TINY packages with devastating consequences have drawn the focus of biosecurity authorities with a rise in plant seeds entering the country.
With many Australians turning to online shopping to purchase goods from overseas, seeds pose a significant risk to the nation's plant health.
The import of seeds and other plant products into Australia is tightly regulated under the Biosecurity Act 2015, to ensure harmful diseases and pests are not introduced into Australia, causing significant agricultural, environmental and economic harm.
Seeds can carry a range of diseases, including viruses, exotic insect and weed pests, that could impact on vegetable and fruit industries, backyard gardens and environment.
Australia has strict conditions for seed imports, and these are in place to manage the significant risks.
According to a statement from the Biosecurity Strategy and Reform Division of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), some seeds cannot be imported to Australia as the risk of introducing unwanted plant diseases and serious weed species is too high.
Others can, provided the importer meets strict import conditions.
Australian chief plant protection officer Dr Gabrielle Vivian-Smith said seeds are the most intercepted biosecurity risk item through the mail.
"In 2020, over 55 thousand intercepted mail articles contained seeds, equating to 72 per cent of the total interceptions for the period," Dr Vivian-Smith said.
"Any of these seeds could have posed a biosecurity risk."
The department reported that since July 2020, there have also been continued reports of Australians receiving unsolicited packets of seeds from overseas.
"It is suspected that this could be part of an e-commerce brushing scam. As of 24 August 2021, there had been 335 cases of unsolicited seeds destined for addresses across Australia," it said.
"These seeds can also pose a biosecurity risk, as they have arrived in Australia without adhering to the appropriate import conditions."
RECENTLY, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, in collaboration with Agriculture Victoria, conducted a research project where a range of cucumber, melon and zucchini seeds were purchased online from overseas suppliers.
These were imported under a specific biosecurity permit, for testing purposes.
Almost 75pc of the seed consignments that arrived as part of the project carried vegetable and fruit viruses that are a biosecurity concern.
"If these seeds were bought by members of the public and planted, it could have had devastating impacts," Dr Vivian-Smith said.
The viruses detected included Melon necrotic spot virus (MNSV), cucumber green mottle mosaic virus (CGMMV), Squash mosaic virus and potyviruses.
"These viruses are a significant risk to Australia's vegetable and fruit industries, as well as backyard gardens, our environment, and overall plant health," Dr Vivian-Smith said.
"Some viruses are very hardy and once they are present in cultivated fields they are often there to stay."
MNSV causes disease in cucurbit crops, including cucumber, honeydew melon, rockmelon, and watermelon.
It impacts on fruit quality but can also cause fruit to rot prior to harvest. It can survive in the soil through its association with a fungal parasite that is present in Australia.
CGMMV mainly affects cucumbers and melons. It is another devastating fruit disease, that affects fruit quality and makes them generally unmarketable.
It is difficult to manage as it is highly contact transmissible and can readily survive in water and soil from one crop to the next and is spread in infected seed and plants.
Squash mosaic virus affects squash plants, including melons. Fruit of infected plants become mottled and misshapen.
TO better manage seed biosecurity risks, last year Australia banned imports of cucumber, melon and zucchini seeds, as well as seeds of other high-risk commodities, through international mail.
On arrival in Australia, biosecurity officers check that imported seeds are free from biosecurity risk material and meet all import conditions.
Seeds that do not meet the import conditions may require testing or treatment.
"If the biosecurity risk cannot be successfully treated, the seeds will be exported or disposed at the importer's expense," the DAWE said.
"Illegal imports of seeds can be subject to enforcement action by the department. There are significant penalties if you are found to have breached Australia's biosecurity conditions.
"This can include fines and potential prosecution.
"The recent testing of seeds from overseas demonstrates the reality of the risks that Australia is potentially facing.
"It is a vital reminder that we all need to play our part and not purchase goods from overseas that could be a biosecurity risk.
"If you are considering buying seeds online from overseas, don't just click purchase. Be biosecurity aware and check the conditions first.
"If you are unsure, don't buy them."
The DAWE encouraged unsolicited seeds to be reported to the See. Secure. Report hotline on 1800 798 636, or www.agriculture.gov.au/pests-diseases-weeds/report.
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