Consequences of exotic outbreak far outweigh biosecurity funding: ag sector

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
April 3 2022 - 8:30pm
Consequences of exotic outbreak far outweigh biosecurity funding: ag sector

BUDGET money for biosecurity doesn't measure up against the imminent threat of diseases like lumpy skin and African swine fever, which could bring entire farm sectors to their knees.

So say agricultural industry leaders, who argue ad-hoc support will always be insufficient and an ongoing sustainable funding model for biosecurity is desperately needed.

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While the sector welcomed the budget's $600-million investment in agriculture, there are serious concerns the benefits of the funding will be undone by any number of biosecurity threats, with the damages estimated to be in the billions.

The government announced more than $61m to strengthen the nation's northern biosecurity border, where the threat is greatest due to natural pathways, such as cyclones or migrating birds.

The funding includes $15m for lumpy skin disease, which has been found only 3000 kilometres off Australia's shores in Sumatra, where the Indonesia government recently signed off on an emergency delectation to fight the virus. Meanwhile, African swine fever - an outbreak of which could cost Australia $2 billion - is in Papua New Guinea and Japanese encephalitis is spreading across the nation.

Australian Dairy Farmers president Rick Gladigau said the consequences of an exotic disease outbreak far outweighed the government's biosecurity investment.

"For example, dealing with the threat of lumpy skin disease far exceeds the $61.6 million over four years provided to address that and other biosecurity risks," Mr Gladigau said.

National Farmers' Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said a number of "very stark" briefings with the Department of Agriculture made it very clear the industry faced "a much more prevalent danger than it did in the past".

"An investment of $15 million in financial year 2023, to ward off a lumpy skin disease incursion falls short given the serious risk to international market access," Mr Mahar said.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud hit back at the criticism, which he labelled as "ignorance about understanding the threat", and said the government had poured millions into fighting lumpy skin disease "and it's not even in the country".

Australia's chief medical veterinary officer has been sent to Indonesia and Singapore to work with local authorities, while the $61m will put more boots on the ground for surveillance, Mr Littleproud said, "because this thing will blow in, it's not going to come through ports".

"At this stage, [that's] all we can do - otherwise, you'd just be spending money on lumpy skin that we don't have [in the country]," Mr Littleproud said.

"The Department is giving us the advice, the scientists are giving us advice - not sideline critics that don't understand the science."

Mr Mahar said the Agriculture Minister was right that lumpy skin was not in the country, but that did little to ease the industry's fears.

"We haven't had risks like this in previous years, lumpy skin is not as close as it has been now," Mr Mahar said.

"It's not just lumpy skin. Across the sector - horticulture, grain, red meat, cotton, dairy - they're all very concerned with biosecurity."

In the previous budget, the government committed $371m to biosecurity. But Mr Mahar said the ag industry wanted to move away from short-term, ad-hoc announcements towards a consistent funding model.

Two years ago, the government backed away from a long-awaited levy on incoming freight, which would have annually generated $100m to fund the nation's biosecurity, due to concerns about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on importers.

"What the industry needs, and has been asking for, is a long-term sustainable funding model that will keep pace with what appears to be - based of all the evidence - an increasing risk profile," Mr Mahar said.

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"Right now, we're getting commitments over three year, $60 million here, $15 million there."

Labor shadow agriculture minister Julie Collins said the government had missed an opportunity to provide long-term security for Australia's agriculture industry.

"There is no plan for fixing Australia's broken biosecurity system, which was the subject of a number of scathing reports and reviews," Ms Collins said.

"A grab bag of half measures will not solve the serious issues in Australia's biosecurity system."

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Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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