Weed Science a Victim of the 'Commercialisation Axe'

Apart from drought, weeds are the major threat to agriculture and the environment in Australia. But with research support being withdrawn next year, Rachel McFadyen argues for “public good” funding to be revived.

Annually, production losses exceed $2.5 billion and farmers spend $1.5 billion on control. Weeds imperil more than 50% of endangered species and threatened ecosystems as native plants are replaced by monocultures of bridal creeper, mimosa, rubber vine or gamba grass.

More than $1.5 million per annum is spent to keep just one weed, mimosa, out of Kakadu National Park. Yet, expenditure on weed control in national parks and environmental areas is less than $30 million per year, or just $1.50 per Australian. Weeds receive little attention on the national scene because they are seen as an agricultural problem and the responsibility of the states.

Of roughly 3000 invasive plants in Australia, most are exotic. Ever since European settlement, governments have actively encouraged introductions of new plants. Pasture improvement groups and acclimatisation societies introduced thousands of different plant species and varieties. No thought was given to the possibility of their becoming weeds, let alone to ensuring that imported seeds were free of known weedy species.

Inadequate legislation, in existence until 1998, allowed legal importation of two of the world’s worst weeds, parthenium weed and siam weed. Annual losses from parthenium weed now exceed $20 million and an expensive campaign to eradicate siam weed is underway.

Since the 1980s the Australian Weeds Committee has progressively developed a coherent national policy on weed management. The previous Kafkaesque import regulations were replaced by a Weed Risk Assessment System whereby all new plant imports are assessed for potential weediness. Those with high probability of becoming weeds are banned. The final loophole was closed only last year.

Meanwhile, weed research has fallen through the gaps nationally. Weed science has been left to state and university departments of agriculture, resulting in fragmentation nationally and death by a thousand cuts. CSIRO’s once-thriving weeds biocontrol unit has been decimated. The Federal Bureau of Resource Sciences has no weed specialists and Land & Water Australia undertook no weed research until 2 years ago. Rural R&D Corporations fund research through individual researchers working largely in isolation.

This situation changed with the formation in 1995 of a Weeds Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), bringing together all state government weed research units, CSIRO and several universities. The Grains Research and Development Corporation and Meat & Livestock Australia provided key funds.

In 12 years the Weeds CRC has been remarkably successful in bringing researchers together in projects crossing state boundaries, and providing information and education for farmers and farm advisors across the grain belt. It developed a wide range of reports and information for policy-makers. It provided the science to back national initiatives such as the campaigns, and the first economic study of weeds. Weed Risk Assessment System, eradication campaigns, and the first economic study of weeds.

End-users were so impressed with the benefits of a national collaborative research group that all participants agreed to be part of a new CRC for the next 7-year period. However, the application was rejected last October, a casualty of funding criteria that disadvantage public good research, especially agricultural and environmental research.

Weeds CRC partners are now exploring alternative federal funding to continue this collaborative program. Before the last federal election, the Queensland Reef and Rainforest CRCs were rescued from the commercialism axe.

If nothing is done, weed research will revert to the hopelessly fragmented system existing before 1995. There will be no national research body to provide the scientific basis for the Australian Biosecurity System for Primary Production and the Environment (AusBIOSEC) or the newly-revised Australian Weed Strategy.

And weeds will grow unchecked when this drought ends.

An internationally-known weed biocontrol scientist, Dr Rachel McFadyen is Chief Executive Officer of the CRC for Australian Weed Management in Brisbane.

First published in the April 2007 edition of Australasian Science Magazine - Australia's only monthly Science Magazine