Responding to Australia’s Biosecurity in the Face of Climate Change

18 July 2017 Geoffrey Craggs. JP, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Australia repealed its outdated quarantine laws in 2015 to enact the wide-ranging Biodiversity Act to protect the environment from exotic pests and diseases.
  • Climate change will increase temperatures and rainfall and the frequency of severe weather events such as cyclones and monsoons, which will result in heightened risk and incidence of disease borne by mosquitoes.
  • Industry involvement in Australia’s biosecurity is expanding to include extension services providing scientific research, modelling and technical advice.
  • In responding to climate change Australian biosecurity management systems need to combine the efforts of governments partnering with private industry, business and the wider community in mounting surveillance and monitoring operations.


Climate change is recognised as a major threat to agricultural systems. Australia can expect increases in temperatures, higher rainfall averages and more frequent cyclones and droughts in the next few decades. The increasing temperatures will affect agriculture and could lead to pest growth, survival and dispersal. The warming climate could also see pest species intensifying, resulting in extensive losses of natural plant communities. Many of these effects are not understood. In addition to pests and diseases currently present, it is highly likely new threats will emerge from imported products and migrating animals. By engaging government, private and community sectors, Australia will be able to identify future biosecurity threats and be ready to mount an appropriate response.


Until 2014, Australian Federal law relating to quarantine and biosecurity was contained within the Quarantine Act of 1908. Applying this complex and outdated legislation was very-much based on a process of isolating, segregating and, possibly, disinfecting goods at the national border, before entry was permitted. In 1908, the only way people and goods could arrive in Australia was by ship. These outdated laws also made prosecutions difficult and cumbersome because continuous and extensive amendment had caused them to become overly complex and inconsistent with modern legal practice.  As a consequence of technological advancements, including air travel, it became a priority that new legislation was needed that espoused a pro-active approach to regulation. For these reasons, Australia’s new Biosecurity Act (2015) (The Act) is wide-ranging and encompasses protection of the economy, environment and human health from negative impacts associated with entry, establishment or spread of exotic pests and diseases. Of significant change from the former legislation, applying the new law requires adopting a risk-based approach to biosecurity management that is intelligence-led and considers all available evidence before a determination is made in respect to allowing entry into Australia.

Geographically, the jurisdiction of the Act includes the Australian territory, coastal seas and airspace (up to 12 nautical miles from the coast) and includes Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Norfolk Island. Act administration rests with the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. In northern Australia, however, because of its isolation, extensive coastline and sparse population, the Act is implemented by the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy (NAQS). The NAQS area of responsibility extends from the vicinity of Broome, around the northern coast to Cairns and includes the islands of the Torres Strait. This is an extensive area of un-protected coast that is highly vulnerable to access by vessels and aircraft; in the Torres Strait, for instance, the proximity of the islands provides for relatively easy passage from neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

Enacting the new legislation is a critically important step to understanding, targeting and responding to biosecurity risks to Australia because of a warming climate.

NAQS-zone-map1Figure 1: NAQS area of responsibility. Source: NAQS

Global Threats and Responses to Climate Change

Although it is widely acknowledged that global temperatures are increasing, the specific effects and associated risks to Australian agriculture and society are little studied. From a biosecurity standpoint, due to a warming climate and associated environmental changes, there is potential for new diseases and pathogens to enter Australia, and their effects and the associated consequences are less understood.


In the United Kingdom, native plant communities, woodlands and landscapes are increasingly suffering from human-introduced pathogens through an expansion in international travel from trade, commerce and tourism. Harmful pathogens can be transported in, and transferred to, plants from contaminated clothing, hair, skin and personal items, infected plant material, equipment as well as by insect and animal movement and by wind. In Australia, for instance, native species such as bottle brush, tea tree and eucalypts, could be infected from non-native pathogens. In 2010, Myrtle rust (a fungus endemic to Latin-America) was encountered in NSW and this necessitated an emergency response against encroachment into areas of natural bushland. Myrtle rust disease can cause deformed leaves, heavy defoliation of branches, reduced fertility, dieback, stunted growth and eventually plant death. Although its mode of entry into Australia in 2010 is unknown, it is highly likely rust spores were carried in personal clothing or luggage. The hazard from highly mobile fungal spores and disease pathogens is where consideration needs to be to heightening biosecurity awareness, with international travellers’ accessing Australia to participate in activities like ‘bush tucker’ dining and camping experiences and in the highly lucrative wine and food tourism industry.

Agriculture is a significant contributor to the Australian economy. With environmental change, however, its future is not assured. Human activity such as land clearing for crop production which promotes the dispersal of fungal disease is a significant treat. This has the potential to create opportunities for species to establish new and permanent places in natural and agricultural ecosystems.


