Soil carried on sea freight loaded with dangerous pests and diseases

Soil collected from the external surfaces of sea freight was found to support live microorganisms, worms, seeds and insects, including various regulated biosecurity organisms.

Often introduced unintentionally by human activities, invasive alien species can outcompete and overwhelm native flora and fauna, driving species to the brink of extinction and disrupting the balance of ecosystems. Understanding why exactly they establish in new locations and how they got there in the first place is crucial if we are to mitigate their destructive effects. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research on this, and the answers might not always be straightforward.

A research team from AgResearch and Better Border Biosecurity (B3) investigated the biological risk posed by soil on the external surfaces of sea freight such as shipping containers or used machinery at sea ports in New Zealand. With their work, the researchers hope to facilitate the assessment of relative biosecurity risks between different introduction pathways and contribute to the development of more efficient measures against them.

The team found soil on most types of sea freight, irrespective of origin, with all soil likely to vector microbes, including plant pathogens. The amount of soil recovered from a single sea container was 5.3 kg, while the overall mean weight collected from sea freight was 417g, with most of the soil found on the underside of sea freight.

“While the presence of soil is perhaps not surprising, the presence of live bacteria, fungi, worms, seeds and insects associated with the soil was of greater concern. Various regulated biosecurity organisms were recovered from the samples, including plant-parasitic worms, seeds, insects and spiders that were not recorded as being present in New Zealand,” says Mark McNeill of AgResearch, who led the study.

Seeds of Euphorbia prostrata, a new record to New Zealand, were found on sea freight. Photo by Stefan.lefnaer under a CC BY-SA 4.0

“Not only does the spread of exotic species through these networks represent significant environmental, economic and social costs to natural and agricultural environments if invasive alien species were to establish, a loss of biodiversity is also an expected consequence of invasive alien species establishment. For islands, the implications can be significant, as they have high levels of endemism and invasive alien species establishment can lead to extinction of species as well as biodiversity declines,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the open-access journal NeoBiota.

Compared to a previous study on contaminated footwear carried in luggage by international airline passengers, the number and diversity in soil on sea freight was smaller than soil transported in more protected environments (e.g., footwear in luggage). This showed that biosecurity risk can vary with pathway. However, prioritising one soil pathway over another according to the risks they present, and differentially allocating resources is problematic, because the relative risk is dynamic, dictated by factors such as new pests or diseases entering the respective pathways.

Even so, the researchers suggest that contaminated sea freight is an important introduction pathway for exotic species. The establishment of such species can be prevented by cleaning containers prior to departure, inspection at the border, and further cleaning where required.

Research article:

McNeill MR, Phillips CB, Richards NK, Aalders LT, van Koten C, James TK, Young SD, Bell NL, Laugraud A (2023) Defining the biosecurity risk posed by soil found on sea freight. NeoBiota 88: 103-133.

Follow NeoBiota on Facebook and X.

Long-distance survival: Effects of storage time and environmental exposure on soil bugs

Contaminated soil frequently arrives at the borders through transported items, and is widely recognised as a vector for non-native species, potentially threatening the local agriculture, horticulture and natural ecosystems. However, although soil is the target of management practices that aim to minimise the spread of invasive alien species, crucial knowledge of the biosecurity hazards that can accompany transported soil is currently lacking. While not much is known about the relative survival rates of the transported soil organisms, nor about their establishment probabilities, this information is essential to support optimal policy and management decisions.

soil-trays-on-top-of-research-sea-containersA recent study, led by Mark McNeill from AgResearch’s Biosecurity and Biocontrol team at Lincoln, New Zealand, and published in the open access journal NeoBiota, shows that biosecurity risks from soil organisms are to increase with declining transport duration and increasing protection from environmental extremes. The scientists sought the answer of a simple question – are soil organisms still risky after a year in the sun?

To find out, Mark and his team collected soil from both a native forest and an orchard and stored it on, in and under sea containers, as well as in cupboards. They tested it after three, six and twelve months for bacteria, fungi, nematodes and seeds.

“Soil can carry unwanted microbes, insects and plants, and this study showed that some died faster when exposed, than when protected in a cupboard. This work shows some of the risks presented by soil contamination,” Mark says.

“The results showed that viability of certain bacteria, nematodes and plants declined over 12 months, irrespective of soil source and where the soil was stored. But mortality of most organisms was higher when exposed to sunlight, moisture and desiccation than when protected,” he explains. “However, bacterial and fungal numbers were higher in exposed environments, possibly due to ongoing colonisation of exposed soil by airborne propagules.”

“The results were consistent with previous observations that organisms in soil intercepted from seaports tend to carry less bugs than soil found on footwear,” McNeill notes.

img-1-real-world_contaminated-footwear-2“The research also raised wider questions, because some results were unexpected, including trying to understand why the microbe numbers went up and down like they did in the soil sitting on the sea containers when everything else died off. Was it the circle of life or just new microbe migrants creating new populations?

“We hope that the work will be useful for plant quarantine authorities to assess the risk presented by transported soil based partly on where the soil is found and the age of the soil. This would help authorities to optimally allocate management resources according to pathway-specific risks. Importantly, the study will assist in the development of recommendations for increasing management efficiency and efficacy at national borders.”



Original source:

McNeill MR, Phillips CB, Robinson AP, Aalders L, Richards N, Young S, Dowsett C, James T, Bell N (2017) Defining the biosecurity risk posed by transported soil: Effects of storage time and environmental exposure on survival of soil biota. NeoBiota 32: 65-88.