News

Opinion: Biosecurity underpins food security (and trumps tourism)

Beef Central, 20/07/2022

NSW beef and sheep producer Angus Hobson, a former chairman of the Southern Australian Meat Research Council and past CEO of the Red Meat Advisory Council, offers his thoughts on Australia’s threat from FMD in nearby Indonesia, and how best to manage it

 

 

LET me get straight to the point.

The irony of an industry class action against the Government’s 2011 closure of the border to live cattle trading with Indonesia, and a infinitely larger lawsuit if the Government fails to secure that same border against FMD transmission in 2022…is not something we want to see play out.

Between that scenario, and an $80b price tag to mop up the mess created if FMD ever gets a foothold in Australia…I don’t know what else it will take to shift the mindsets of some people purporting to be managing this issue that: an FMD incursion into Australia…is not an option. Full stop. Period.

As someone whose livelihood is now 100% directly reliant on livestock production, and having previously worked at senior levels of industry administration and advocacy (including in crisis management), I’ve been a bit shocked at the quality, timing and degree of discussion and (in)action emanating around FMD exclusion and mitigation.

Just to remind readers:  this is the biggest single threat the Australian livestock sector has faced in decades. If FMD were to get a foothold in this country, the security of livestock, food and wool supply to any number of the 100-plus countries with which we trade would be under serious threat.

$80b may be an incomprehensible number, so perhaps it’s better to talk about the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of farms – and the businesses that support them – that will succumb to lost income and costs incurred from an FMD outbreak. Then there’s the mental health aspects; even some whole communities may falter altogether.

As of early this week, the Australian Government has officially doubled the risk of an FMD outbreak in Australia to 18%, up from 9% a month earlier. It’s worth noting that’s not a trajectory – thankfully – being replicated in any other countries dealing with FMD on an endemic level.

Yet it was only in the past week that we’ve started to see substantive announcements around resourcing to assist Indonesia’s in-country FMD control efforts, and extra at-the-border resources for our quarantine system.

While not to be sneezed at, $14m spent to date in the context of a $80b threat to the Australian economy is insufficient in the extreme. Similarly, given our trade in meat and livestock to Indonesia would halt overnight if FMD was confirmed in Australia, now is not the time to be penny-pinching insofar as how many resources we throw at Indonesia to help control and eliminate the disease in-country.

Presently, Australian Government assistance includes a $1.5m allocation to supply one million FMD vaccines to Indonesia. Indonesia has reported that it requires 100 million vaccines to control the outbreak, but due to supply issues, it cannot obtain these until April 2023.

If the risk of FMD incursion has already doubled in one month, and access to – let alone implementation of – country-wide FMD protections in Indonesia is almost a year away…it is inconceivable that something as blatant as tens of thousands of people (aka vectors) returning every month from FMD hotspots is allowed to continue.

Even the FMD playbook (AUSVETPLAN) specifically identifies tourists as a likely point of entry for FMD into Australia. Certainly, the optics of jovial tourists returning from Bali while an $80b ‘risk cloud’ hangs over the Australian meat and livestock sector…doesn’t sit well with anyone whose livelihood hinges on their goodwill to fill out border entry cards honestly, let alone correctly.

Government and industry have been (quite rightly) talking about FMD readiness for decades, rehearsing scenarios, revisiting impact modelling, refining funding agreements, etc. Yet, two (or three) months on from an out-of-control FMD outbreak on our doorstep, we’re seeing contradictions from AUSVETPLAN around footbathing and the risk posed by tourists, a plethora of on-the-fly hashtag campaigns about footwear disposal, too much self-indulgence about how hard people are working, and plenty of of gratuitous advice about the importance of farm biosecurity. On farm biosecurity…I’ll come back to that later**

The mere presence of conjecture around some of these matters would be almost comical (if indeed it wasn’t so serious). Even calm heads could be forgiven for not feeling the same sense of readiness that is being peddled by government and some industry groups. Note to self: if ever you want exacerbate a sense of anxiety in your constituents during a crisis…put out a media release telling everyone how unified and prepared you are.

