Early detectors in cities may be key to protecting plant health

Early detectors in cities may be key to protecting plant health

Working in horticultural biosecurity got Dr Jessica Lye, Research Extension lead at sustainable agriculture research group cesar, thinking about how to stop exotic pests before they reach Australian farms.

Urban growth is linked to biosecurity risk. But the extent of this risk is not well understood and efforts to engage urban dwellers in biosecurity best practices are few.

Ninety percent of Australian residents live in urban areas, mostly on the eastern seaboard. For such a heavily urbanised society, a lack of research and extension leaves both city and rural communities open to the impacts of exotic pest incursions.

Jessica says pests are most likely to arrive in cities, where the majority of ports are located.

“There’s essentially a buffer zone between a port of entry and agricultural areas, where there could be more surveillance going on for exotic pests,” she says.

“Large cities like Melbourne are heavily reliant on fresh produce supplied from farms located just outside of city limits. I think not many people living in Melbourne understand just how reliant we are on the produce from these nearby farming communities.”

Indeed, 41% of Melbourne’s fresh produce is currently grown within 100 kilometres of the city and protection of peri-urban agribusinesses is essential to maintaining a strong food supply chain for its people.

Melbourne is the fastest growing city in Australia, and it is forecast to reach over 6 million people by 2035. At the current rate of growth, in 25 years Melbourne will become the most populated city in Australia.

 Dr Jessica Lye, recipient of the CSIRO Health and Biosecurity Award

Dr Jessica Lye, recipient of the CSIRO Health and Biosecurity Award

 Image: courtesy of Eva Do

Image: courtesy of Eva Do

 Image: courtesy of Eva Do

Image: courtesy of Eva Do

In cities undergoing a high rate of growth, local planning has a view to ensure resilience in the face of future mega shocks and chronic stressors such as increasing pollution, heatwaves, unstable energy supply, disintegration of social cohesion and pressures on natural assets.

Creating ‘urban forests’ is widely accepted as a strategy to boost resilience, as is the protection of green wedges and peri-urban agribusinesses.

The 2019 launch of the Urban Plant Health Network, coordinated by Agriculture Victoria, has made available an important educational platform for people living in cities who wish to learn more about maintaining a healthy garden and learning about exotic plant pest threats.

With the support of a Department of Agriculture Young Researcher Award, Jessica has been involved in the launch of the Urban Plant Health Network, which is seeking to get people involved in general surveillance, and a research project looking at why people living in cities are more or less likely to report an exotic plant pest, and testing methods to get city people thinking and talking about biosecurity.

A survey of over 500 respondents across Greater Melbourne and rural Victoria is helping Jessica identify the value drivers that are common to those who are likely to report suspect exotic pests in urban environments. A comparison between rural dwellers, or those who have moved from a city environment to a rural property, with respect to attitudes and key motivators is underway. Other lifestyle factors considered during this study have included strength of relationship to region, and levels of community involvement.

In addition, stakeholder mapping of common community led growing and biodiversity focused groups has revealed the richness of grassroots communication networks that may be harnessed during preparedness efforts or an incursion scenario. This study is highlighting key considerations for biosecurity agencies when developing stakeholder engagement plans that seek to include urban communities in pest surveillance efforts.

The research has recently received a further boost from the Australian Plant Biosecurity Science Foundation, enabling Jessica to partner with Redefining Agriculture and NSW Department of Primary Industries to combine the Young Researcher Award findings with an analysis of current and future land use in Greater Melbourne, assess risks linked to future land use, and perform a deeper investigation into the biosecurity potential of grass roots urban communication networks.

There are several steps to the research: a literature review of research into engagement of urban/peri-urban residents in biosecurity; a review of current urban biosecurity activities; stakeholder mapping; surveying urban and rural residents; and testing methods to engage city people in biosecurity.

The goal is to create a blueprint for the development of an urban early detector network.

It’s an idea that Jessica heard about when she went to the United States on a month-long study tour thanks to an AgriFutures Australia Rural Women’s Award.

“They’ve had this master gardener network running in each state for decades,” she says.

“Volunteers get training from agriculture departments and universities on how to garden and how to become horticulturalists. As a part of that they become early detectors.”

Ultimately, both rural and urban dwellers stand to benefit from early detection of exotic pests.

Those who live in cities stand to lose if green wedges, peri-urban agribusinesses and natural areas experience the impacts of exotic pest establishment.

The cities of the future, particularly Melbourne, will have a greater than ever need to preserve a fresh food supply of close proximity and protect natural green spaces.

Greater reliance on interstate and international produce will expose the city and its inhabitants to longer supply chains that are more vulnerable to shocks such as severe weather, currency fluctuations and political unrest.

The project will conclude in April 2020.

Author: Dr Jessica Lye

 Image: courtesy of Eva Do

Image: courtesy of Eva Do