Biosecurity is broadly accepted as a necessary and ongoing measure to securing markets for the Australian agricultural sector. This includes keeping out diseases, pests and weeds that would negatively impact on our international reputation, as well as add significant cost in any eradication program should these incursions happen.
The recent biosecurity failure in South Africa, the detection of foot and mouth disease, provides a window into what would be the impact in our market should Australia have biosecurity failure.
While the outbreak was reasonably localised, it not only had immediate impacts, with the banning of all movements of cloven foot animals and their products, but consequential impacts on other South African farm products.
This prompted the announcement by China that its customs department was suspending "all greasy wool imports from South Africa as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak earlier in the year" (ABC Country Hour).
This came as a shock with little preparation from Cape Wools South Africa. They immediately announced a suspension of wool sales; with the dominance of China in wool processing they had little choice.
While the biosecurity plans of South Africa were put to the test and the outbreak of FMD was contained, the situation has highlighted the need for robust traceability capability. South Africa's government has recently announced that it will implement a national animal identification and traceability system.
How would Australia cope?
Australia has a rigorous model, with all livestock movements requiring a documented process.
This system is further enhanced with Electronic Identification Tags, a mandatory requirement for all cattle, and paper documentation to follow and track all sheep, goat and pig movements.
In Victoria, all sheep and goats born after January 1, 2017 must also have an EID tag.
The then Victorian Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said at the time "the current system, which uses visual ear tags to trace the movement of sheep across Australia, was not strong enough to bear a biosecurity threat like an outbreak of foot and mouth disease".
This step up in livestock monitoring and traceability required saleyards and abattoirs to install operational scanning infrastructure by mid-2017.
"Other states will watch with great interest," Ms Pulford said. "Victoria is very proud to take the lead."
In fact, to date, no other state has followed Victoria's lead in EID tagging sheep, with the issue barely rating any serious discussion in recent times.
Not everyone was in favour
While Victoria's initiative was a step forward in using technology to improve traceability, it was not universally applauded.
The federal government and major industry wool and sheep representative bodies were not impressed, saying that the existing "paper trail" of tracing the movement of livestock was "working well" and the EID model was an unnecessary cost.
At grower and agent briefings by the Department of Agriculture, there was widespread resistance citing concerns about the capability of agents and saleyards to handle the new requirements.
The saleyard managers, however, were provided with subsidised scanning technology and quietly went on with preparing for the challenge. It now seems that despite the concerns, the system appears entrenched and working well.
Not if, but when!
There are those who are charged with ensuring our biosecurity who believe that an outbreak in Australia in the future is inevitable. In recent times, there have been increased instances of visitors at airports attempting to bring contaminated products into the country.
Testing by the Australian Animal Health laboratory of meat products collected at airports found two cases of FMD since December, with a third sample deemed inconclusive among the more than 280 samples tested for the deadly livestock disease.
It was found in smallgoods such as sausages and pork jerky.
Fragments of African Swine Fever were also detected in the meat of six of the December samples and 40 of the 283 samples taken in 2019.
A recent example was the incursion of equine influenza, costing the industry an estimated $522 million. ABARES has calculated that a major outbreak of FMD could cost the Australian economy $55 billion in lost export markets and eradication over up to 10 years.
While we hope any infected product does not get through the rigorous border security checkpoints, should we be faced with an outbreak, the traceability of stock movements will be critical.
To provide assurance to our trading partners, and in the case of a disease outbreak the confidence to allow Australian agricultural product back in to export destinations, the system in place to trace any stock movement even remotely associated with the affected stock will be put to the test.
We can look to the US as a case study of poor traceability impacting economically for an extended time. In 2003, the US discovered one cow infected with mad cow disease (BSE). It was later confirmed that this old dairy cow had come from Canada.
In subsequent years the US has identified six cows with the disease, and in consequence, the US lost access to premium beef markets for five years. Industry experts estimate that it was an $11 billion cost the US beef industry.
Time to prepare
Where biosecurity is concerned, continuous preparation, process review and improvement are essential.
There is a need for the industry bodies and the elected or appointed representatives to lead this process. Especially in the livestock industry, any failure on the biosecurity front will be catastrophic. The great work over recent years to build export markets would all be quickly undone if a disease like FMD or BSE was to breach our shores. With the pace of technology improvement continuing unabated, the industry bodies must lead in its implementation. This will not only prepare for any biosecurity breach or disease outbreak, but it will also provide our trading partners with greater confidence in the "clean, green and safe" features of Australian agricultural produce.
This initiative will provide the systems and resources for a quick response and speedy approach to controlling damage if needed, but it will also provide our markets with an enhanced point of difference ensuring market access and premium prices.