Anecdotally, the collective messaging to industry about FMD comprises about 10% on what’s happening in terms of preventing an incursion, and 90% about farm biosecurity and the processes for dealing with FMD in Australia. It’s a pattern that has all the hallmarks of an underlying defeatist view that FMD in Australia is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.

**On the issue of farm biosecurity, and to use an old ‘Rudd-ism’… let me say this: good farmers deal with biosecurity every day. And one of the fundamental principles of excluding pests and disease from your farm is…you can’t leave the boundary gate open. Why is it that such a simple principle is apparently in the “too hard basket” as far as our Australian boundary (the border) is concerned?

If the Federal Government isn’t actioning (not debating) every possible avenue to prevent FMD from entering Australia, then they are failing the Australian people and putting the Australian economy at risk (and the security of food and fibre supply of our export customers at risk).

It is the role of the national bodies representing the various commodities of Australia’s livestock sector to explicitly advocate for the individual and collective interests of the meat and livestock industry…above anything else. Critically, this includes holding the Federal Government accountable for ensuring quarantine integrity at our border. Being seen to be unified with governments may have aesthetic appeal, but it’s the outcome that matters.

Any behind-the-scenes shenanigans or horse trading that places the interests of the livestock industry below those of other sectors (including tourism) is neither acceptable nor financially sound. Likewise, the GVP/GDP contribution of the meat and livestock sector cannot be put at risk for the sake of less valuable commodities to the Australian economy.

Finally, let’s not kid ourselves:  we’re not going to hashtag our way out of an industry crisis (and nor are travel suspensions in any way viewed as the exclusive mechanism to stop an FMD incursion).  But in order to keep the hashtag proponents happy, here’s a few you could run with:

#shutthegateonFMD

#baliwillstillbethere

#holidayathomethistime

We cannot drop the ball on this.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Maryanne Forster, 29/07/2022

    Please shut the borders to travellers/produce from Indo/Bali and China and increase border security from internatial shipping boats incuring into our waters especially the top end

  2. Joanne Rea, 28/07/2022

    Very well said. The “gratuitous” advice on on-farm biosecurity has been negligent and stressful.
    The roll-out of border security measures has been so slow and incompetent that one must wonder what else is just not done to a high enough standard. That leaves no option but to close the border.
    This is the best whole of scenario analysis I have seen. Thank you.

  3. Peter Murphy, 24/07/2022

    Wake up Australia. No reality TV show will convey the consequences of Foot and Mouth Disease.

  4. michael nasser, 21/07/2022

    Ablo must show some fortitude and treat FMD as a Pandemic and close all borders to and from FMD countries including all of Indonesia.. also lock out all Australians currently visiting Bali etc until fully quarantined as of today 21/07/2022

  5. Kim Hicks, 21/07/2022

    Forget the individual farmers for a second, why would a government and bureaucracy let a nations food security be threatened with collapse? It’s beyond stupid and an in-site into the people we elect. Have the greens or other independents made a sound?

  6. Paul Fry, 20/07/2022

    Some good points from Gus about needing to throw the kitchen sink at assisting Indonesia with their outbreak. But isn’t a travel ban a bit much, given this hasn’t been implemented for travel from other countries with endemic fmd? Increased border measures are good but I’d also like to see returned travelers asked to stay in the city for a couple of days (as most would anyway) to kill off any virus. Maybe #urbanquarantine ?. The next step of infected material to host animal is still largely up to us to manage (who and what comes on farm) and i think we should all be stepping up our own risk management before asking fir travel bans. After all bali is a lot more attractive than the Monaro at this time of year (sorry mate).

    • Angus Hobson, 21/07/2022

      It’s worth (re)emphasising that it’s specifically the FMD incursion risk from Indonesia that has doubled in the last month; this has occurred (yet) from the other countries whom have endemic FMD.

