Is Australia’s biosecurity system ready for foot-and-mouth disease?
15 Jul 2022|

In 2017, an independent review of the capacity of Australia’s biosecurity system classified it as an essential national asset. The report stated that the system is built on shared responsibility—that is, the cooperation, investment and actions of all governments (state, territory and federal), industry bodies, exporters, importers, farmers, miners, tourists, researchers and the broader Australian community.

The review, along with at least 11 others since 2002, highlighted the inevitable and growing threats to Australia’s security and prosperity. Chief among these are the biosecurity risks that threaten one of Australia’s greatest strategic advantages: our ability to feed and clothe twice our own population, our food security and ultimately our national security.

Australia’s biosecurity system protects our economy, our environment and the way of life of all Australians. The consequences of realised biosecurity risks rate as high as those from climate change and geopolitical volatility and could be more disruptive than a global pandemic. Those closest to the biosecurity system believe that it should be classed as part of Australia’s critical infrastructure, a system of national significance.

One of the risks we face today is foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD. Its arrival here is not inevitable, but it is increasingly likely. Detected last week in the tourist hotspot of Bali, the disease is closer to mainland Australia now than it has been in the 150 years since it was last eradicated. Australia’s biosecurity system works across a continuum that comprises activities pre-border, at the border and post-border. Prevention always being better than a cure, activities pre-border and at the border have been ramped up since FMD was first reported in Indonesia earlier in 2022. But with its progression towards Australia, the probability of an outbreak within the next five years has now risen to nearly 12%.

This necessitates a laser focus on how the biosecurity system reacts post-border should the unthinkable occur. An FMD outbreak in Australia is estimated to have an $80–100 billion direct impact to Australia’s economy. That cost factors in the immediate loss of market access for Australia’s red meat, livestock, wool and dairy products following a reported incursion. That would be an immediate and heavy blow to a nation that exports an average of 70% of what it produces.

Concurrently, a national livestock standstill—a pause on the movement of all FMD-susceptible livestock species across the entire country—will be ordered by authorities while they investigate the location, extent and spread of the disease. A short- to medium-term food protein shortage is likely to follow.

These measures and others are laid out in the Australian veterinary emergency plan, which contains the nationally agreed approach for responding to emergency animal diseases. These arrangements form a critical part of the post-border biosecurity system, and their success will determine the ultimate extent and impact of an outbreak.

Underpinning these arrangements is Australia’s livestock traceability system, the National Livestock Identification System. It’s the contact-tracing system for FMD-susceptible livestock species and it will be relied upon to track and trace animals in the early stages of an outbreak. It will be used to isolate animals and then as a monitoring and surveillance tool following the destruction of infected animals.

The more effective these systems are, the sooner an outbreak can be contained and eliminated. But the residual impact is ongoing. To regain access to export markets, Australia will have to prove freedom from FMD to the rest of the world. That requires an application to the World Organization for Animal Health, which can be made no sooner than three months after the destruction of the last infected animal where a vaccine program is not used, and six months where a vaccine has been used. If and when a declaration of freedom has been granted, only then will key export markets begin the process of considering whether to allow Australian trade again. That process could take years.

FMD is unique among the long list of Australia’s biosecurity risks because its impact is so widespread. Beyond the direct economic effects, the social fabric of rural and regional Australia would be fundamentally torn. The effects on mental health would strain already stretched services and the lives of individuals and families would be uprooted as businesses and livelihoods collapsed. From tourism to mining, few would be free of its impact. The recovery could take a generation.

This matters to suburban and metropolitan Australia, too. Much of our nation’s wealth comes from regional Australia—70% of the value of Australia’s exports is created there. The revenue generated by this economic activity helps to pay for services in the city such as infrastructure, education and health. Without this revenue the nation’s prosperity would be in jeopardy.

If anything is to cause a critical failure of our biosecurity system, FMD is the disease that will do it. Such is the enormity of the challenge it presents. It will test the relationships between jurisdictions, the Commonwealth, state and national industry bodies and the broader community. Preparedness is critical. A clear-eyed understanding of the impact is required, followed by a calculated and methodical approach to ensuring the biosecurity system is up to the task.

Partisan backbiting in the face of this disease is as equally useless as industry accusing governments of a lack of preparedness after years of blocking reform. Genuine cooperation in the shared responsibility of maintaining the biosecurity system is the only way Australia will prepare for and recover from the total disruption of an FMD outbreak. Collective national leadership is required, with little time to spare.

In the face of the threat, how all Australians value our biosecurity and the systems that protect our ability to produce and export food and fibre needs to radically shift. Governments must work together to ensure the resilience of the system and invest in it accordingly. The community must acknowledge and support that investment. Industry must support reforms that will strengthen livestock traceability systems because every day of inaction prolongs our re-entry into valuable export markets.

Finally, biosecurity and traceability systems must be classified as critical infrastructure and valued as systems of national significance.