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Biosecurity effectively slows down pathogen arrivals, new research

Claudia Doman

1 June 2018: Stronger biosecurity measures can reduce the spread of invasive plant pathogens despite a rise in global trade and travel, according to a new international study led by University of Canberra researcher.

The study, published today in PLOS Biology, shows that although there’s been a steady increase of people and goods travelling around the world in the last century, strategic biosecurity measures have significantly slowed down the dissemination of pathogens and invasive species.

The world-first study, led by Centenary Professor Richard Duncan from the University’s Institute for Applied Ecology, focused on the long-term record of pathogen invasions in New Zealand looking at changes over time.

Professor Duncan said that several countries have made significant investments in biosecurity measures, including quarantine, inspection and surveillance, to try to curb the introduction of these pathogens, which have enormous economic and environmental impacts.

“Until now, it had been difficult to assess the effectiveness of these measures, especially for hard-to-detect species such as pathogens, but our study shows that biosecurity targeted at preventing pathogen arrivals works,” he said.

The research team found that between 1880 and 1980, the annual rate of pathogen arrival in New Zealand increased steadily in parallel with an exponential increase in import trade over the same period.

However, since 1980, the rate of new pathogen arrivals has declined, despite even greater levels of trade and travel.

“For agricultural crops, pathogen arrival rates started to deviate from import rates around the 1960’s, coinciding with greater biosecurity efforts in the agricultural sector,” Professor Duncan said.

“In contrast, pathogen incursions continued to increase in forestry and fruit trees, where there are more pathways for introductions and biosecurity measures haven’t been as strongly targeted at preventing such arrivals.”

Professor Duncan said the next step in the study is to identify the pathways by which pathogens arrive and use this data to inform quarantine measures.

“This study is particularly relevant to Australia due to the country’s reliance on agriculture, as well as potential impacts on its unique flora and fauna,” he said. “We have demonstrated that biosecurity works to slow pathogen arrivals, and is something worth investing in.”

Professor Duncan and colleagues from the University of Canberra worked with researchers from New Zealand’s Bio-Protection Research Centre and Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research and the University of Kansas, USA in this project.