Biosecurity science and agriculture – a productive partnership

Biosecurity science and agriculture – a productive partnership

19 December, 2017










National Agriculture Day celebrated in November prompted much commentary, with the national media emphasising the importance of the sector to our national and regional economies and showcasing the people and communities for whom agriculture is a way of life.  

Indeed it’s fitting that, as we take stock at the end of the year and welcome a new Federal Agriculture Minister, we celebrate the significant and sustained role of agriculture in Australia; it is integral to our past, our present and our future. We have ‘tamed a landscape’, discovering ways to produce vast quantities of food and fiber in what can be a very challenging physical environment.   

And scientists have worked hand-in-glove with farmers - and the broader agriculture and  horticultural sectors - to work through some of the challenges our landscapes present: improving soil quality; mapping water resources and advising on their best use for optimum gain; developing and applying cutting edge technologies to overcome plant pests and diseases; generating weather predictions and climate projections to guide cropping regimes and exploring the complexities of co-managing agricultural and environmental landscapes.  

But where to from here?  

On biosecurity science, agriculture and global megatrends

New challenges and global megatrends will impact all aspects of our lives, including agriculture. These range from a changing digital environment, responding to the vast amounts of data, including genetic information, available to guide production; increased globalisation; population growth and greater food (especially protein) demands; protection of biodiversity and environmental assets while expanding agriculture; the vertical integration of many industries around the world, and a changing climate.

How well we navigate this future will depend to a very large extent on research; its timely development and application.

Biosecurity underpins our agricultural success in Australia and science provides the evidence-base for our biosecurity system.  Biosecurity and the science that supports it will be increasingly important in how agriculture responds to global megatrends.

The Plant Biosecurity CRC and the previous CRC for National Plant Biosecurity have been pivotal in delivering science across the entire biosecurity continuum; we’ve assessed the risk of pests and diseases entering the country; we’ve improved the efficiency and effectiveness of our surveillance and diagnostic tools; and we’ve helped to maintain our ‘clean’ status and grow our market access opportunities. Through our capacity building programs we’ve trained more than fifty PhDs and fifty postdoctoral researchers, providing the next generation of plant biosecurity specialists. And we’ve put the social science into biosecurity for the first time.

On research adoption

But great science, dutifully published and shared among peers, is only part of the job – ensuring this science is widely shared, understood and able to be applied by end-users is our real challenge.

Many areas of science struggle to achieve rapid and effective adoption of their findings and agriculture is no different.  Adoption, however, is an area in which CRCs can excel. 

The Plant Biosecurity CRC, through our partners, has invested significant time and effort to ensure our science has impact. This involves using multiple communication pathways, tools and techniques to ensure that our research is translated rapidly and effectively into the hands of our end-users. Of course it remains a challenge, including ensuring end-users understand the research and its implications, and are then in a position to actively take new knowledge and implement it.  

The CRC model is a wonderful way to provide collaboration between end-users and researchers. We have end-user advisory panels that advise on our whole-of-portfolio research, strongly linking the needs of industry with those undertaking the research. In addition, we have used the innovative approach of involving end-user advocates in every project we undertake, providing their advice along the way. Importantly, this means most of our researchers are strongly engaged with the industries, agencies or departments that are the end-users; a key strategy for translating science to adoption and an effective model in my view.  

Our annual Science Exchanges are one of many direct engagement activities we undertake. These events are of particular relevance to government staff working directly in biosecurity policy, programs and regulation. They also inform professionals from the broader environment, natural resource management and agriculture sectors, from industry and the public sector. The next six months of the CRC will see an intensifying of these activities in the form of State Science Exchanges being held around the country in February 2018, delivered with our state agency partners. These events will build to our final National Science Exchange (SX18) in May, where we will bring our scientists and end-users together to maximise delivery of six years of research, and of course celebrate the commitment and success of this CRC partnership.

The biosecurity issues of tomorrow offer many challenges – are we ready to meet them?

Australia’s biosecurity system is second to none, but we need to constantly improve it. This must involve incremental improvements in the science that protects our industries from the challenges associated with the above mentioned megatrends – the more rapid movement of people and goods across the globe and a tighter fiscal environment require that we undertake biosecurity surveillance and testing more effectively and efficiently.

It will also require quantum leaps in science and its delivery. For example, DNA testing of products and pests as they come into post-entry quarantine; developing smarter ways to manage the enormous amount of data associated with risk assessments, risk profiling and the costs associated with responding to that risk; moving to non-toxic chemical products or technologies that will assist in maintaining our market access; and ‘social biosecurity’ – improving engagement with the community on the issues of pests and diseases entering the country, incursion management, or the importance of ‘come clean-go clean’ on farms to contain disease.

Finally our biosecurity system requires an effective form of national research coordination across the public and private sectors. The CRC model has effectively delivered this coordination over the last thirteen years, facilitating strong partnerships across our 27 national and international partners; industry, RDCs, government, CSIRO and universities. If we are to meet our challenges, Australia needs to ensure there is a mechanism for maintaining this national leadership, with continuous improvements across the entire biosecurity continuum.

Agriculture continues to be an integral part of our culture and economy. We know Australian farmers will be asked to take an even greater role in feeding the world, with some suggesting we can nearly double production value from the current $60 billion to $100 billion by 2030. We will be providing high quality products in a resource constrained world and under a changing climate. Biosecurity science has a fundamental role to play in achieving that goal and ensuring Australia remains the envy of the world when it comes to providing clean and green produce. 

I look forward to the final six months of continued delivery to our government and industry partners, supporting Australian agriculture and the environment.  

I wish you all a happy and safe holiday and look forward to seeing many of you at our state science exchanges or our final National Science Exchange in May.


Dr Michael Robinson