Protecting Victoria’s crop and horticulture industries is all in a day’s work for Dr Rosa Crnov.
Did you know our state has an individual whose job is to protect our plants from exotic pests?
That person is Dr Rosa Crnov. A CSIRO-trained plant health researcher and regulator for the past two decades, Rosa was appointed last year as Victoria’s Chief Plant Health Officer.
An unusual title – but the role itself is nothing new. "We’ve had a Chief Plant Health officer in Victoria for a couple of decades,” Rosa explains. "The role exists in each Australian state and territory, and it’s common in the rest of the developed world, too."
There is a real need for such a position. In the past year alone, Rosa has been the state lead for emergency and priority responses to brown marmorated stink bugs in Clayton, varroa mite at the Port of Melbourne and kiwifruit vine disease near Shepparton, to name but a few.
Yet there’s much more to Rosa’s role than just keeping plants free of disease. In a broader context, there’s potentially millions of dollars at stake. "Our work manages food security risks in the agricultural sector," she says, "helping to position Victoria as a preferred global supplier of clean and safe food and contributing to growth and employment in rural and regional communities. Victoria is, after all, Australia’s largest exporter of food and fibre products."
So, which exotic pests are our biggest threat?
"There’s a national Top 40 Plant Threats List that we don’t want in this country, endorsed by the Plant Health Committee – Australia’s national committee for plant biosecurity decision-making," says Rosa, "And the number one threat is the fast-spreading Xylella fastidiosa, which is known to infect more than 350 plant species; there’s no easy cure once a plant is infected."
If it did enter the country, a Xylella fastidiosa outbreak could cost Australia’s wine industries up to $7.9 billion over 50 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), while crops such as cherries, citrus, nuts, olives and summer fruit could also be put at risk.
Other places around the world are already reeling from the effects of this deadly plant disease.
In Brazil, for instance, Xylella fastidiosa has infected about 200 million citrus trees. In California, it causes more than $100 million in annual losses to the grape industry. And in Italy’s Puglia region, around 10 million ancient olive trees are estimated to have been infected, meaning the trees no longer produce olives.
Also in the top 40 of exotic plants pests we want to keep out of our borders are exotic fruit flies (at risk are over 300 fruit and vegetable crops), Gypsy moth (at risk are more than 1000 plant species), giant African snail (at risk are 500 plant species), exotic bees and pests of bees (affecting honey and pollination-reliant food crops) and a wheat stem rust fungus called Ug99 (first identified in Uganda in 1999). "While Ug99 is not present in Australia, an outbreak here could cause crop failure in wheat, barley, oats and rye and would have a major economic impact on our wheat industry," warns Rosa.
"We’re trying to plan for as many of the top 40 as we can," she states, adding that gaining the cooperation of private enterprise and all government and other relevant plant bodies through the Emergency National Plant Pest Response Deed (EPPRD) has been crucial to achieving that.
Coming into effect in 2005, this deed is a legally binding agreement between Plant Health Australia, the Australian Government, all state and territory governments and national peak plant industry bodies. Covering eradication, cost sharing and potential grower reimbursement costs following an exotic pest outbreak, has, according to Rosa, led to faster, more effective responses to emergency plant pest incidents.
But vigilance is still needed. Biosecurity is a responsibility we all share and everyone, Rosa urges, needs to play their part to keep our borders free of exotic pests. You can do your bit by not bringing plants or seeds into Australia through the airport or mail and, if you're a grower, by reporting any suspect plant pests or symptoms in crops. "For growers, the best chance of stopping the spread and establishment of exotic pests is to report anything suspicious-looking to Agriculture Victoria."
The Exotic Plant Pest Hotline is 1800 084 881, with calls within Victoria diverted to Agriculture Victoria.
Alternatively, you can email photos of suspected pest and damage, along with your contact details and the pest's location to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more on the Agriculture Victoria website.