Inca Pearce
CEO, Vinehealth Australia

Transcript of speech:
Biosecurity Threats to Australian wine sector
How ready we are to respond to these threats and what we need to do.

Originally delivered at the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia Industry Briefing, 22/08/18


Hello and thanks inviting me to speak here today about biosecurity.

What is biosecurity? Put simply, it’s a system for preventing, responding to and recovering from pests and diseases that threaten our livelihood.

How ready are we to respond to biosecurity threats? That’s an interesting question.

We recently surveyed South Australian vineyard owners about their farm-gate hygiene practices. One of the questions we asked was, what’s the big issue in biosecurity? There was a theme amongst the responses, which can be summed up in one word: apathy.

The problem with biosecurity is that it’s easy to ignore until it’s too late. We hear words like Xylella and even phylloxera and if these threats are not on our doorstep, we relax a little.

We think: biosecurity is someone else’s responsibility. We think: biosecurity doesn’t affect me. We think: we’ll work on our biosecurity plan tomorrow. Or, we’ll fence our vines tomorrow.

The results of our survey show:

  • 80% of vineyard owners DON’T provide farm-gate hygiene training for their staff and contractors.
  • 83% DON’T keep a visitor register;
  • 61% don’t check machinery and equipment before it comes onto their property; AND
  • 87% DON’T disinfest the shoes of their visitors before they enter their vineyard

The scary fact is that many vineyard owners don’t have biosecurity plans or farm-gate hygiene systems in place.

But let me digress for a moment.

There’s a fungus that’s destroying banana plantings around the world.

Panama disease Tropical Race 4, known as Panama TR4, has recently been found on farms in Far North Queensland. It’s a fungus that blocks the plant’s vascular system causing death.

TR4 has devastated commercial plantations of Cavendish bananas in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and here in the Northern Territory. In mainland China, the disease has spread to all of the main banana-growing provinces.

In the few instances in which losses due to TR4 have been estimated, they amounted to 120 million in Indonesia, 250 million in Taiwan and 14 million USD in Malaysia.

Like phylloxera, it lives in the soil.

Like phylloxera, it can’t be eradicated.

Like phylloxera, the disease is easily spread by movement of contaminated soil and infected planting material.

So far, since 2015 three commercial banana farms in Tully in Far North Queensland have been confirmed with Panama TR4.

The Queensland Banana Industry has responded with strict quarantine conditions in an attempt to restrict further spread. A widespread outbreak of TR4 would be devastating for the Australian banana industry.

I recently spent some time with Dennis Howe, the owner of the second largest banana farm in Australia, Howe Farms on the Atherton Tablelands which is just an hour north of Tully.

Dennis said that prior to TR4, biosecurity didn’t seem an imminent threat.

Since the TR4 Tully incursion, Howe Farms has scrambled to introduce tough biosecurity practices, which are integrated into their every day operations, such as:

  • The fencing of all properties.
  • Signage at all entries and clear entry restrictions.
  • The creation of drains, ditches and moats around all properties to control the movement of water.
  • Rigorous disinfestation of footwear and machinery.

The TR4 incursion has resulted in a significant change in culture towards biosecurity by North Queensland banana farmers – it’s now standard practice in the region.

And at Vinehealth Australia, that’s our vision for the wine industry: for biosecurity practices to be part of Standard Operating Procedures for every grape and wine business.

So what are the big threats to grapes and wine? Let’s look at the top two:

Of the pests and diseases exotic to Australia, Xylella fastidiosa, or Pierce’s Disease in vines, is Australia’s number one unwanted plant pest. It’s a major threat to vines due to multiple hosts and vectors, rapid impact and global. I’m sure most of you know the damage this has done in the US and Europe.

In California, aggregating the costs of vine losses, industry assessments, compliance costs and expenditures by government and research entities, the cost of managing Pierce’s Disease has been estimated at $104.4 million per year.

And it’s currently devastating 300-year-old olive trees in the Apuglia region in Italy.

Of the pests and diseases endemic to Australia, the greatest biosecurity threat to vineyards is phylloxera, as this pest is already established in Victoria and NSW. This tiny insect pest destroys grapevines by feeding on their roots. An estimated 70% of vines in Australia are susceptible to attack as they are on own roots and not resistant rootstock. Once vines are infested, they will die within six years. There is no treatment, so infested vineyards must be replanted on phylloxera-resistant or tolerant rootstock. This is a costly exercise at around $60,000 per hectare, and replanted vines will take about three years to produce a crop and longer to mature. And this doesn’t take into account the lost market opportunity as you don’t have product on the shelf for a single vineyard brand.

