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:
We cannot drop the ball on this.