THE Australian grain industry’s version of an emergency fire drill will be staged next year to identify potential flaws in the nation’s response to a major biosecurity incursion.
Australia is currently free of Karnal Bunt but an incursion of the destructive grain eating fungus, recognised for its dead fish smell, could eliminate access to lucrative grain export markets overnight.
Karnal Bunt is likely to be detected in post-harvest storages of wheat, durum and triticale - especially on-farm - closing major export markets worth billions of dollars.
Further crippling costs would also be incurred throughout the supply chain, with local industry required to prove to key export destinations like Indonesia or Japan that the biosecurity threat had been contained and eradicated through surveillance and diagnostic testing.
Plant Health Australia (PHA) risk management general manager Rod Turner said next year’s dress rehearsal on a Karnal Bunt outbreak would assess how different supply chain segments interacted, to manage the outbreak and assess any gaps in the response program.
Mr Turner said the drill would work along similar lines to a large-scale simulation exercise held in Melbourne last year, where about 60 industry and government representatives assessed the likely response to an incursion of the exotic plant pest False Codling Moth.
That operation was called Exercise Tortrix but the upcoming Karnal Bunt test run is yet to be given a formal title.
Regular biosecurity drills
The federal Agriculture Department held similar practice drills this year to assess how effectively Australia could implement a livestock standstill - required in the event of an outbreak of a serious animal disease like foot and mouth disease, which could cost the Australian economy an estimated $52 billion over 10 years.
PHA is also planning to run another mock emergency response drill next year on an incursion of huanglongbing (citrus greening disease) which is fatal for citrus plants and has recently decimated citrus industries in the United States .
Mr Turner said PHA assisted all Australian plant-based agriculture stakeholders through its custodianship of the national emergency response agreement, the Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed.
He said the emergency response drill for a Karnal Bunt outbreak would help strengthen Australia’s response capacity, as was the case with other test-runs, with the operation’s exact details still being finalised.
But he expects the involvement of State and federal agriculture departments, PHA, Grain Producers Australia, bulk grain handlers, flour millers, growers, feedlots and livestock feed suppliers and other supply chain stakeholders.
Planning the dress rehearsal
Mr Turner said any response to grain incursions would involve diagnostic testing to trace the original source of the outbreak and map where any tainted grain may have been delivered to, including potential livestock feed supplies.
“The practice drill is all about assessing our preparedness and readiness for a real incursion of Karnal Bunt,” he said.
“It’s a dress rehearsal to assess and test the basic ground rules to ensure everyone is prepared and nothing slips through the cracks in a real response.”
Discussions about the industry’s upcoming dress rehearsal for a Karnal Bunt incursion were held when members of the Grains Farm Biosecurity Program (GFBP) met in Canberra last week.
The GFBP was initiated in 2007 and is funded through Grain Producers Australia (GPA) and various government agencies operating with Plant Health Australia (PHA).
GPA Western Australia director Barry Large said the GFBP officers are funded by growers via a portion of the .99 per cent Grains Research and Development Corporation levy.
Mr Large said the program represented an invaluable biosecurity investment which helped strengthen and preserve the nation’s “clean and green” export reputation.
“Biosecurity isn’t a sexy subject but it’s like insurance,” he said.
“Everyone in the industry would certainly feel the difference, and pay for it, if these important protections weren’t in place.”
Mr Large said in an emergency biosecurity response, the role of GFBP officers would be to liaise with growers and provide information to other supply chain participants, utilising existing communication channels.
Those skills would also be utilised in any response to any other biosecurity risk like the Khapra beetle, which could also shut lucrative grain export markets overnight, he said.
Mr Large said the GFBP officers currently made direct connections with growers and farm groups through media, field days, workshops, signs and other methods, driving home key messages on biosecurity like the importance of crop surveillance and general biosecurity awareness.
One officer is situated in each of the five key graingrowing States – NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and WA.
Biosecurity at work
Mr Large said growers were also pleased to see the government and federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce taking biosecurity seriously and moving to increase protective measures.
That included an election policy commitment of $20 million to establish an emergency rapid response team for fighting biosecurity incursions, which was unveiled recently in response to a pathogen disease that started attacking NT melon growing operations.
The biosecurity flying squad was dispatched with experts like plant biologists to assess how the Cucumber Green Mottle Mosaic Virus (CGMMV) entered the country and found its way into local melon crops - which was suspected to have been transported via seeds - and contain the risk.
An outbreak of Karnal Bunt or another exotic pest of grains could arrive via sea container or dried goods brought in from overseas.
In 2007, an outbreak of Khapra beetle, which also damages stored grain, was detected in personal household effects that landed in Perth.
The pest arrived in Australia via a sea container exported from Scotland, but given that country is free of the disease it was thought to have originated in Africa.
Mr Large said the containment of the Khapra beetle outbreak seven years ago when a domestic residence was locked-down in an eastern Perth suburb, was “a practical example of biosecurity at work to protect the grain industry’s reputation and markets”.