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$42m diagnostics initiative to bolster grains biosecurity

A new national biosecurity initiative will work to improve Australia’s ability to rapidly detect and accurately diagnose exotic pests and plant diseases.
Photo: GRDC

A ground-breaking $42.7 million national biosecurity initiative is set to transform the effectiveness and responsiveness of Australia’s grains biosecurity system.

The new five-year National Grains Diagnostic and Surveillance Initiative (NGDSI) will use state-of-the-art technology and processes to improve Australia’s ability to rapidly detect and accurately diagnose exotic pests and plant diseases.

This technology will expand identification out from centralised laboratories to also include the grain growing regions, focusing on the 54 exotic and endemic pests or diseases that represent the greatest risks to the Australian grains industry.

More than 20 new specialist research positions are being created across Australia to increase national capacity. Current surveillance techniques will also be modernised, including the use of global intelligence networks to forecast future pest and disease risks to the nation’s grains industry.

GRDC is leading the NGDSI in partnership with the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI), and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).

GRDC chair John Woods says the initiative is one of the most important investments GRDC will make on behalf of Australian grain growers and is the result of two years of collaborative work with partners.

“It has brought together the nation’s primary grain growing states in a united effort to reduce the very real risk that exotic pests and diseases pose to agriculture,” Mr Woods says.

Impacts of exotic threats

“Conservatively speaking, the potential cost to growers of an incursion in terms of crop damage, control costs and trade impact is estimated at $100 million annually.

“This is why GRDC has invested $20 million of growers’ money over the next five years, matched by state department investment, to transform Australia’s grains biosecurity system.”

Mr Woods says timeliness of detection and response can be the difference between cost-effective control of a pest or disease, or the devastation of an industry.

“We need to equip growers – and other key people – with the tools for fast, accurate diagnostics to enable timely management decisions that reduce the impact of these threats to the grains industry.”

Factors increasing the risk of incursions and cost of impacts include more frequent international trade and travel, increasing chemical resistance, a decrease in the number of technical specialists in Australia and increasing farm input costs.

We’re developing the next generation of researchers and expanding the diagnostic community that supports the grains industry.

Western Australian grower and GRDC board member Bob Nixon says his family has invested heavily in their farm business over many years to improve productivity and produce the best possible crops – as have many other growers, and the industry as a whole. “I see this biosecurity initiative as protecting that investment,” Mr Nixon says. “It also helps to protect our regional communities.”

“The risk of exotic incursions is rising, and climate change is also creating new risks, opening opportunities for new species we might not have considered before. Trade flow, especially containerised shipping movements, continue to grow. That’s why we – GRDC and growers – need to step up with this investment.”

Investing in capacity

GRDC manager for biosecurity Callum Fletcher says that developing both technologies and industry capacity through people is essential to the new initiative.

He highlights molecular approaches as providing the foundation for new technologies, using DNA data in both surveillance and detection.

“Some of these technologies will be available at regional hubs rather than single, centralised state laboratories,” Mr Fletcher says. “New tests will also allow for some near real-time diagnostics to be done on-farm, or at a nearby site.”

Faster, accurate diagnostics will enable timely management decisions and more responsive eradication or management plans to reduce the impact of threats to the grains industry.

Of the top 54 exotic and endemic pests or disease threats, fewer than 10 per cent currently have national diagnostic protocols, which means accurately identifying them could take weeks.

The new initiative will address this through new diagnostic technologies and, where appropriate, new national diagnostic protocols – specific pest and disease guidelines for accurate identification of priority threats.

Mr Fletcher says the investment in more than 20 new positions for specialist technicians, scientists and PhD students across the five states will significantly boost national capacity and expertise.

“We’re developing the next generation of researchers and expanding the diagnostic community that supports the grains industry. This includes new positions in regional grain growing hubs.

“The value of investing in our people will extend well beyond this specific project and will place Australia as a world leader in this field.”

International networks

At an international level, the initiative will tap into the most sophisticated technology available to forecast pre-border risks and predict the arrival and impact of exotic pests and diseases.

This includes the intelligence networks of the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Data from these networks will be used to develop pest and disease risk analyses for each of the grains high-priority plant pests, the national priority plant pests  and 10 emerging pest risks.

It also includes leveraging other initiatives such as the United Kingdom/Australia Earth Observation AgroClimate Program, which has a project looking at wheat blast in Bangladesh to determine the cross-border risk to Australia.

In officially launching the NGDSI at GRDC’s recent Perth Grains Research Update, John Woods highlighted the crucial combination of surveillance for faster detection, with modern diagnostic tools in the hands of those who can use them on location to quickly confirm incursions and take necessary action.

“This initiative will bring the nation’s diagnostic and related surveillance technology into the modern, digital era and accelerate our ability to respond for the benefit of Australian agriculture and the broader Australian community.”

More information: Callum Fletcher,

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