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Biosecurity tools to manage public health and environmental risks

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Context - Biosecurity is concerned with animal and plant diseases, invasive species, the transmission of diseases from livestock to humans, and the effect that all of these can have of health and the environment.

How can it be ensured through an integrated approach?

This is a faithful synthesis and summary of several scientific consensus reports. For the full list of sources, see the references.

Latest update: 16 December 2019

1. Introduction: what is biosecurity?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines biosecurity as a strategic and integrated approach for analysing and managing relevant risks to human, animal and plant life and health, and associated risks to the environment1. This encompasses both the policy and regulatory frameworks.

Biosecurity covers food safety, zoonoses, the introduction of animal and plant diseases and pests, the introduction and release of living modified organisms (LMOs) and their products (e.g. genetically modified organisms or GMOs), and the introduction and management of invasive alien species.

Thus, biosecurity is a holistic concept of direct relevance to the sustainability of agriculture, and wide-ranging aspects of public health and protection of the environment, including biological diversity.

1 In this toolkit, “life” is used as a generic term to cover impacts of biosecurity activities that are not easily categorized as health impacts.

2. Why develop biosecurity tools?

During the past 20 years, some governments have moved towards a more integrated approach to biosecurity that harmonizes and rationalizes policy, legislation and core roles and responsibilities as a means to better manage relevant risks in food and agriculture. However, most countries continued to manage biosecurity along traditional, sector-oriented lines, resulting in a lack of systemic and strategic focus, inefficient use of scarce resources (a.o. financial) and less than optimal results.

The FAO decided thus to provide a toolkit for governments, offering guidance to develop a more coherent and integrated (holistic or systemic) approach to biosecurity and take advantage of synergies across sectors at the national and international levels.

The FAO Toolkit examines critically the nature and performance of existing biosecurity systems and provides both an analytical framework and processes that describes the needs for an integrated biosecurity approach and the assessment of the associated capacity needs.

This approach supports the thesis that although the analysis of the various biosecurity risks provides a common foundation for biosecurity but fully acknowledges that there is no universally acceptable or standard policy or infrastructure that should govern national biosecurity systems.

3. Why is a harmonized and holistic approach to biodiversity desirable?

Human, animal and plant life and health, the protection of the environment as well as agriculture are inextricably linked in many ways. Biosecurity hazards of various types exist in each sector and have high potential to move between sectors.

Changes in the environment such as the loss of biological diversity and contamination of food and water sources, the size and scope of the global trade in animal feed and animal feed ingredients are two examples of the immense potential for biosecurity hazards to move between and within countries.

Other drivers of change are the increasing number and stringency of sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, the recognition of the high cost of regulation and acknowledgement of limited public resources. On top of this, there are increasing demands from industry for better cost-effectiveness of biosecurity systems and greater accommodation of new technologies.

4. What are biosecurity hazards and their associated risks and how are they evaluated?

Biosecurity hazard and risk analysis2 processes are at the heart of contemporary approaches to biosecurity and the emergence of risk analysis as a unifying discipline in biosecurity underpins many of the changes in approach that are happening at the national level.

There are various descriptions as to what constitutes a biosecurity hazard depending on the sector involved and as illustrated in the table below. All significant effects, positive and negative, should be systematically identified and their relative magnitudes considered in decision-making.


Definitions of a hazard as applicable to different biosecurity

A risk assessment looks then at identified hazards and evaluates the probability and degree of exposure to them. A prerequisite to facilitate the iterative and ongoing nature of risk analysis and for their effective management is that stringent efforts are made in risk communication to provide accurate and timely technical information about the risk from sources that are viewed as trustworthy, fair and unbiased by competent authorities and other stakeholders.

Implementing biosecurity at national level requires human resources with adequate technical capability and this is more efficient when under the responsibility of a single competent authority.

2 To understand more clearly the essential differences between the notions of hazard, risk and safety, watch the short animation video 

5. What is risk management in the context of biosecurity?

Risk management in biosecurity can be described in general terms as the process of “weighing” control measure alternatives by governments in consultation with involved stakeholders. Ranking and prioritization of these biosecurity issues can then take place at different stages but, in the short term, the lack of available risk assessment models means that the majority of measures will be based on other scientific knowledge.

Issues presently encountered primarily results from the activities of competent authorities such as inspection, monitoring of hazard exposure pathways, reviewing compliance records, surveillance, epidemiological studies, scientific research and market access negotiations.

Where possible and practical, risk management will include a decision on an Appropriate Level Of Protection (ALOP) associated with a group of control measures. As uncertainty is intrinsic to risk analysis, a precautionary approach is integrated in various ways during risk assessment and risk management which may be intrinsic to risk assessment rules or may be introduced on a case-by-case basis.

Optimization of control measures is also an important principle involving a range of stakeholders and, on the basis of the hazard identification, of the implementation of measures at those steps where risk reduction measures will be most efficient and effective.

6. Conclusion

Better managing biosecurity issues with appropriate tools considerably enhance the capability of countries to protect human health, agricultural production systems, including the people and industries that depend on them.

With the increasing recognition that biosecurity is an interdependent partnership that requires participation from all biosecurity sectors at the international and national levels, achieving better biosecurity outcomes in an efficient and cost-effective manner, especially in transitional and developing countries, is a significant challenge.

Administrative, structural and technical changes, together with cross-sectoral application of risk analysis principles, will greatly enhance the development of integrated biosecurity strategies. Significant benefits flowing from such aligning approaches and sharing resources between different authorities and that changes towards a more integrated approach will increase biosecurity in general.

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