Making matters worse, the biosecurity landscape is increasingly complex and hard to manage.

It’s being driven by skyrocketing global trade and tourism, agricultural expansion and intensification, urbanisation and climate change.

The modern biosecurity landscape is also characterised by changing government and industry priorities, increased scrutiny from trading partners during market access negotiations with the need to substantiate area freedom status, and an increasing desire from authorities for individual growers to manage their own biosecurity risks.

The Australian wine industry has trends of its own that are impacting biosecurity risk. These include:

  • Increased consolidation, with regional grape processing being replaced
by ‘super’ processing facilities that import higher volumes of grapes across regional and state boundaries.
  • Increased international ownership of Australian wineries and vineyards, adding complexity to the system.
  • Increased specialisation, with more contract vineyard management, pruning and harvesting, raising the risk of cross-regional and cross- vineyard contamination.
  • Increased wine-tourism and improved transportation corridors.
  • Ongoing tight margins for grapegrowers.

In terms of the pathways for biosecurity threats to enter Australia, over the past 20 years:

  • There’s been a 74% an increase in imports coming by air
  • There’s been a 190% increase in international visitors
  • There’s been a 250% increase in containers coming into the country by sea
  • And there’s been a 230% increase in airmail into Australia, with 80% of this increase has occurred in the past decade.

As a result of this changing and complex landscape, incursions of exotic and declared endemic pests in Australia are increasing.

For the past three years, we’ve recorded about 30,000 interceptions per year at our national border – this includes plants, animals, seeds and invertebrates that are being picked up on people, in cargo and in airfreight. This has increased 30% as compared to a decade prior.

And the number of biosecurity incidents post border considered by Australia’s emergency plant response group has increased by 65% over the last 7 years.

The pressure is certainly mounting.

But is the threat to vines real? How close does the wine industry really get to incursions?

Last year, six brown marmorated stink bugs were found in a shipping container of timber from the USA that arrived in Port Adelaide. The timber was destined for the production of wine barrels in one of SA’s wine regions. The container was fumigated and the insects were killed. Live and dead brown marmorated stink bugs were found again in Sydney in November 2017 in a container of electrical goods, then again in January 2018 when container of bricks was unpacked. And in Western Australia in February 2018 brown marmorated stink bugs were discovered again in a container of electrical goods from Italy.

This is a serious pest to over 300 agricultural and ornamental plants, including grapevines. It can feed on grapes and further predispose them to secondary infection, thus impacting grape quality and yield. Additionally, if brown marmorated stink bugs are present in grape bunches, particularly in reds, when processed through the winery, taint compounds are released that can potentially impact wine quality.

Also in late 2016, Grapevine Pinot Gris Virus (GPGV) was detected for the first time in Australia. This virus was first characterised overseas in 2012, and in Australia we have only had the diagnostic capability to detect it since 2015. This virus is common in many international wine regions in Europe, USA, Canada and China.

Since the initial detection of Grapevine Pinot Gris Virus in Australia, it has been found in a number of Australian vineyards and has been declared established, meaning it’s a disease that growers now just have to manage.

And an example of how close we came to a significant phylloxera incursion is that during the 2015 vintage, a South Australian grower organised for a harvester to come to his property from the Yarra Valley – which is a Phylloxera Infested Zone. Thankfully, the harvester, which had a high chance of carrying phylloxera, was stopped at the SA border and returned. This harvester movement was in breach of both Victorian and South Australian quarantine regulations and had not been disinfested on leaving the Yarra.

And we mustn’t forget that the Maroondah Phylloxera Infested Zone boundary in the Yarra Valley has been extended seven times since it was established in 2006, meaning phylloxera in Victoria is on the move.

So the threat is real.

But what’s at stake? Why worry about any of this?

If we want to be able to supply our wine markets and keep pace with growth that Peter has outlined, we need healthy, productive vineyards and continuity of supply.

Healthy vines and grapes from a clean, green environment is an important marketing advantage, as is the tagline that we have ‘some of the oldest vines in the world’ – this being solely due to the absence of phylloxera.