Current threats to Australia’s aquatic ecosystems include pollution, over-fishing and competition from introduced and exotic species. With warming temperatures, biosecurity risks may immerge to both ocean and fresh-water environments. Disease from new fish species may infect native species, as the former migrate to our waters seeking more favourable marine habitats.

Globally, there are efforts to develop new and adaptable plant species to enhance food security. Some countries, including Australia, are undertaking research and development on new aquatic strains as a source of food protein. This research includes developing non-native, freshwater species. Premature release into local ecosystems presents multiple risks to native species. New species may compete for limited food and habitat resources and they may also introduce undetected pathogens.

Vector-borne Diseases

The risk of vector-borne diseases (particularly mosquito) arriving in Australia because of climatic change is likely to increase. Factors that will influence the risk will be an increase in people travelling internationally and potentially importing insects and a human population expansion in northern Australia. It is also likely that higher rates of domestic collection and storage of water in both country and urban areas could provide habitat for mosquitoes. In drought conditions, it may become necessary for household investment in modern, sealable rainwater tanks and distribution systems that lead to the prevention of mosquito access. In turn, an increasingly high demand will be placed on goods and services that are currently provided by only a small number of businesses.

There is potential for rising temperatures in the Asia-Pacific region to increase the risk of vector-borne diseases such as dengue, yellow fever and malaria, by reducing the virus incubation period and increasing the seasonal period when disease transmission is possible. The subsequent effect will be an increase in both the vector feeding rates and the risk of virus transmission by mosquitoes. In some scenarios, however, risks may decrease. Scientific research and data mapping will be necessary to determine the degree of risk and mitigation measures from vector-borne diseases in a changing environment.

brazil_teachers_tiretracks1Figure 2: GLOBE Observer community involvement in mosquito mapping. Source: NASA

Preparing for the Future

Maintaining vigilance will be key to ensuring Australia’s biosecurity in the future. Those systems, supported by well-resourced and functioning surveillance programs, and effective public health intervention capabilities, are essential to counter threats from a range of disease vectors. The biosecurity surveillance systems need to be engineered and structured to easily recognise and determine threats. They need to be able to monitor and assesses future risk trends, and must be engineered to adapt and respond to a changing threat environment.

Community Engagement and Involvement

Strategies to strengthen biosecurity measures in Australia, as a response to climate change, must include communities from both an engagement approach, through information and communication, and one that includes opportunities for practical involvement. The Biosecurity Top Watch initiative is one example of a community engagement strategy that currently operates in Australia’s northern regions, and serves to collaborate with external stakeholders, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as State and Territory agencies, in support of biosecurity surveillance. Success in the Top Watch strategy could see implementation on an Australia-wide basis, constituting a strong community response by enabling all Australians to actively contribute to addressing biosecurity threats.

Gaining considerable community involvement in biosecurity is a NASA-supported program managed by the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment organisation. It is an illustration of practicable community inclusion in understanding and measuring the effects of climate change. In this instance, digital technology and community volunteers including students are used to locate mosquito breeding sites for later elimination. The Mosquito Habitat Monitor operates as an “app” through a user’s smartphone and enables members of the public to map the mosquito breeding sites. It identifies the insect species. This data is uploaded to a satellite for further analysis that will assist to determine where disease may emerge in the future as well as presenting options to remove the threat.

In Western Australia, opportunity exists to use modern technology in combination with people’s desire to share, acquire knowledge and to have practical involvement in biosecurity surveillance. The MyPestGuide  smart phone app was developed by the WA Department of Agriculture and Food and it enables the general public to participate in ‘citizen science’ activities by collecting and submitting to appropriate authorities, information to help build visibility of known and potential pest threats, thereby assisting the development of a biosecurity response. This and similar programmes that enable practical public involvement will become increasingly important to future governments when seeking to gain support and communicating policy changes that will be necessary in a response to climate change.

Private Industry Involvement

Private industry involvement in maintaining Australia’s biosecurity is deepening. As reported by Plant Health Australia, plant biosecurity services, such as research and development, are provided by industry and private organisations and their involvement is rapidly increasing. The Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, based in Canberra, is a prime example of an emerging and collaborative approach to private industry and community, supported by governments, working in partnership to safeguard Australia’s biosecurity. Similar services and programmes now, and in the future, will be fundamental to facilitating the uptake of new measures in biosecurity that result from research and design by primary producers. In addition to research capabilities, private industry also performs a major and expanding function of providing extension services that incorporate biosecurity measures across the plant production chain. For example, private industries are increasingly pro-active in providing education and training in managing on-farm pest risks and raising awareness of biosecurity, which are key to ensuring producers and all participants in the food-chain understand the emerging threats because of global warming.


As global temperatures rise, the risks to the Australia’s biosecurity and our natural environment are consequently increasing. Though policies and processes currently in place are sufficient to meet operational needs, robust strategies to be able to respond to future and unknown threats must be developed and these must include governments and private industry and allow community involvement in a practical capacity.


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