Foot and mouth disease could devastate Australia’s economy. Here’s what can be done

Kirsten was screaming and emotional when she was arrested for breach of the peace, assault of two police officers and possessing an offensive weapon.

She wasn’t a drug-addled miscreant. She was a 22-year-old railway worker who had come home to find her pet goat, Misty, slain outside the family cottage by government vets.

This was just one of the many unusual events that occurred during 2001 when foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) arrived in my home town of Dumfries in south-west Scotland.

FMD caused a huge amount of disruption to my region; my parents were one of the few families who benefited, as they had a bed and breakfast, which was fully booked out. But it wasn’t the usual tourists visiting some of the world’s most attractive landscapes. It was slaughterhouse workers.

As a teenage boy, I was more worried about being unable to meet the girl I was courting at the time due to lockdowns throughout the countryside. The big picture was more significant. UK agriculture lost £3.1bn. In the end, the country lost 13% of its sheep and 7% of its cattle and pigs.

Why do you need this history lesson? FMD is on Australia’s doorstep in Indonesia and has run rampant through that country since May.

This is concerning for all communities in Australia, not just rural ones. Australians love to head to Indonesia on holiday. In the five years up to the Covid outbreak, 103,000 Australian residents returned from Indonesia (mainly Bali) on average each month. The borders are back open, and we are travelling. That means the disease can be brought back.

The cost of foot-and-mouth disease

It is important to note that FMD is not dangerous to people. It only affects cloven-hoofed animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep. It causes considerable suffering to the animal, and while many may survive, they tend to have reduced productivity.

If the disease arrives, the control method is to lock down the movement of animals around Australia and to control the disease through culling. This is conducted in concentric circles around infected properties. This creates a firebreak, and most animals culled will be preemptively killed to stop the spread.

The primary impact of an FMD outbreak is to trade and the economy. As soon as FMD was detected, Australia would lose most of its meat export markets, especially the premium ones.

In the case of the UK, this was terrible; for Australia, it would be worse. Australia, with a significantly smaller population and larger numbers of livestock, is heavily reliant on exports in comparison with the UK.

To put this into perspective, we only consume about a third of the meat we produce. We don’t have enough people to eat all the meat which we would no longer be exporting. Livestock would become close to worthless.

In 2013, it was estimated that the economic impact to the agricultural industry of an FMD outbreak would be in the region of A$50bn. With the increasing price of livestock, this estimate has been expanded to A$80bn.

To put this into perspective, the jobkeeper stimulus package during Covid cost A$89bn.

Lockdowns would also hamstring another major Australian industry: already reeling from the effects of Covid, tourism would see reduced income in rural areas. The sight of burning funeral pyres and the smell of rotting flesh isn’t compatible with enjoying all the countryside has to offer. I can personally attest to that.

The arrival of FMD on our shores would have generational impacts on rural areas, and clearly it is something which we don’t want to occur, as the impact will spread throughout the economy. We need to have an understanding of what we can do.

Biosecurity is key

Plan for the worst and hope for the best is a mantra used in risk management strategy. Given a long enough period of time, everything is likely to occur.

The situation is really not all that dissimilar to Covid: stop it coming in and get it out when it arrives.

First and foremost, the priority must be strict biosecurity at our borders. The likely route into the country will be through clothing on a tourist or illegally imported meat.

Luckily, as a major agricultural economy, Australia has great biosecurity protocols. They can always be better. Education of tourists must increase.

If FMD arrives, then we need to be able to get it under control as quickly as possible. This requires tracking where livestock have moved around the country. Cattle have a mandatory electronic tag, but the system for sheep is not consistent around the nation.

At present, there is a mismatch between the traceability systems in operation around Australia. In Victoria, the gold standard is in place, with all sheep having an individual electronic tag. In contrast, other states are tracked as a “mob” using visual tags rather than machine-readable tags.

The Victorian system allows rapid tracing of animals, with 98% or 99% accuracy within one day to three days. The other states can take three to four weeks, according to the president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, Steve Harrison.

There have been exercises, known as Sheep Catcher 1 & 2, to test traceability in the event of a disease outbreak. The tests are reported to have shown that the current national system did not meet the required standards.

There is an expense to introducing individual animal tags and the associated systems. However, this cost will seem cheap to farmers and the wider taxpayer if an outbreak occurs in Australia. The quicker an outbreak is contained, the faster export markets can reopen.

And most vitally, if you are going to Bali on holiday, don’t go near any livestock.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.