Everyday plant health heroes

John McDonald

National Biosecurity Manager, Greenlife Industry Australia

No day is ever the same with plant biosecurity, by its very biological nature, it’s an ever evolving and dynamic field.

How did you choose your job? Or did it choose you?

A bit of both, plant health has been an interest of mine for many years, originally studying Plant Protection at University of Queensland, and it has been a natural fit with my subsequent positions. Early exposure to major plant pest incursions (Spiraling whitefly, RIFA and Citrus canker) affecting nursery production in Queensland demonstrated the significant impact a response has on small business and the need for industry-based support. It also clarified the opportunities for improved systems growers can employ, at a cropping level, to significantly mitigate plant health risks through the integration of normal plant protection procedures into broader biosecurity preparedness.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I have more than 30 years’ experience in production horticulture including nursery and mango production, sugar cane research and state based nursery production industry development. I started in industry development with the Queensland nursery industry in late 1996 through to the end of 2015. During that time (2006-2015) I also managed the national portfolios of biosecurity and minor use permits. From 2016 I have been the National Biosecurity Manager with Greenlife Industry Australia allowing a more focused effort on plant protection and biosecurity along the entire continuum.

What does plant health mean to you?

Plant health is a robust sustainable industry protected from the threats posed by exotic plant pests and diseases allowing our growers to thrive in our domestic and international markets. It is also protecting our way of life as plants, in all their varieties, touch us across every human endeavor from the food we eat and the homes we live into the greening of our natural and built environments. Healthy plants contribute towards improving our overall health and wellbeing and are likely to be a major component in mitigating the effects of climate change. Plant health is an essential service!

What are your three greatest achievements in this role?

Firstly, representing industry in emergency plant pest incursion responses ensuring their needs are heard and met as quickly as possible, for the least cost/impact, while striving to eradicate the pest. Secondly, effectively working with stakeholders to improve our national biosecurity system, both operationally and equitably, ensuringnone of our businesses are worse off for doing the right thing. Thirdly, achieving co-regulatory recognition for an industry-based plant protection and biosecurity program (BioSecure HACCP) and the legal approval from all Australian states for certified growers to issue biosecurity certificates and manage their intra and interstate consignments through self-certification.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I currently manage the National Nursery Industry Biosecurity Program which includes on-farm biosecurity, industry biosecurity preparedness and awareness plus the minor use pesticide program. I manage a team of 5 staff across Australia working with growers to implement plant protection and biosecurity systems at a cropping level and our ongoing negotiations for interstate market access.

We are an industry within most horticulture supply chains including fruit, vegetable, landscape, ornamental and forestry nursery stock, therefore we are exposed to most plant pest incursion in Australia. Therefore, on a daily basis I’m addressing something related to at least one of the 30 or so average pest incursions we see each year. I could be responding to Consultative Committee issues, seeking minor use permits for insecticides or improving our plant protection and biosecurity procedures to assist our growers or working with stakeholders in RD&E. No day is ever the same with plant biosecurity, by its very biological nature, it’s an ever evolving and dynamic field.

What advice would you give anybody wanting to get into the industry?

Plant biosecurity is an incredibly interesting and challenging area at the best of times however with a system under external pressures, the like never seen before in Australia, due to our internationally connected economy (trade, tourism, travel, etc.) driving increasingly more ships, planes, goods and people into Australia, all a biosecurity risk. People must be grounded and practical when assessing information and be able to accommodate, rapidly, a changing situation as a so called ‘known’ can become an ‘unknown’ very quickly, adaptability is critical. It is easy to get caught up in the ‘rush’ and in the ‘detail’ losing sight of the human impact pest incursions, and their aftermath, have on growers and communities which can be more damaging than the pest. Industry is a major stakeholder and must be equitably valued along the biosecurity continuum.

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