Red imported fire ants pose major threat to Australia: Report

Red imported fire ants could cost Australia up to $22bn in losses by the 2040s, a major research institute has warned, arguing the federal government may be low-balling the biosecurity threat from the invasive species.

The Australia Institute says eradicating the ants has not been properly resourced and the government’s own economic modelling on the ants underestimates their danger.

“Government commissioned modelling assesses only a 15-year time frame and ignores the $2.5bn per year in damages that fire ants will cause beyond 2035,” the institute said in a research paper released on Wednesday.

“Extending the government commissioned analysis to a 20-year time frame shows every dollar invested in eradication will bring between $3 and $9 in benefits.

“This analysis shows that RIFA will cost Australia more than $22bn by the 2040s.

“This means that it is less costly to spend $200m or even $300m per year every year for the next 10 years, which would be a total of between $2bn and $3bn, to eradicate RIFA now.”

The ants infect painful stings on people and animals and pose a threat to the country’s agricultural industry.

They can fly up to 5km and travel over and underground, the government’s animal and plant pests and diseases website states, and can also move with shipping containers and cargo and hide in soil, mulch, fertiliser and plant material.

The government has spent $690m to contain and eradicate the species since 2001 following an outbreak in Southeast Queensland.

There are now fire ants in Queensland and South Murwillumbah and Wardell in NSW.

The 2021 Scott-Orr Review concluded an extra $200m to $300m in yearly funding for ten years was needed to contain and eradicate the threat.

The Institute’s call for greater funding has also found some support with the release on Thursday of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Transport References committee inquiry report, which recommends eradication as a central policy goal.

“The committee recommends that the Australian government in consultation with state and territory governments, work to review the current level of funding for the National Fire Ant Eradication Program and whether this is efficient to eradicate red imported fire ants by 2032 and if not sufficient, investigate the appropriate level of funding required for eradication,” the report stated.

“The Australian government, and all state and territory governments, commit to providing uninterrupted funding required to achieve eradication.”

Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan chaired the Senate inquiry and decried a “lack of transparency” in efforts to tackle the problem.

“This report finds that there is a severe lack of transparency in the plans to eradicate red imported fire ants and more co-operation with the non-government sector should be undertaken to ensure that any governmental response is leveraging off the widest amount of knowledge available,” he said.

“This report recommends reviewing funding arrangements and allocations to ensure that the funding is adequate to eradicate red imported fire ants and investigate other models that would improve delivery and transparency in any eradication program.”