Rethinking Australia’s biosecurity
27 Sep 2018| and

Australia may no longer ride on the sheep’s back but our economic and cultural links with the land and agriculture remain strong. Arguably, Australia’s economy remains intrinsically linked to agricultural production. Deliberate or accidental biosecurity breaches, such as this month’s strawberry contamination scare, present very real economic threats to Australia with potential long-term impacts, ranging from harm to agricultural output to the potential manipulation of local or global agricultural markets.

ASPI’s latest research report, Weapons of Mass (economic) Disruption Rethinking biosecurity in Australia, highlights how biosecurity incidents may be a preferred means for generating significant disruption by state and non-state actors, as they provide avenues to inflict significant social and economic harm and affect the thinking of decision makers within Australian government.

Targeted biosecurity incidents may be used by both state and non-state actors to punish foes economically while others, like transnational organised crime groups, could use such incidents to shape market futures and derive profit from foreknowledge of disruptions to trade and or changes in commodity value.

The capability to acquire the materials, equipment, information and expertise to manufacture super-toxic substances was once the domain of national scientific programs. This paper highlights a concern for Australia, and the world, that it’s becoming easier to get precursor materials and access information on how to create toxic or even super-toxic substances that can be used as biological weapons.

There seems to be few disincentives for either state or non-state actors to not use pests, chemical contaminants, emerging bio-technologies or disease as a means for disrupting our economy. The acquisition and use of many biosecurity risk vectors don’t require sophisticated knowledge or capabilities to be weaponised, made more dangerous, transported or deployed.

There can be no doubt that efforts to prevent, respond to and recover from the incursion of pests and diseases that threaten the economy and environment are seen as critical by industry and federal and state governments. This ‘collective’ applies existing capabilities to ensure continued market access for our agricultural products and to protect animal and plant health (APH) more broadly.

Successive Australian governments have been successful in limiting the number of situations where accidental, unintentional or negligent biosecurity practices could have affected the agricultural industry. Governments have so far managed to stop disease or contamination on a scale that affects both domestic food safety and economically important export markets.

In June, the Turnbull government made further investments in Australia’s APH biosecurity defences to the tune of $137.8 million over five years. This new investment will reinforce current efforts with cutting edge biosecurity technologies, data analytics and intelligence. However, given the increased recognition of the potential for deliberate and malicious incidents illustrated by the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, ensuring sustained alignment of capabilities from both the APH biosecurity lens and the security-focused lens would generate benefits for national security.

An area of increased importance for Australia is convergence of the threat of the use of chemical or biological materials (as weapons) by criminals or terrorists and the natural occurrence of diseases in agricultural settings. Each risk vector is important in and of itself, but their combination creates a suite of wicked problems that logically require enhanced collaboration among agencies—private and public—along with new and different levels of attention to detail.

This research argues that for these reasons alone, the aligning responsibility for biosecurity outcomes in terms of customs and border security, agricultural systems viability as well as animal and plant health with broader considerations of national security capability, deserves further thought.

While we do not want to create undue concern or belittle the ongoing oversight and capabilities of our APH biosecurity systems the report provides examples of how a handful of infected frozen prawns, an infected cow or chemical contamination could trigger significant cascading economic impacts to entire industries. In many cases, infection or contamination need not be widespread, but simply detected, to have devastating impacts.

In responding to the uncertainties of evolving agricultural and potential biosecurity threats, whether sourced from state or non-state actors, we make the following recommendations:

  • The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Home Affairs (and affiliated agencies), along with the Department of Health, law enforcement agencies and relevant public and private sector agencies should undertake annual ‘red-teaming’ and ‘horizon-scanning’ exercises to ascertain whether the scope of biosecurity threats, developments in synthetic biology and emerging technologies and risk exposures (including vulnerabilities) are sufficiently understood and matched against current and future multi-agency capabilities;
  • The National Security Committee of Cabinet consider whether the current arrangements for responses to emergent biosecurity threats are sufficiently well coordinated to deal with deliberate attacks aimed at disrupting Australian biosecurity or food security;
  • The National Intelligence Committee examine whether current intelligence priorities and sense-making capabilities, especially with respect to biosecurity indicators, adequately address the threat of deliberate biosecurity attacks which aim to cause economic and societal disruption.