Biosecurity the ultimate bugbear for farmers

Opinion editorial by James Jackson, President of NSW Farmers 

Adapting Australia’s biosecurity system to an evolving world will be a key challenge over the coming decade. The global change that followed the onset of COVID-19 has made the impact of disease incursions publicly known, yet biosecurity has not been a funding priority for the Australian Government over recent years. We know prevention is better than cure, so why has our biosecurity system not been bolstered to meet growing pest and disease threats?

Our increasingly connected and globalised world influences Australia’s biosecurity risk profile. Human travel may have diminished due to COVID-19, but Australia’s import rates have remained high. During 2020, more than 60,000 mail articles containing biosecurity risk material were intercepted at our borders, an increase of approximately 3,000 articles for the same period in 2019. 2020 may be immortalised as the year of COVID-19, but it was also the year khapra beetle, fall armyworm and serpentine leafminer landed on domestic soil, while African swine fever remained as the greatest threat our domestic pork industry has ever faced.

Traces of foot and mouth disease and African swine fever recently detected in illegally imported pork have reinforced the risks attendant with a globally connected world. Between Christmas and Chinese New Year in February this year, some 24 per cent of pork products seized at international mail centres contained fragments of African swine fever, while one per cent had traces of foot and mouth disease.  

A pest or disease outbreak in Australia would be extremely costly. It is estimated that a single outbreak could cost Australia $50 billion, while also causing significant damage to our natural assets. A report released by CSIRO in late 2020 said billion dollar industries like agriculture will be under threat if Australia’s biosecurity system is not made more innovative, coordinated and collaborative in the face of increased risk of disease outbreaks and pest incursions. 

Australia’s “clean and green” status is a key driver of demand for our food and fibre domestically and globally, as well as the high premiums commonly attached to our produce. A strong biosecurity system is an underpinning feature of this reputation. It’s what contributes to our position as one of the top three beef exporters in the world, the leading provider of the world’s wool, and a key exporter of cotton, wheat, grain and dairy products. 

The federal government has ultimate responsibility for keeping biosecurity threats out of Australia. The Australian Government made concerning funding decisions relating to biosecurity in 2020, including the discontinuation of plans for an onshore biosecurity levy. Further, no new funding was allocated to biosecurity in the 2020-2021 Federal Budget. The National Farmers’ Federation is calling for $400 million over four years toward an expansion and modernisation of Australia’s biosecurity systems. 

The agriculture sector’s 2030 productivity targets will not be realised without a strong biosecurity system adaptable to emergent threats. The next decade is critical, as the NSW agriculture sector gears up to meet $30 billion in farm gate output and the national sector aspires toward $100 billion by 2030. The immense health, social and economic costs associated with the COVID-19 global pandemic should be proof of the need to act and invest early to prevent incursions in Australia. We cannot forget this key learning, and the Australian Government must make biosecurity a funding priority.