[ASC-media] Media release: biosecurity skills shortage

JCA Media jca.media at starclass.com.au
Tue Sep 12 01:16:29 CEST 2006

Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management 

Media Release 06/07

September 12, 2006


A critical shortage of scientific skills in the identification of insects and plants could confront Australia with serious biosecurity risks - and potential loss of export markets.

The warning comes from three of the nation's most eminent biologists involved in the control of introduced pests and weeds.

"The taxonomists and entomologists who kept Australia safe during the last 20-30 years and supported our highly successful biocontrol programs are retiring, and we simply haven't been training young ones to replace them," says Dr Rachel McFadyen, Chief Executive Officer of the Weeds CRC.

"You cannot just go out and recruit one of these specialists.  They have to be familiar with Australian plant and insect species, environmental conditions and the invasive species."

Dr McFadyen said that the acute shortage of skilled taxonomists, entomologists and botanists was due to a failure by successive Federal and State Governments to recruit and train more over several decades - despite repeated warnings.

"Worldwide, only governments employ these specialists - and Australia has been taking a very short term view by cutting back on them.  In the 1980s there were two or three times as many working here as we have today."

Dr McFadyen added that no Australian university now provided specialist entomological training because of the market signal sent by governments that there were no longer many jobs for them.

Dr Jim Cullen, former Chief of CSIRO Entomology, said one area likely to be affected by the skills shortage was biosecurity and quarantine.

"You really need your own experts to give you specialist advice quickly when a problem arises. The less expertise available, the greater the risk of incorrect or delayed identification and therefore of a pest, disease or weed invasion taking hold - and the greater the risk of loss of markets for agricultural products through misinformation."

Dr Max Whitten, a Visitor to the Weeds CRC and also a former Chief of CSIRO Entomology, said Australia was now in a position where it simply did not know what threats it was facing, because it no longer had enough skilled experts to look out for them.

"We are losing the capacity to realise how serious the situation is," he said.

The International Congress of Entomology in Brisbane in 2004 had raised the issue of the dearth of skills with the Federal Government, but nothing appeared to have been done about it.

Dr Whitten said the answer lay in a major injection of funds for the Australian Biological Resources Study to create a virtual institute of taxonomists and biologists to study insects, soil biota, fungi and plants.

"Australia needs to know what is living in this continent. We need to know what it does, how we can conserve it, and how we can make use of it."

He added that most of Australia's forest soils were probably created by a group of moths, which also helped control bushfires by devouring leaf litter.  "Lose those moths and you could have a bushfire situation like they have in California every year," he warned.  "They are an example of the things we need to know more about in order to live safely and sustainably in Australia."
Dr McFadyen said a recent study had shown that around $10 billion in national economic benefits had been generated from just 14 biocontrol programs over the past 103 years. 

"Without the experts who develop biocontrol programs for the new weeds and pests which threaten our agriculture and landscape, those are the sorts of losses we could be looking at," she cautioned.

 "And good taxonomists are an absolutely essential part of this effort."

More information:
Dr Jim Cullen, (02) 6246 4080 bh - available 12-15 Sept
Prof. Max Whitten, 075 494 3175 - available 12-13 Sept
Peter Martin, Weeds CRC, 08 8303 6693, 0429 830 366
For images of weed specimens, or visually striking infestations of invasive plants, contact rita.reitano at adelaide.edu.au, tel. (08) 8303 6857

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