Let’s talk about old vines for a moment. As Andrew Caillard wrote in his article on phylloxera being the Hidden Menace in Gourmet Traveller Wine’s current issue, “Australia’s remarkable living heritage of old grape vines is an important symbol of our fine wine identity. There is no other country in the world that possesses so many surviving 19th century vineyards. This narrative is immensely powerful in building Australia’s fine wine credentials in a very competitive world market.”

Surely these vineyards are worth protecting?

And let’s consider market access – if we were to get a new pest or disease that requires new chemicals to control that we don’t have MRLs for in our export markets, that would require careful negotiations with our trading partners to ensure ongoing access to markets.

A serious pest or disease incursion would have economic impact on growers, wine companies, and everyone along the supply chain. It would have impact on our tourism sector and our regional communities.

And we must never underestimate the social impact of an incursion – history tells us that incursions have significant impact on mental health and community structures. Most of our growers operate in regional areas with strong community ties. Effects of an outbreak seldom impact a single grower in isolation but have far reaching consequences across the regional community.

So the purple line on this map represents the Barossa Valley GI boundary.

Now picture the scenario of a phylloxera incursion in the Barossa Valley in the middle of vintage:

  • Without any negotiation Vinehealth and Biosecurity SA would immediately out in place a 5km quarantine zone– shown by the red circle, with no movement of grapes allowed out of this zone and also no movement of equipment or bins out of this zone unless they have been disinfested.
  • If your vineyard is inside the red circle, then you need to find somewhere inside that zone to process your fruit
  • If you are a winery inside the red circle, then you can receive fruit from anywhere but now you need to disinfest every single grape bin for 2 minutes at 70C before it can leave your winery. As far as I know, no winery in the Barossa has the infrastructure to disinfest bins. And imagine if you are a winery processing 30,000 tonnes – that’s 12,000 2.5 tonne bins to disinfest over the course of vintage. Setting up this infrastructure to disinfest bins takes time.
  • If you own a grape harvester that is inside the red circle then that harvester can not move outside the zone unless it is heat treated at 45C for 2 hours. Again, we have no infrastructure in the Barossa Valley to heat treat equipment.
  • And whilst the 5km quarantine zone is in place there will be ongoing tough negotiations with the Barossa wine community to keep redefining this zone based on traceback and traceforward information and logistic demands.
  • So you can see there would be delays in harvest as the industry scrambles to sort out logistics – in all likelihood, fruit would be left on the vine and other fruit would be picked late, impacting on quality.
  • The social impact on the regional wine community would be immense. Significant pest outbreaks are divisive – the blame game is played. Fingers are pointed. Communities are splintered.

What do we need to do?

From a wine industry perspective, we must improve our biosecurity preparedness and operations. We need to look up and scan the horizon for potential pest threats. We need to regularly review with government import conditions and biosecurity systems at the national and state borders in light of changing risks.

And we need better adoption of farm-gate hygiene systems by vineyard owners to prevent spread of existing pests and diseases.

Continued investment is needed in biosecurity by all risk creators and beneficiaries along the supply chain – from germplasm to consumer. And strong leadership and ownership of biosecurity for our industry is key to our success. Biosecurity is a shared responsibility. We need investment of time, resources and thought.

Collectively grower, wineries and industry bodies are working hard in a number of areas to ensure we safeguard our vines. Specifically work continues on:

  • Formalising active and passive surveillance plans for pest threats
  • Enforcing of non-compliance with State Plant Quarantine Standards and strong deterrents for non-compliance.
  • Integrating biosecurity practices into Standard Operating Procedures and business continuity plans by grape growers and winemakers
  • Any far better scenario planning for outbreaks to ensure that we are ready to respond, to minimise economic and social impacts of an incursion.
  • We also need to continue working towards consistent communication on biosecurity matters.
  • And engagement of risk creators across the grape and wine supply chain.
  • Importantly an improved framework for the nursery and vine improvement sector is paramount to ensure supply of ‘high health’ planting material.
  • We also need to have sustained investment in a prioritised biosecurity research, development and extension plan.
  • And management plans for priority pests that are evolved as the landscape changes, this includes an urgent update of the National Phylloxera Management Plan.

All this work will ensure sustained behaviour change across the supply chain and an end to apathy towards biosecurity.

The Australian wine industry is entering a period of optimism and growth. We need to harness the industry’s technical strength and innovative mindset to ensure biosecurity is a key enabler for our success.

Now is the time to get serious about biosecurity. Let’s not wait for Xylella to arrive on our shores, or an outbreak of phylloxera in the Barossa.

Let’s act now.