How can citizen scientists help us detect exotic plant pests in urban environments?

Ports of entry are a growing risk to Australia’s biosecurity. By the time an agricultural pest is found in a growing region it has often had time to establish in urban environments, which are rich in both host diversity and transmission pathways. (While urban farming has the potential to greatly support and enhance domestic food security, there are likely challenges linked with the rise of large-scale urban farming that we do not yet appreciate, such as maintaining biosecurity.)

The risk posed by challenges in urban exotic plant pest surveillance was recently highlighted by incursion and establishment of the tomato potato psyllid in the Perth metro area (Western Australia) and, subsequently, surrounding production regions. Over the following 12 months the downstream impact on horticultural industries throughout Western Australia due to domestic trade restrictions and increased production costs led to severe financial impacts for producers. Early detection of this psyllid in the metro zone would have increased the chance of eradication or provided agricultural industries with buffer time to prepare for this pest.

Running over 2019/20 this project aims to establish best approaches for developing and coordinating early detector networks for exotic plant pests in cities. The project will use innovation principles to test methods to attract citizen scientists to such a network. It will also investigate how an early detector network could achieve greatest impact as an addition to the existing national biosecurity surveillance system.

A coordinated, citizen scientist based early detector network for urban areas would ensure consistency of information and training to urban dwellers interested in being an early detector. It would give governments access to an established network of surveyors in urban environments, and a single point of contact for dissemination of exotic pest and incursion response information. It will develop closer linkages between agriculturalists and urban dwellers. Activation of such a surveillance network will support faster and more confident decision-making during Emergency Plant Pest Responses. 

Outcomes will include a proven approach for engaging and maintaining citizen scientists in an early detector network, and an early detector network design ready for Australia-wide launch. Findings will support establishment of the first national, urban focused, citizen scientist-based early detector system for exotic plant pests in Australia. 

How will this be achieved?

Urban dwellers are often unaware of the impact caused by exotic pest incursions on rural industries. Development of an urban early detector network is likely to succeed because early detectors are likely to be curious people and contributing to such a network would in turn add to their own knowledge base.

This project will be undertaken using Melbourne urban dwellers as a test case. Major steps in development of an early detector network would involve:

  1. Customer scanning and network design
  2. Expansion of network through attracting interested groups/individuals
  3. Retention and improvement of early detectors through value adds, such as training
  4. Maintenance and coordination of network

It will be important for this research to uncover:

  • The current level of knowledge urban dwellers have about priority exotic plant pests
  • The current level of knowledge urban dwellers have about impacts of exotic plant pests on food production
  • The reasons why urban dwellers would be interested in joining such a network
  • Indicators that would identify a candidate likely to be interested in joining such a network
  • The best methods to attract these candidates to the network
  • The best methods to keep these candidates engaged in the network
  • The ways in which an early detector network can best support federal and state government activities
  • How a citizen scientist-based early detector network would interact with government personnel and departments

What drives me?

Agriculturalists are a wonderful bunch to work with for someone who has a scientific background. They embrace technologies and new knowledge and acknowledge that our sustainability challenges will be addressed through adaptation and innovation.

The hardest part of working in biosecurity has been observing the hardship that food producers encounter during pest incursions, either due to quarantining of properties, or market access disruptions. Due to these experiences I have become a proponent of investing more funds into biosecurity preparedness activities at national, state, and regional levels.

Why is this investigation important?

Early detection of exotic pests in urban environments before they reach growing operations has the potential to spare agricultural industries significant expense that can be incurred through loss of market access, launch of extensive eradications, and production impacts. Early detection before a pest reaches agricultural regions can also spare growers from significant mental health impacts that can arise from being placed in a quarantine situation. Ultimately, an urban early detector network has the potential to considerably bolster our biosecurity system, and therefore our food security, in the long term. However, development of such an early detector network is expected to be a complicated task. This project would allow strategic analysis of the best methods to engage citizen scientists as early detectors, as well as determine the most time and cost-effective methods of coordinating such a network. It will achieve this though use of innovation principles, fast testing of hypotheses using a lean start-up framework, analysis of failures and successes, and iterative optimisation of these hypotheses to identify methodologies with the highest chance of success.

Jessica Lye, Australia

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