Biosecurity should be everyone's concern

Six months ago, barely anyone outside of politics or agriculture had even heard the word ‘biosecurity’, let alone knew what it was. But over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen this critical issue skyrocket into the headlines, and for good reason.

According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) could cost the country $80 billion with export market closures, travel bans and livestock destruction all critical parts of a response.

FMD is a highly contagious animal disease that affects cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. It’s been 100 years since we’ve seen this disease here, which is why we’ve been raising the alarm about the FMD outbreak in Indonesia. If it came to Australia, FMD would have severe consequences for animal health and trade.

When FMD arrived in the United Kingdom more than 20 years ago, the impacts were both immediate and long-lasting. Commodity analyst Andrew Whitelaw spoke to NSW Farmers members recently about the impact that outbreak had on him as a young man growing up in Scotland. Funeral pyres stacked with livestock burning on the hills around his home, travel bans and lockdowns bringing everyday life to a standstill. Listening to that experience, I reflected on what it would mean for us having to live through FMD after COVID.

Australia’s real competitive edge in international trade is our reputation for high-quality, disease-free products. If FMD makes its way here our exports markets would crumble, livestock prices would fall through the floor, and farmers who for generations have made a living from pork, beef and lamb would struggle to make ends meet. As a result, this would threaten our domestic meat and dairy supply chain, and make any eventual recovery from an FMD outbreak long and hard for everyone.

The broad interest from the general public on the issue of biosecurity is welcomed by the farming sector, because for decades the issues that face us have fallen from the public eye as an increasingly urbanised world removed itself from the source of food and fibre. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. But agriculture is something that matters to us all, because we are all consumers of agricultural products. Your bowl of breakfast cereal, your morning coffee, your cotton shirt and woollen jumper, these are all products that come from farmers. If we care about the things that matter most in our lives, we should care about farming.

The good news though is that there are some fairly simple ways to keep FMD at bay. The bad news is that they rely on everyone doing the right thing and following the rules. As we saw this week, imported meat products can bring with them fragments of this disease to our shores. 

We must be incredibly vigilant with our supply chains – both domestic and foreign – and ensure we do not import this disease. That means everyone being completely honest on those incoming traveller cards and not trying to sneak something through customs. It means washing your clothes and your shoes if you’ve been to one of the 20 countries that are endemic with FMD, and if you’ve been to Bali for goodness’ sake consider leaving your thongs behind. Perhaps most importantly, if you’ve been within coo-ee of a farm in a country where FMD is present, don’t come back to Australia and go to a farm!

This is not like COVID – we know where FMD is, we know how it’s transmitted, we know how to keep it at bay. The scary similarity is that if we get an outbreak, it will cost us tens of billions when we can least afford it.  

Xavier Martin
NSW Farmers President