Date released
14 December 2022

By Dr Jo Luck, program director, Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative

Biosecurity is one of the crucial intersections for research collaborations between Australian agricultural researchers and ACIAR-supported activity in partner countries. This is an increasingly vital area for research and extension to control the spread of pests and diseases within and between countries. It is also often a determining factor in global food security and being able to trade farm goods.

woman standing in middle of fruit market
Dr Jo Luck, program director, Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative

Effective biosecurity is a focus for all cropping industries supported by Australia’s Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) and their research partners in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Plant Health Australia; CSIRO; state agencies; universities and the private sector. In 2018–19, for example, the plant RDCs alone invested $118 million in biosecurity research.

However, an intergovernmental review in 2017 found that it was often the same research being delivered by the same research providers for single industry outcomes. This lack of coordination was not only costly but also posed a risk to effective disease protection and response.

Collaborating across borders

In 2017, the Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative (PBRI) was established to remedy this. Through the PBRI, RDCs, government departments and research bodies come together to coordinate and co-invest in research, especially for large, complex projects. Since November 2020, this collaborative approach to biosecurity research has included ACIAR, through a Memorandum of Understanding.

The ACIAR–PBRI relationship is particularly significant and unique because it allows Australian researchers to work with ACIAR in a partner country where there is a disease that Australia does not yet have. It allows us to provide research support that extends knowledge and capabilities in that country and also gives Australian researchers experience that better prepares Australian industries for any pest or disease incursion.

The PBRI and ACIAR are exploring common areas of biosecurity research and extension in which to collaborate.

The PBRI has established a formal Biosecurity Extension Community. This community comprises about 110 members from all of our plant industries and the honey bee industry. We have quarterly online meetings at which we also have an expert speaker. Having ACIAR as a partner broadens the scope of the information we share through this community.

Shared information to better prepare

Our September 2022 Biosecurity Extension Community meeting provided a briefing on fruit-fly extension in Indonesia, an ACIAR-supported project, and we were able to complement this with the fruit-fly extension work through the National Fruit Fly Council in Australia. The gathering allowed participants to learn about different extension tools and initiatives and identify gaps that could be remedied through PBRI and ACIAR research support.

a fruit fly closeup on a green mango

So even though we work in different industries or different countries, we are able to identify and use common threads. We envisage scientists or biosecurity practitioners from a region coming to Australia and working in laboratories here, and vice versa, with Australian scientists gaining in-field experience of pests in a regional setting.

Establishing relationships and sharing biosecurity expertise is important, particularly given Australia’s reputation as a world leader in biosecurity research. We have a lot to offer in sharing the way we prepare for incursions. Investing in preparedness activities before a disease or pest arrives is a key strategy that highlights the importance of the ACIAR partnership.

PBRI members have a record of effective biosecurity responses. We saw an example of this with the collaboration across RDCs, CSIRO and ACIAR in response to the arrival of fall armyworm in Australia in 2020. Fall armyworm caterpillars can devastate subtropical crops like maize and sorghum. Australian researchers have been studying the pest’s genetic code to identify which pesticides and other practices are the most effective. This knowledge will help farmers in Africa and South-East Asia as well as Australia.

Connecting with students

The PBRI is also playing an important role in fostering professional development and capacity building among the next generation of biosecurity researchers. We recently formed a plant health network for students whose studies include biosecurity, created by the PBRI-supported Ritman Scholars. We promoted the network on social media and received 210 responses from all over the world.

The network will meet each quarter to provide a community for students to connect, collaborate and share research updates and a forum for professional development and career pathway discussion.

The students have created a Slack channel to connect and have global conversations about plant biosecurity research. This has been a fantastic initiative, driven by the students, and shows we can be confident about the expertise coming through for the future and that Australia and our partner countries will continue to have the biosecurity research and capabilities so crucial to our food security.