PRIME Minister Tony Abbott scored all the headlines this week by promising to shirtfront Russian president Vladimir Putin during bilateral talks at the G20 in Brisbane next month.
But news of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s ongoing battle against exotic pests and diseases threatening the nation’s multibillion dollar farming industry hardly rated a mention.
Last week, Mr Joyce visited biosecurity facilities in northern Australia to assess operations in the nation’s frontline defence against potentially deadly and financially crippling incursions like foot and mouth disease (FMD), screw fly, papaya fruit fly and rabies.
The Coalition’s agricultural election policy included $20 million to establish an emergency rapid response team for fighting biosecurity incursions.
Squad flies into action on CGMMV
Ironically, when Mr Joyce was visiting the Torres Strait last week to inspect the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy (NAQS), the biosecurity flying squad was sent into action for the first time since being announced as an election initiative.
Mr Joyce said he was contacted by NT Primary Industries Minister, Willem Westra van Holthe, about responding to a disease attacking NT melon growing operations. He said it was unknown how the Cucumber Green Mottle Mosaic Virus (CGMMV) entered the country and found its way into local melon crops, but it’s suspected to have been transported via seeds.
Mr Joyce said four properties have been hit by the incursion that now threatens the NT’s $50 million melon industry.
However, he said it was vitally important for every other State the soil pathogen disease is contained and doesn’t spread any further.
Mr Joyce green-lighted the biosecurity flying squad to ensure on-the-ground expertise, including biologists, plant virologists, emergency response planning specialists and analytical staff worked in the NT government’s response team.
The experts will help identify and quarantine properties affected by the virus, prepare an emergency containment plan under the national Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed and trace the origin of the virus.
CGMMV can infect a range of cucurbits including cucumbers, melons, watermelons, bitter gourds, bottle gourds and zucchinis. Mr Joyce said the team of experts would assess the situation and provide a good insight into how the pathogen spreads and inform other stakeholders.
“Obviously all the other melon growers are very interested in how the disease spreads because they don’t want it spreading to them because it just wrecks the crop,” he said.
A billion-dollar battle
“Biosecurity is also about people keeping an eye out themselves and remaining vigilant and saying, ‘that looks unusual, what’s that disease?’
“It’s an ongoing battle and as I always say to people, if a person brings drugs or firearms into the country that’s bad and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or maybe hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
“But biosecurity costs tens of billions if we get it wrong - $52 billion for FMD over 10 years.”
As a sample of the biosecurity task confronting Mr Joyce and the government, the NAQS covers about 10,000 kilometres of coastline from Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in Queensland.
His two-day tour also included visiting Department biosecurity operations on Thursday Island and Cape York on the very northern tip of the Australian mainland, to view fruit fly traps in Pajinka.
He also journeyed to Bamaga to see the Seisa sentinel cattle herds that help detect exotic animal pests and diseases to help protect the nation’s $16 billion-a-year red meat sector.
As well as pest and plant diseases, Mr Joyce said the northern biosecurity measures also played a role in screening for Ebola virus.
“It’s extremely important that we understand the threats that lie to our north, like screw fly and FMD.
“If we don’t have biosecurity we don’t have a market.
“Everyone who reads your papers clearly understands if FMD gets going that’s game over – we can just about fold up the Agriculture Department - but we don’t want that to happen.
“So how do we stop it? Be ever vigilant.
“One of the reasons I’m becoming more focused is because some of those problems are getting closer – rabies and FMD – and we’ve got to continue to mount the case of how important this is.
“If the pest does not live in Australia we don’t want it here, and we’ll do everything within our power to keep it out.”
Reviewing the Act
Mr Joyce said his northern venture also allowed him to prepare for impending legislative changes, with a comprehensive redesign of the Biosecurity Act on the table.
“The Biosecurity Act has been sitting with us since Methuselah was a young child,” he said.
“It’s an incredibly complicated piece of legislation that we have to completely update for 2014. In the legislative framework, we’re rewriting the whole Act so in essence it takes into account all of the requirements we have ... bringing it into the modern world to deal with modern problems – the problems of 1908 are not the problems now.”
Mr Joyce noted the close proximity of Boigu Island in northern Australia to Papua New Guinea, and the associated potential biosecurity risks.
“As the Australian flag flutters in the breeze, you can see PNG across the water and you can watch the boats as the people get in them, and come across to trade - 35,000 movements of people per year,” he said.
“That’s why we need the Department of Agriculture officials up there in their maroon polo shirts checking when they come in and monitoring them.
”It’s not like looking for drugs and firearms; they know the people so it’s more of a thorough but informal approach, working with them a bit, not against them.”
One aspect of the northern trip Mr Joyce believed will help inform the Biosecurity Act revision was how the Torres Strait Island Treaty works and “how we become a realist ... if there’s an incursion”.
He said he would ensure expertise remained on the ground to deal with any incursions that could harm Australian farming or agricultural industries.