Thursday, February 29, 2024

Biosecurity – a complex but worthwhile process

By Clive Larkman

Biosecurity refers to all levels of plant and animal imports. There is a federal department within the Department of Agriculture called Biosecurity Australia and they set the rules for all imports. This includes surprising issues like the importation of cars from countries where they are often parked on grassed areas before shipping. They are examined for grass seed and insects that may have snuck on board. Another area is inspection of wooden packing for wood borers. Some of our worst pests came here as hitchhikers on other freight.

New Zealand and Australia are two of the strictest countries for plant importation. Both are island nations with unusual flora and fauna. Plant movement across Europe is easier than around Australia. Some of the biggest plant factories (the growers are so big and efficient they are more like a factory than a nursery) are in Holland and they ship to all corners of Europe, USA and parts of Asia. The USA has strict rules but doesn’t enforce them like Australia does, and they have large volumes of plant material entering the country every year.

In Australia the population is relatively small, and the strict import regulations mean that most of our plants are produced entirely within the country. There are three basic stages in plant production; propagation, growing, and retailing, and in Australia many nurseries will do the propagation and the growing. In Europe and the USA the process has split even more. There are many nurseries that still perform their own propagation but many are importing cuttings from Central America, East Africa and Israel.

Indeed, there is a major industry in Israel for cutting production with nurseries all over Europe and the USA importing all their unrooted cutting material from there. There is also a huge industry in Costa Rica supplying many Dutch nurseries with thousands of cuttings every week. Luckily for the Australian industry the rules make this process un-economical. There are two exceptions – one is seed production, with a majority of our commercial quantities of seed being imported, the other is a process called micro-propagation or tissue culture. 

Micro-propagation involves putting tiny cuttings in an agar mix in small glass and plastic jars then putting these in small rooms with artificial lighting, controlled humidity and temperature. The tiny plants grow and multiply in these jars and then put on roots. This is a rapid and high-health process that is used to bulk up new plants and to maintain starter stock. These plants are regularly imported in their thousands as they only need to be inspected and are then released to the importer.

Importing plants is a complex process that involves several major steps. The first step is to check on the government website called BICON ( to see if the desired plant or seed is permitted. If a plant species is not on the list, then it is not allowed. The list goes down to species level and is not concerned about the cultivar. If the plant is a hybrid and the parents are permitted then the hybrid is allowed. Every plant on the list has been assessed for its potential to become a pest weed to try and prevent garden and farm escapes from hurting our local environments.

Each plant is also checked for its potential to carry diseases of economic concern. Some plants, e.g., bananas, are a major industry and there are diseases in other countries that would either cripple our industry or prevent our farmers from exporting their produce. These plants may be completely banned or have to go through very stringent testing before they are allowed into Australia.

If a plant is permitted, there will be a set of conditions attached that will depend on the risks and the stage the plant is when being imported. The majority of seed can be imported without a permit but will still need a Phytosanitary Certificate and inspection by the department on arrival. Some common seeds (e.g., tomato) are restricted imports requiring complex virus testing before they are posted. Just because it is a common plant here does not mean that it can be imported.

A Phytosanitary Certificate (a Phyto) is a certificate issued by the Agricultural Department in all countries. They are done in an international convention to which all the world’s departments have agreed. The local department officers in the exporting country inspect the plants and check for certain diseases and pests, make sure the plants/seeds are correctly named, and often state where they have been produced.

If the plants are anything but seed, then an import permit is required. This is done through the website and will detail the treatments required prior to export, and post-entry.  Again, this is risk based and some of the treatments will likely kill the plants. If the plants are permitted, and in tissue culture they usually only need to be inspected and if no disease is visible, they are released to the importing nursery. Some plants may still need to go into a PEQ (Post Entry Quarantine) facility. Medium risk plants will go to a private facility (only about 20 in Australia) but high risk have to go to the government-run facility in Victoria. This facility is very expensive, usually requires a minimum of 12 months in quarantine and has a limit of six plants per variety.

If the import is a live plant, it must be less than 1.5 m tall and must be bare-rooted. There must be absolutely no soil on the roots, and no pests on the roots or foliage and no sign of disease. The plants are inspected on arrival in Australia. If they are cleared then they need to be fumigated with methyl bromide at around 30oC for 2 to 3 hours. Some plants are killed by this treatment and instead are dipped in a strong mix of insecticides.

Post-treatment they must go to a PEQ with the same issue of medium and high-risk facilities. The medium risk plants must be grown in PEQ for a minimum of three months. They must be inspected once they have significant new growth and then again at three months. If they are pest and disease free, they will be released. If anything (pest or disease) is found they will be tested and maybe destroyed or held for a further period. The PEQ has to have been booked prior to the permit being issued.

It is a complex process with survival rates that maybe 90% or 5%. It is not easy to do and the process can be very frustrating and expensive. Foreign exporters do not like dealing with Australia as the risk of a 100% loss is high, especially for first time importers. Those that do send will often use a courier company like DHL or UPS who will accept the shipment, but the importers are then not allowed to have the plants once they arrive in Australia – another way to lose the entire shipment.

The process is complex, expensive, frustrating and risky but it has kept a lot of major pests and diseases out of the country. Those growers that do persevere are able to introduce many new varieties to our markets.

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