth powers

Commonwealth powers over quarantine and biosecurity derive from the Australian Constitution through Section 51, Part 9. The Quarantine Act 1908 has been superseded by the current Biosecurity Act 2015. enter Australia in order to manage biosecurity risk, while also having the authority to assess, manage and identify ashore a pest or disease incursion. The Commonwealth Biosecurity Program operates alongside State and Territory National Controls – between the Commonwealth and the States, Australia has a world-class biosecurity system.

Pursuant to Section 540 of the Act, I am Australia’s Director of Biosafety, given that I am the Agriculture Secretary.

Our world-class biosecurity system has saved Australia from many pests and diseases and we have recently strengthened measures in various areas. The system is highly mature and draws on over a century of scientific and other expert advice to manage risk through biosecurity controls, to maintain Australia’s Appropriate Level of Protection (ALOP) , aimed at reducing biosecurity risks, to a very low level, but not to zero.

The Department’s submission to this inquiry will provide further details, but I note that our modern biosecurity system has been developed following a series of reviews by many eminent Australians, including the 1996 Nairn Report, the 2008 (and 2012) Beale Review, the 2011 Matthews Report on Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Preparedness, the 2017 Craik Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosafety Review and the 2007 Royal Commission on the equine flu.

The Biosafety Act 2015 created the Inspector General for Biosafety (IGB), with the power to review the performance of duties or exercise of powers by biosafety officers (s567(1)) in under the Biosafety Act. This includes the collection of information and the obligation to provide evidence giving powers. As you know, a new IGB, Dr Lloyd Clump, has recently taken up his post, replacing Mr Rob Delane who has served with distinction for several years.

Foot-and-mouth disease and varroa

Mr. Chairman and senators, foot and mouth disease and varroa mites have been areas of interest to biosafety authorities and industry associations for many years. Around 70 countries are known to have foot-and-mouth disease, with Indonesia being the most recently infected country, after 30 years of freedom from the disease.

Australian biosecurity controls are in place to prevent the introduction and subsequent exposure of Australian animals to foot and mouth disease and have done so successfully for 150 years since the last major outbreak in 1872 in Werribee, Victoria. AUSVETPLAN contains the nationally agreed approach for responding to emergency animal disease incidents in Australia, shared across the Commonwealth, all jurisdictions and with Animal Health Australia.

The experience of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in the UK (the last in 2007) which caused crises in UK agriculture to tourism, has informed new measures to strengthen our preparedness and preparedness. These measures have been further strengthened in recent months as foot-and-mouth disease is once again present in Indonesia, as well as, of course, lumpy skin disease (LSD).

The response to the recent incursion of the Varroa mite in New South Wales is based on multi-year planning with the Commonwealth, all jurisdictions, Plant Health Australia and the beekeeping industry. The National Bee Pest Monitoring Program acts as an early warning system to detect new incursions of exotic pest bees and pest bees by monitoring locations considered the most likely entry points throughout the Australia.

Continued investment in the biosecurity system is guided by experts in my department and partnerships with States and Territories, CSIRO, Australian Center for Disease Preparedness, Center of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (based at the University of Melbourne) and international bodies such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

Conclusion

Finally, I can assure the committee and the community at large that we are not complacent. We are never complacent. We fully understand the consequences of these pests and diseases. We have mobilized all available resources, our networks within industry and government, as well as international partners, to keep Australia free of Foot and Mouth Disease and LSD.

We are open to new ideas and appreciate the attention of this Committee. We recruit the best biosecurity minds in Australia and conduct deep engagement with industry leaders. We are managing the impacts of COVID on our workforce and have moved key management personnel to bolster resources at the border – at airports, ports and mail centers.

We will be providing a lot of evidence today regarding foot and mouth disease, LSD and varroa so I won’t elaborate further.

My colleagues and I are happy to answer all your questions. Thanks.

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