What is biosecurity?

Biosecurity means "border controls for plant, animal and human health and environmental protection". Biosecurity encompasses all policy, laws and regulatory frameworks to manage risks associated with food and agriculture in the broad sense (including fisheries and forestry). The risks mainly come from the introduction into an area or territory of organisms that are harmful to people, animals (domesticated and wild) and plants (pests, disease organisms or pathogens and invasive species) and also harmful substances such as pesticides and food additives. Biosecurity also includes environmental protection and the protection of biodiversity because the "environment" is made up of plant and animal life as well as human culture. Biosecurity constitutes three sectors, viz.:

  • food safety
  • animal and human life and health (sanitary activities and measures)
  • plant life and health (phytosanitary activities and measures)

These sectors include food production in relation to food safety (biological and chemical risks), the introduction of plant pests*, animal pests and diseases and zoonoses**, the introduction and release of transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their products, and the introduction and safe management of invasive alien species and genotypes.

  • in phytosanitary matters, a pest is regarded as organism harmful to plants whether it is an invertebrate or vertebrate pest, a pathogen or another plant (weed or invasive plant).
  • zoonoses are diseases of animals that are transmissible to humans (e.g. anthrax) whereas e.g. foot and mouth disease is not (except in exceedingly rare cases)

Why is biosecurity important?

Biosecurity has become recognised as a necessary umbrella concept for the various legal interventions and regulatory activities explained above because of the profound impact of the globalisation of trade and other aspects of economics. On the one hand there are important international agreements protecting animal and plant life and biodiversity such as the the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These reflect widely held concerns about the future of the planet's natural resources, especially in tropical and sub-tropical areas. On other hand the World Trade Organisation (WTO) through its agreements, especially the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), has provided an enforceable international legal framework for ensuring that measures to protect human, animal and plant life and the environment are consistent with free trade, i.e. measures should not be disguised protectionism of domestic production. The recently revised International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety reflect the need to balance biosecurity with free trade but there are significant differences in the traditional approach to plant and animal health and WTO's rules.

The approach to biosecurity issues is manifold:

  • Provision of national regulatory programmes with measures based as much as possible on international standards set by the appropriate organisation for the sector.
  • Application of measures that are proportionate to the risks of importation of harmful organisms and chemical substances when the risks have been identified and assessed through scientific means when international standards are not available, e.g. when a new pest is identified ("SPS border controls")
  • Harmonisation of measures between countries
  • Integration of regulatory frameworks across sectors, e.g. having agricultural health law and regulation/enforcement rather than having separate laws and organisations for animal health and plant health.

Current issues in biosecurity

Up-to-date and appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for biosecurity are essential for all nations in order to provide protection for natural resources and to gain access to export markets for the sustainable exploitation of these natural resources. In many developing countries, especially in Africa, and also in emerging economies, provisions for biosecurity are inadequate for a number of reasons, such as:

  • Outdated laws and inadequate legal infrastructure in developing countries
  • Lack of resources, budget and infrastructure for inspection and enforcement
  • Poor cooperation between agencies (not confined to developing countries)
  • Lack of technical resources and infrastructure for risk assessment
  • Lucrative markets for goods which are unsafe or damage biodiversity, e.g. bush meat

If these issues are not addressed, developing countries will remain at a disadvantage in world trade and their natural resources will be at risk of destruction or unscrupulous exploitation.