COVID-19 brings home stark biosecurity message

RD&E News | May 2020
15 May 2020
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Biosecurity expert Craig Elliott says the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently given the Australian wine sector a taste of what could happen in the event of a major insect pest or plant disease outbreak.

‘The last few months have been a steep learning curve for many people’, Craig said. ‘We’ve seen the struggle to get ahead of COVID-19 in terms of getting resources and people in the right place at the right time; and developing a nationally consistent plan that manages the virus and its impact.’

Craig said the pandemic had provided important food for thought in terms of a biosecurity event impacting the agricultural sector.

‘It has hammered home the message that “preparedness” is key. In the early days of an emergency the community needs reassurance that there is a well-thought out plan to stop the spread and help those affected. This can be difficult in those early days when there can be many uncertainties and gaps in knowledge, and leaders have to be upfront about this while also explaining what is being done.’

Craig said the impact of a large biosecurity incident shouldn’t be underestimated, as even a small localised event could be devastating for those affected – ‘taking both an emotional and financial toll.’

He said growers could take some simple steps to better prepare for a biosecurity threat.

‘The principle of “Arrive Clean, Leave Clean” for everything and everyone who comes onto and leaves a property is something that has to become a habit and is the foundation of biosecurity – but there are a number of other areas that people need to look at to make a difference.’

Craig’s tips to prepare your business for a biosecurity incident include:

  • Don’t rely on someone else to stop new pests and diseases affecting your business. ‘Think of biosecurity as a multi-layered system – from checks and restrictions at national and state borders to efforts at the district and property level. This can even be extended to having controls within your property. The more layers of protection, the more likely a threat will be detected and stopped before it wipes out your industry or your business.’
  • Make it your business to ensure that people, plants, vehicles, equipment, storage containers and other supplies don’t introduce a new pest or disease. ‘You see some properties with the ‘biosecurity signs’ up on gates but we need to do more than this and back it up by checking and cleaning what is coming onto properties to remove any biosecurity risk.’
  • Only use suppliers that make biosecurity a core part of their business and aren’t sending you an unexpected surprise in the form of pests or diseases.
  • Regularly monitor for unusual insects or signs of disease. It can be as simple as a daily walk through the vines looking for these signs of infection or infestation.
  • Quarantine new equipment and supplies separate from your production areas in a place where they can be checked regularly and any pests or diseases caught before they spread.  

Craig said another key was to undertake recovery planning before it was needed.

‘If you lost next year’s harvest, how would you cope? Having a financial plan as well as contingency plans for your workforce, suppliers and customers before you actually need it can take a lot of stress out of an emergency and means you’re not playing catch-up as it rages around you.’

Craig said while a lot of biosecurity advice could be perceived as ‘doom and gloom’, there were some positive developments in the field with work in the Xylella Preparedness Program identifying resistant grapevine varieties that should be available outside of the USA in about five years’ time as well as local work to improve the ability to quickly diagnose Xylella  and better understand the local insect vectors that could spread Xylella.

Craig said while all of this was strengthening our biosecurity system, the take home message was clear: ‘It’s important not to simply rely on others to be ready and able to fight off these threats. Every person who works in the sector must share the load to protect the sector.’

Craig has been contracted by Wine Australia to lead a project, co-funded with Hort Innovation, to improve preparedness levels in Australia for Xylella plant bacteria.


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