CSIRO warns of biosecurity ‘megashocks’ amid strained funding

It sounds like the plot of a Stephen King novel: a human disease pandemic, a nationwide outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the European honey bee wiped out and galloping, infectious salmon anaemia.

This apocalyptic vision of Australia’s future is outlined in a new CSIRO report, Australia’s Biosecurity Future: Preparing for future biological challenges, which details five biosecurity megatrends and 12 biosecurity megashocks that Australians are warned could be coming our way over the next three decades if we aren’t hyper vigilant about biosecurity.

The report outlines five megatrends and their potential impact on biosecurity. For example, the  ‘appetite for change’ megatrend talks about rising global food demand leading to agricultural intensification and expansion which may create ‘single point sensitivities’ in biosecurity.

Another megatrend, ‘on the move’ outlines the threat that increased international movements of people and goods around the world could bring to Australia’s population with the possible introduction of infectious diseases, including those resistant to antibiotics.

The report warns too that investment in biosecurity is not keeping pace with growing threats and that greater innovation and technology is needed in many areas including surveillance and monitoring, data and analytics and communication.

CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship Science Director Dr Gary Fitt said it was much better to pre-empt and avoid biosecurity issues than have to deal with the consequences.

“Dominating the news right now is the Ebola virus crisis, which is an obvious global health concern,” Dr Fitt said.

“Meanwhile farmers near Katherine, in the Northern Territory, are dealing with an outbreak of a new disease – Cucumber Green Mottle Mosaic Virus – and while not fatal to people like Ebola, this virus is devastating their crops which has severe financial impacts.”

The report covers 12 biosecurity megashocks in the categories of: plant industries, animal industries, the environment, marine and human health and says how megatrends contribute to these.

One of the most worrying, is the potential for a nationwide zootic disease epidemic (where diseases are transferred from animals to humans, like swine flu) influenced by a growing and spreading urban population, the intensification of agriculture, greater global travel, a loss of biodiversity and declining biosecurity resources which could limit the development of vaccines.

Australia’s plant industries could also come under threat from the incursion of an exotic wheat stem rust, hitting crops hard; varroa mites depleting European honey bees and affecting pollination and a new exotic fruit fly ruining fruit, vegetables and nuts.

But all is not lost, the report also puts forward a series of questions that need to be answered so that Australia can mitigate the looming threat to its people, plants, animals and marine life.

These include exploring ways of funding long-term biosecurity prevention, for example through a national levy or higher contributions from industry; engaging hobby farmers and amateur producers; using social media to communicate and discuss biosecurity concerns and using robotics to develop surveillance and improve responses to biosecurity threats.

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