      FMD in Indonesia – right now – is akin to a 50km bushfire front bearing down on us, with 60kph wind gusts behind it. Other countries with endemic FMD – right now – are the equivalent of a small campfire on an otherwise green lawn.

      This shouldn’t be a fixation about travel; suspending travel is but ONE component of disease exclusion. In no way does this dilute the importance of implementing ANY AND ALL measures to stop FMD at the border.

      But it just so happens that right, tens of thousands of tourists (vectors) returning from Bali is a gaping hole that needs to be plugged. You simply cannot rely on goodwill or commonsense in humans – in masse – to do the right thing at the border. COVID has shown us that…in spades.

      We need to plug the holes (suspend non-essential travel East Java and Bali) while we buy us some time to move heaven and earth to EVERYTHING we can to help Indonesia control FMD in-country. It would also be a good time to refuel and resource internal defences (on-farm biosecurity, traceability systems, State Government EAD management capability, etc)

  7. Ian McCamley, 20/07/2022

    Thanks for you honest and frank opinion piece Angus. You have great experience and knowledge from your time serving the livestock industry at the pointy end. And now being a genuine producer with plenty of skin in the game your opinion should command some respect. However I’m confused. We have respected Australian vet in Bali Dr Ross Ainsworth explaining on the weekly grill that Bali cattle are wandering the streets and vacant lots as per normal. There is 600,000 of them plus 700,000 pigs, yet Bali has only received 2,000 doses of FMD vaccine. So not much happening there to do anything but exacerbate the problem according to someone who is actually in Indonesia in the middle of the lack of action. Then respected livestock producer Mick Wettenhall comes back from Bali on Friday. He was appalled at how weak and incompetent our boarder security was. Even people saying they had been on a farm (Bali is a farm) were being ushered straight through. It made Mick feel sick. Dirty boots, dirty cloths, bag wheels chocked with mud and animal excrement from the streets of Bali all rolling straight through quarantine onto Australian soil. So the reason I am totally confused is why on earth are our industry leaders all in lock step with the Government saying everything is ok; throw away your thongs, get your biosecurity plan ready, nothing to see here! Angus have you any clue at all as to why RMAC, who represents the FMD susceptible livestock producer groups, is being quoted in this edition of Beef Central saying “RMAC and members are supportive of the Australian government’s measured response and for the continued assistance offered to our neighbours in Indonesia and keeping trade and travel open.”?

    • Angus Hobson, 21/07/2022

      Ian, I suspect in the back rooms of government and industry, people are weighing up the MAY-get-here risk of FMD in Australia…versus the inevitable repercussions that WILL happen if we suspend travel to Indonesia (namely Indonesia moving to suspend imports – including boxed beef and live cattle – from Australia in retaliation). These are important considerations, and entirely predictable tactics you’d expect when dealing with Indonesia.

      There is also a concern that if Australia suspends travel, Indonesia will reject any efforts we make to help them control FMD in-country…and their outbreak will become worse.

      There will also be “legacy jitters” at play (in industry and especially in government) from the 2011 live trade ban. I’m not sure whether those are being exacerbated by having a newly-minted Labor Government (but certainly the agri-political establishment is historically less likely to pushback on a Labor vs Coalition Government).

      As complex as these things are, none of them are worth gambling an $80b FMD clean-up cost on, nor the GDP contribution that the Australian meat and livestock sector makes to the economy. The numbers just don’t stack up.

      Absurdly enough, ALL meat and live cattle exports to Indonesia would be suspended overnight if we get a single case of FMD confirmed in Australia…so it’s in Indonesia’s food security interests to ensure Australia doesn’t get FMD anyway.

      But if we get FMD in Australia, any trade repercussions with Indonesia arising from a tourism ban…will pale into insignificance compared to the loss of export meat, wool and other livestock products that will be forfeited to the other 100+ countries that we trade with.

  8. David Connolly, 20/07/2022

    Thankyou for the well written article Angus.
    Although you may now be labelled alarmist or hysterical for calling for far stricter measures to actually look after Australia’s agricultural well being.
    Although not from me you won’t.

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