Biosecurity for imported cut flowers

AFTA members take biosecurity very earnestly. The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment regulates all the rules and conditions that enable the trade of foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, bulbs, young plants, a myriad of other commodities, and cut flowers.

Australia has been importing fresh cut flowers for around 50 years, and in that time not a single pest incursion has been attributed to imported cut flowers and foliage.

AFTA fully supports the Australian Government’s biosecurity system, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) which administers the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the safe facilitation of global trade which includes importing cut flowers.

Pests and diseases can potentially be introduced by a range of pathways including natural dispersal (e.g., fall armyworm), the movement of people and goods (e.g., kharpa beetle and covid-19), and illegal importation of host material (e.g., citrus canker).

The Australian Government’s biosecurity system is all about minimising the risk of exotic pests, weeds and diseases entering Australia, becoming established and causing harm to Australia’s agriculture and the environment.

AFTA members are very active in developing and maintaining biosecurity measures in the country of origin. Offshore biosecurity activities are an important part of Australia’s biosecurity system for many types of fresh produce, including citrus, kiwifruit, table grapes, flowers, general cargo, and many other types of commodities. Offshore regulation is an effective tool that is used to reduce the risk of exotic pests entering Australia.

As part of the overall biosecurity compliance system, there are also times where onshore biosecurity measures are required.

Only cut flowers and foliage that are certified free from pests are released from biosecurity control for sale at local wholesale and retail outlets.

Australia seeks to minimise the risk of pests entering Australia for cut flowers, just as it does for all horticultural commodities including fruits, vegetables, nuts and turf and nursery products.

Common pests

Just as with all agriculture, all over the world, flowers do have some common pests that are attributed to them. The most common pests detected in imported flowers are Thrips, Aphids and Spider mites, many of which are already prevalent in Australia and in some cases are not considered to be quarantine pests. However, if pests (identified or unidentified) are detected at Australian border control, the consignment will not be released by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment until the organisms are killed. See Managing pests in imported cut flowers and foliage for more information.

In this way, ‘incidence’ of a pest at the border does not equal ‘incursion’ of a pest.

How are flowers inspected for pests and diseases?

For each shipment, Australian biosecurity officers select a statistically derived representative sample of the consignment for inspection. Typically, this sample equates to ~600 stems of cut flowers and foliage for close visual inspection and then further inspection under a high-powered microscope. The Department has an enormous network of scientists, equipment and processes that are utilised to determine the identity and risk attributed to any organism detected on import pathways.

The presence of a single live actionable pest prevents the entire shipment being released until it has been treated.

See the process for Importing cut flowers and foliage into Australia for more information.

Working together

The Australian Government sets the rules based on longstanding scientific norms and principles, application of policy consistent with international trade law, and through the provision of scientific advice, that all importers and exporters must obey.

It is the same for anything that is imported, not just flowers.

Four years ago, the Australian Government moved efforts to control pest risk with pre-shipment treatment offshore rather than onshore, at key points of the import pathway. The industry responded immediately, and with increasing intensity. As a direct result common pests detection across all consignments of fresh cut flowers and foliage has fallen from ~60% to ~10%

Because our industry works closely with biosecurity agencies in Australia and their global counterparts, the Australian Government now recognises the significant biosecurity improvements that have been achieved.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment has publicly acknowledged that interceptions of pests at the border have decreased since March 2018.

For example, in the Final Pest Risk Analysis for Cut Flowers and Foliage – Part 2 (June 2020), the Department noted that “the revised import conditions are having the intended effect … reducing the arrival rate of pests of biosecurity concern to Australia”.

Pre-export treatment of imported cut flowers

Australian biosecurity regulations require certain varieties of flower to be treated before they arrive in Australia.

Processes for mandatory treatments to manage pests are required by the exporting country’s National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO) and referred to as approved systems approach as a condition of entry to ensure the risk to the importing country is minimised.

Pre export treatment methods are all about reducing the risk of pest incursions, so each country has different NPPO approved methods of trade pertaining to each country’s individual risk assessment. In Australia, the risk analysis is conducted by the Department.

In Australia, there are three NPPO approved pre-export methods for managing pests offshore: a

  • systems approach;
  • alternative measures approach;
  • or fumigation.

