In 1872, a Victorian farmer imported a bull from England that was later diagnosed with foot and mouth disease. Only two farms ended up being contaminated and the disease outbreak was quickly eliminated.
Australia has been foot and mouth disease free for the subsequent 150 years. We have to do all we can to keep it that way.
An outbreak of foot and mouth disease would be catastrophic for the cattle industry and for Central Queensland, in particular. Foot and mouth disease does not affect humans but it devastates livestock like cattle, sheep and pigs. If there is an outbreak our plans are for at least a 72 hour standstill of all livestock. Infected and some at risk cattle would be destroyed.
For the cattle industry, foot and mouth disease would be more devastating than COVID lockdowns.
The Australian Government's agricultural advisers, ABARES, estimates that a foot and mouth outbreak would cost the economy $80 billion, with $50 billion of that impacting the beef industry. With two-thirds of the impact of FMD hitting beef, the Beef Capital of Rockhampton would be the epicentre of the fallout.
The good news is that we have a strong biosecurity system that underpins our clean, green image as a farming nation. The bad news is that Foot and Mouth disease has now spread to 70 countries and it can be transmitted through fresh, partially cooked, smoked or cured meat, dairy products that are not adequately heat treated or soil.
In early July, FMD reached Bali and given that Australians regular travel there, concerns of a transmission to Australia have risen.
Initially, the new Government was dismissive of these concerns, rejecting calls from farmers for more biosecurity officers at our border and the roll out of foot mats that can decontaminate footwear for people arriving from Indonesia. Notwithstanding this initial flat footed approach, the Government has now acted and announced a range of new measures including foot mats.
To make sure this talk is delivering action, the Senate this month established a new inquiry into our biosecurity system, and our preparedness for foot and mouth in particular. I am chairing this inquiry and we will hold hearings out in the regions like Rockhampton where the impact of a foot and mouth outbreak would be greatest. I would encourage anyone interested to make a submission which you can do by googling "biosecurity rural affairs senate inquiry".
As well as looking into what can be done to keep foot and mouth out, we are also looking at whether we are prepared to respond quickly in the event of an outbreak. We must hope for the best but plan for the worst.
This is where I have my greatest concerns. If an outbreak were to occur time would be of the essence. Thousands, if not millions, of cattle would need to be destroyed.
There are serious questions about whether the Departments of Agriculture at state government levels would have the resources to conduct and oversee these gruesome but necessary measures efficiently. A review of our foot and mouth preparedness in 2011 found that "state, national and industry resources could quickly be overwhelmed."
Since then there have been more cuts to the "extension officers" who are that species of rare public servants that actually step foot on a farm. We must try all we can to extend our 150 year freedom from foot and mouth but that does not mean we should not have the insurance of a well funded farm support system. We need to invest back in the protection of our farmers before it is too late.