Australia must take biosecurity more seriously

One of Australia’s greatest strategic advantages is our ability to produce and export more than $80 billion worth of food and fibre annually. Our agricultural industries feed three times our population. Exports represent 70% of the total value of Australia’s agricultural production, with the remaining 30% consumed domestically. The value of that strategic advantage is protected by Australia’s biosecurity system, yet its contribution to national security is poorly understood and totally undervalued.

Against a backdrop of significant geopolitical volatility with national security a top priority, the role of biosecurity in Australia’s national security is largely overlooked.

How we value our biosecurity and the systems that protect our ability to produce and export food and fibre needs a radical shift. Ensuring those systems are resilient and fit for purpose must be a top priority for all levels of government.

Post-Covid-19 optimism in agriculture is soaring and the sector is set to be worth a record $81 billion in 2021–22. Investment is strong and farmland values have increased for an eighth year in a row, with a reported average increase per hectare of 20% in 2021. Most commodity prices are surging. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to economically coerce Australia over the last two years, the value of the sector to the national economy is increasing.

Meanwhile, Covid-induced supply-chain breakdowns have provided a preview of what social instability and empty shelves look like. More than two years after the initial impacts of Covid, such breakdowns are compounded by the war in Ukraine. On top of that, the vulnerability of our systems to cyberattack was proven in 2021 when JBS Foods, one of the world’s largest livestock processors, was hacked, held to ransom and forced to shut global operations for a week.

In an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment exacerbated by major-power competition and climate change, food security is now intrinsically linked to national security. But without biosecurity, there simply is no food security.

Call them the three securities of prosperity—biosecurity equals food security, which in turn equals national security. Access to sufficient safe and nutritious food is a security necessity. We must dispense with the ‘she’ll be right’ approach that has plagued our broader attitude to biosecurity policy for too long in Australia.

Traceability systems have been a critical component of Australia’s biosecurity system for decades. While traceability might once have been considered helpful, now it is an absolute necessity. For example, the $18 billion per year red meat and livestock sector relies on the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) to demonstrate animal traceability to our trading partners, giving them confidence to allow our product into their markets. If that system does not work, our trading partners lose confidence in our product and stop imports. Suddenly, the NLIS, a system that most people don’t even know exists, becomes much more important than we could have ever realised.

Climate change consciousness and increasing domestic and international consumer demands on Australia’s agricultural production credentials are also putting further pressure on these systems. Sanitary and phytosanitary notifications to the World Trade Organization, justified or otherwise, have been growing at a rate of 6.3% per year. It is estimated that getting these systems right in the future will add up to $1 billion annually to the economy. The cost of getting it wrong will be far greater.

The value of what we produce is ultimately defined by Australia’s capacity to export. If we can no longer export 70% of our agricultural produce, we can assume the value of that 70% would be lost. In a worst-case scenario, our forecast $81 billion sector would be worth less than $30 billion.

Agriculture accounts for 55% of Australia’s land use. What are those assets now worth if we can no longer capture 70% of their productive capacity, and how would our commercial lenders react to that?

The Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis has calculated the benefits from assets vulnerable to biosecurity hazards at $251.52 billion a year.

If biosecurity systems fail, productive capacity—market access and the ability to export—is lost, eliminating value and creating insecurity.

Biosecurity is as relevant to the farmer with land worth $1 million as it is to the offshore pension fund holding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Australian agricultural land and water assets. It’s equally relevant to a broader economy reliant on the sector to do the heavy lifting in Australia’s post-Covid recovery.

If losing market access sounds unlikely, then consider the impacts of a lumpy skin disease or foot and mouth disease outbreak, both of which have been detected as close as Sumatra and Java in recent weeks. Both diseases have significant market-access implications for Australia’s red meat and livestock sectors, including wool and dairy exports. A now-dated analysis suggests foot and mouth could cost Australia $50 billion over 10 years. That cost is now likely to be twice as much. A recent probability exercise said there was a 9% likelihood of foot and mouth occurring in Australia within five years.

The true importance of biosecurity and the traceability systems we rely on should reside with each of us. Its impact spans family farmers, the boards and audit and risk committees of every agribusiness and agrifood company, and every farm lobby group and state government. It runs all the way up to the central agencies of the Commonwealth and those on the National Security Committee of cabinet. It should be our top priority to ensure our biosecurity and traceability systems are fit for purpose.

While a promised federal budget boost for biosecurity and traceability is welcome, federal funding alone can’t replace leadership and meaningful input from the rest of us. The policies and structures that are the foundations of our system are governed and influenced by a very few. Funding decisions are made by even fewer. They are subject to the whims of government and the influence of only those in industry who speak up.

Of all the factors that contribute to Australia’s future prosperity, stability and national security, maintaining biosecurity and the traceability systems it relies on are critical and within our control. We must radically shift our understanding of its true value and invest and act accordingly.