Each shipment requires endorsements by the exporting country entailing specific certificates to certify treatments before entry of goods is granted for inspection by Australian biosecurity. Certain countries even require an import permit to ensure that cut flowers and foliage meet Australia’s import requirements. A permit is granted upon successful application to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment with submission of a supply chain management system that is deemed low risk to Australian biosecurity.

The three accepted methods in Australia involve products or processes that are commonly used in agriculture to kill pests. These products or processes are licensed to be used for global biosecurity purposes and endorsed by both the exporting and importing country.

In Australia, chemical treatments are approved and regulated by the Australian Veterinary Pesticides and Medicines Authority (APVMA). Each country has a similar authority that regulates chemical use.

Pre-export methods

Pre-shipment methyl bromide fumigation

Treatment with methyl bromide is the Department’s method of onshore treatment, and has been for over 50 years. Methyl bromide fumigation is a common biosecurity treatment that is used on many commodities before they enter Australia, such as food products, grains, nursery products,  and timber. It is the most frequently used fumigant due to its high level of efficacy. It also diffuses rapidly and does not typically release after treatment. Methyl bromide is also permitted in some countries for use on exported cut flowers.

In 2019, the department reported the observation that “non-compliance rates have varied between countries and the pest treatment method used. The lowest levels of non-compliance were seen when methyl bromide fumigation was used pre-shipment”.

Under certain NPPO supervised and certified options, the fumigation process must be undertaken in the source country before the consignment is sent to Australia.

Contributing to responsible regulation

AFTA maintains productive relationships with the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, which administers the Biosecurity Act 2015 since 2017 to facilitate communication between foreign government regulators and scientific organisations.

AFTA worked with the department to establish and document the process for the treatment of cut flowers and foliage.

We are also working with the Department to qualify new alternative pre-shipment treatment methods that are contemporary, widely applied, and environmentally friendly.

AFTA is pleased to have played a significant role in the execution of policy that has seen the use of methyl bromide use for cut flowers fall over the last three years. Such enormous benefits have been realised through the successful application of methods to ensure high levels of compliance.

Pre-shipment phosphene gas fumigation

Phosphine gas fumigation is a recognised alternative pre-export treatment that AFTA supports and has implemented in multiple countries.

Phosphine is one of the most relied upon fumigant to control insects in stored grains, seeds, plant products and prepared foods.

See research and development on alternatives to methyl bromide.

Devitalisation of stems using glyphosate

Australian regulation since the early 1980s, requires that some species of cut flowers are devitalised before leaving the country of origin. The policy aims to prevent cut flowers being used as propagation material in Australia. Similarly, most foods, and even many seeds for consumption that are imported, also have to be processed or treated to ensure they are devitalised.

Less than a third of imported cut flowers are required to be devitalised using glyphosate.

Glyphosate is the only herbicide approved as a dip treatment for the devitalisation of cut flowers and foliage by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

Glyphosate is used extensively in agriculture and horticulture in Australia, including grains, cereals, avocados, blueberries, apples, dates, garlic, lemons, olives, potatoes, cucumbers, spinach and tomatoes and domestically grown cut flowers.

The agriculture industry relies heavily on glyphosate. There is no other herbicide that has been tested to the lengths glyphosate has.

Some flower and foliage species that are locally grown also undergo devitalisation, according to state regulations or because of the application of Plant Breeders Rights contractual arrangements.

See Glyphosate Fact Sheet  for more information.

AFTA’s position

  • AFTA has an active position to support the move away from the policy of devitalisation.
  • AFTA is working with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment to actively seek alternative measures to the use of glyphosate in the cut flower industry.
  • AFTA supports a supply chain management systems approach to minimise incursions of insects and diseases through collection of data. The approach positions Australia as a global trade leader, by working with stakeholders and leading the conversation. This position relies on coordinated and collaborative approach between Australia and foreign NPPOs.
  • Historically, there has been no pest incursion attributed to cut flower and foliage imports.
  • The approach to risk management is influenced by data sets held by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment that are aligned with flower types, treatment methods, and sources.
  • This model, combined with existing higher levels of insect surveillance and control measures, would provide even greater biosecurity controls in source countries than the current suite of required phytosanitary treatments.