By Alec Nicol
Political timidity and red tape are hampering Australia"s battle against the devastation being caused by invasive weeds, according to the CEO for the CRC for Australian Weed Management, Dr Rachel McFadyen (left).
Speaking at the 14th Australian Weeds Conference, Dr McFadyen said risk-averse policies adopted by politicians and senior bureaucrats were hindering the use of the most effective weapon - biological control agents.
Despite Australia"s lead for almost a century in the science of biological control, bureaucratic delays were now doubling the resources needed to introduce biological control agents.
This could blow out the time it takes to control widespread invasive weeds from 20 to 50 years, she said.
Dr McFadyen said Australia was a leader in the application of stringent testing requirements prior to the release of biological control agents, but this was not being reflected in current policies which had more than halved the number of agents now being released.
"During the 1980s and 1990s where test results were clear cut we could expect a release permit within three to six months," she said. "Now the time may stretch into years. On average between 1974 and 2000 we released five control agents a year. Since 2001 the number has dropped to two a year."
Dr McFadyen listed success stories stretching from the iconoclastic cactoblastis moth through to the more recent control agents for bridal creeper, giant mimosa and parthenium weed.
However, she also acknowledged problems did sometimes occur, but these required a more innovative response than extra red tape.
Citing recent publicity on the attack on the non-target fiddlewood tree by the agent introduced to control lantana, she floated the possibility of the agency responsible posting a bond against future compensation claims.
She said no legislation could protect against litigation where negligence was involved. Therefore it would be more cost-effective for an introducing agency to post a bond to cover compensation claims, than for everyone to suffer increasing and ineffective bureaucratic imposts.
Dr McFadyen said the current demand is for more pre-release evaluations of every possible impact, leading to calls to further limit the release of biological control agents.
Since most scientists agreed that a complete pre-release impact evaluation was not possible, Dr McFadyen said that the current argument (by government) was for the release and evaluation of only the "best" agent and if that proved to be an ineffective control then the "next best" agent would be released.
"Most effective control programs involve the use of between two and 14 agents," she said. "Of 33 successful cases, the first release agent proved successful in only five cases.
"The process of a staggered release has the potential to delay control by between five and 50 years. The impact will be most serious in the temperate climate zone, where usually only a single generation of the control agent is produced each year, and in the meantime the spread of the incursive weed will continue."
Dr McFadyen said that weeds cost the livestock industry an estimated $1.8 billion a year in lost production, and the herbicide and mechanical control measures employed represented increasing economic, environmental and health costs, especially in sensitive areas such as national parks and riparian land.
For more information:
Dr Rachel McFadyen, 0409 263 817, www.weeds.crc.org.au