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Ignorance is the greatest biosecurity risk factor

Mick Keogh - Monday, May 18, 2015

In the aftermath of the ‘war on terriers’ involving Johnny Depp’s dogs “Boo” and “Pistol” and Agriculture Minster Barnaby Joyce, Australian farmers should be very worried. The incident revealed that some Australian radio hosts are so ignorant of the issues surrounding biosecurity that they were prepared to lambast the Minister for insisting that a visiting ‘celebrity’ obey Australian law. But perhaps even more concerning was the fact that more than 20,000 Australians were prepared to sign a ‘save the dogs’ online petition promoted by Change.org.

Clearly, there is considerable ignorance in the community about the implications of a major biosecurity breach for Australia. And it is this attitude that represents the greatest risk, because the actions of people when travelling to and from Australia will reflect those attitudes. As this incident has highlighted, no amount of quarantine inspections will ever be successful if travellers simply don’t understand why they need to be careful and follow the rules.

Australian livestock industries generated more than $20 billion worth of production in 2013-14, and in addition to feeding the nation, also earned more than $18 billion worth of export revenue. Australia livestock products are exported to hundreds of nations, including some of the most fastidious (and high value) markets such as Japan, the USA and the nations of the EU. Australian livestock products have access to all these markets because of Australia’s world-leading biosecurity standards, which means that the nation’s livestock and native animals are free from a large number of devastating diseases that are endemic overseas.

To understand the importance of biosecurity, it is worth considering what happened to the US beef industry following the detection of a single cow with Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (Mad Cow disease) in late 2003. Fifty three countries immediately banned all imports of US beef, and the value of US beef exports dropped from $US 3 billion in 2003 to $US 0.5 billion in 2004. It was ten years before Japan finally removed its trade restrictions on US beef.

This is exactly what would happen to the Australian livestock industries in the case of the detection of a single case of Foot and Mouth disease, or any of a number of other diseases from which Australian is currently free. But in Australia’s case the economic damage would be relatively greater, because Australian livestock farmers are much more dependent on export markets than their US counterparts. For example, ABARES has estimated that an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease could have a direct cost for the livestock industries of $50 billion over ten years, with an additional cost of $50 billion to the wider community over the same period.

But the impacts of an exotic disease outbreak may not end there. There are many animal diseases that, once established in Australia, would have a devastating impact on native animals and domestic pets. Controlling and eradicating some of these diseases would involve the mandatory slaughter of millions of animals – pets included. As an example, the Avian Influenza outbreak that is occurring in the USA at the moment has already necessitated the mandatory slaughter of over 6.5 million chickens and turkeys, including family pets, and has resulted in the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota declaring states of emergency in an attempt to control the outbreak.

Given the potential implications of an exotic disease outbreak in Australia, Minister Joyce’s actions in threatening to kill Johnny Depp’s two dogs unless they were immediately quarantined and removed from Australia was probably the best thing the Minister could have done. In one action he not only removed the risk the dogs posed, but also highlighted the issue of biosecurity to millions of Australians and visitors to Australia. The national and international media attention his actions have resulted in will do more to raise biosecurity awareness amongst travellers to and from Australia that would millions of dollars spent on awareness campaigns.

Hopefully, he has also had some impact on the absolute ignorance of some shock jocks and the 20,000 people who signed the online petition to save the dogs, but perhaps that is too much to hope for!

 
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