The Economics of Biosecurity

Prof. Tom Kompas' work has revolutionised the Australian government's approach to investing in surveillance, border quarantine and containment programs


Economists normally praise the benefits of international and regional trade. But trade it is not an unqualified good. Rapid increases in trade and tourism throughout the world have increased the likelihood of the incursion, establishment and spread of exotic diseases and pests, ones that can do great harm, and in some cases can be potentially devastating to local industry, animal, plant and human health, and the environment. Foot-and-mouth disease, SARS, Mad Cow disease and Avian Influenza are recent headline concerns, but there are literally hundreds of other key pests and diseases that can generate substantial damages.

Traditional approaches to prevent biosecurity threats have focused on pre-border, border and post-border quarantine measures, local surveillance programs and eradication and containment campaigns where, for the latter, a pest or disease has already been detected in the environment. In many cases, these biosecurity measures are undertaken by local, state and national governments. In other cases, private industry and volunteer groups provide effective measures against invasive threats.

Key questions that Tom has responded to in terms of biosecurity include: How much should be spent, or what costs for biosecurity should be incurred, to protect animal, plant and human health, as well as the environment? How should resources be allocated across the large number of various threats? Who should pay for this activity: industry, the tax payer, government, or the consumer? How should expenditures be allocated across the various biosecurity measures? How much should be spent at the border? How much for local surveillance to ensure the early detection of an invasive threat? Should an invasive be eradicated, contained, or simply ignored and potentially treated at a later date, or not at all?

Policy Engagement

Tom is one of the leading economists providing answers to the key policy questions of biosecurity. He is also the first in the world to provide a comprehensive and risk-based methodological approach to determine optimal surveillance measures against invasive threats and security concerns. In his role as Director of the Australian Centre for Biosecurity and Environmental Economics and, more recently, as one of four Chief Investigator Investigators in the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA) at the University of Melbourne, Tom has provided key expert advice and helped to transform biosurveillance at both the state and national levels in Australia, as well as advised key organisations in the USA and Europe.

CEBRA, itself, provides direct advice and considerable research on biosecurity measures directly to the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture. Tom was the theme and project leader of a Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program on biosecurity, a multi-year project that provided considerable expertise and new insights on biosecurity. In 2010, Tom was appointed to the Eminent Scientists Group (ESG) in the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture. The ESG provides independent advice to the Minister and the Secretary of the Department on matters of biosecurity and risk analysis. Recently, Tom was appointed to a select three-person team providing a comprehensive review of Biosecurity Queensland. He regularly is invited and presents his path-breaking work to the National Biosecurity Committee in Australian, Europe and the USA.

Policy Outcomes

Tom’s work has literally transformed the economics of biosecurity, establishing key approaches to surveillance, border quarantine and containment programs in Australia. His work on optimal surveillance has provided key measures of how to invest in early detection, at correct levels, and in ways that maximise returns on investment.

Tom’s most recent work on portfolio allocation of investments across various threats and biosecurity activities is a profound improvement over standard cost-benefit analysis (CBA). It has the potential to affect how government allocates budgets – not only in biosecurity, but in any setting where risk and finding the ‘best’ returns matters. His work in this regard has already provided a practical optimisation model for Red Imported Fire Ants (RIFA) in Queensland, Orange Hawkweed in Victoria, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Victoria, and Papaya Fruit Fly (PFF) in the Torres Strait and Queensland.

Tom is Professor of Economics at The Australian National University and Chief Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis, University of Melbourne.

Find out more about Tom's work and research affiliations:

Australian Centre for Biosecurity and Environmental Economics (AC BEE)

Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis

Asia and the Pacific Policy Society

Read more about the Fellows of the Economics & Science Group

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