[ASC-media] Media release: $10bn biocontrol payoff

JCA Media jca.media at starclass.com.au
Mon Aug 14 13:25:46 CEST 2006

Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management 

Media Release 06/05

EMBARGO 4PM AEST, August 15, 2006


Biological control of weeds introduced into Australia has delivered a return of close to $10 billion, making it one of the most successful scientific programs in the nation's history.

In the 103 years since work began on finding a solution to the  huge infestation of prickly pear across Eastern Australia, the technique of using natural enemies of weeds to counter them has returned an average of $95.3 million a year, an economic impact assessment by the AEC Group finds.

The report was commissioned by the Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management (Weeds CRC) and launched in the Federal Parliament today (Tuesday Aug 15) by the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, the Hon Eric Abetz.

"This is a truly Australian success story," says Weeds CRC Chief Executive Officer Dr Rachel McFadyen. "Biocontrol is the use of insects or diseases which naturally and selectively attack the target weed, reducing the damage it does to Australian food production and the environment."

"We've known all along that biocontrol was an extremely low-cost and effective way of checking weeds over large areas - but this report is the first to document the returns on a century of patient scientific investment.

"Without biocontrol, it is fair to say that around a third of our continent would have been engulfed by weeds and wrecked either for food production or as native environment."

The study found that 14 successful biocontrol programs had yielded an average  return of $95.3m a year from an investment of $4.3m a year - a benefit-cost ratio of 23 to 1.

For every $1 invested in biocontrol there was a return of $17.40 to agriculture, $3.80 to the wider community and $1.90 to government, the AEC Group authors said.

"You won't find those sorts of returns on the stock market or in real estate," Dr McFadyen said.  "It is a clear illustration of the results that Australia can expect to obtain from maintaining its national scientific effort and skills." 

The report also illustrates an important aspect of science - for there to be huge successes there must also be numerous failures.  It studied 29 biological control programs, and found that the $10 billion return was delivered by just under half of them.

The successes included finding control solutions to weeds such as prickly pear, skeleton weed, rubber vine, Paterson's curse, salvinia and bridal creeper. 
The total cost of the unsuccessful biocontrol programs of $15 million over 103 years was eclipsed by the benefits resulting from the successes.

The study also highlighted the important of patience and persistence in finding answers to intractable weed problems: work on prickly pear continued for 35 years, on Patterson's curse and ragwort for three decades and on salvinia and rubber vine for 20 years.

"The long timelines needed to identify the right control agent, test it to make sure it is safe in the Australian environment and then understand how it works in the field mean that biocontrol is not a "quick fix"," Dr McFadyen says.

"But it can be very effective, and it avoids the extensive and very costly use of chemical sprays or mechanical weed removal which have environmental downsides."

Dr McFadyen says that since prickly pear was first overcome using the cactoblastis caterpillar in the early 1900s, biocontrol has been an Australian specialty, and has been used to help other nations round the world - including the clearing of water hyacinth weed from Africa's largest water body, Lake Victoria.

"Australian scientists have quite literally saved the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Asia, Africa and the Pacific by rescuing their farms or water systems from weeds using biocontrol. It is one of our great unsung contributions to humanity and has forged enduring friendships in our region.

"Today, when weeds continue to pose a $4 billion threat to our agriculture and an even greater one to our environment, we need to maintain the scientific impetus."

The Economic Impact Assessment of Australian Weed Biocontrol report concludes: "The overall weed biocontrol effort provided a strongly positive return on investment, with the benefits provided by the programs far outweighing the total costs incurred in weed biocontrol since the 1900s."

It added that biocontrol also delivered social and environmental benefits, but owing to lack of data, it was seldom possible to quantify these.

More information:
Dr Rachel McFadyen, CEO, Weeds CRC, 0409 263 817
Peter Martin, Weeds CRC, 0429 830 366

Images of weeds and their biocontrol agents are available from:
Rita Reitano, tel. (08) 8303 6857 or rita.reitano at adelaide.edu.au

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