Calm the farm: foot and mouth disease is a threat, but it shouldn’t be used as a political weapon

You may have missed the quiet war waged by farmer groups to end foot in mouth disease.

Yes, I mean foot in mouth disease.

Since the highly contagious foot AND mouth disease reached Indonesia in May, governments and industry have increasingly become alive to the threat that it would pose Australia livestock producers and Australia’s export markets.

To be clear, it is a disease not to be taken lightly. But when the federal opposition exploded out of the blocks in the week before parliament to wedge Labor for taking a “softly, softly, gently, gently approach”, it became clear that this disease threat was also a political opportunity.

Nationals Senate leader, Bridget McKenzie, offered to wash travellers’ shoes on their way in through customs. The former Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, Senator Susan Mcdonald and Liberal shadow home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, demanded borders be closed with Indonesia.

But the obvious point for many farmers was, when do you open? How do you account for different treatment of different countries, given FMD is endemic in several parts of Asia and in most of Africa and the Middle East?

The Coalition made much of the Gillard government’s overnight decision in 2011 to temporarily suspend live exports to Indonesia after Four Corners aired footage of cruel treatment of Australian cattle being slaughtered.

That decision cost the industry dearly and spawned a federal court case, which the federal government lost. Compensation is still being negotiated.

That history hangs over the heads of Labor. Anthony Albanese spent a lot of time in country Australia as infrastructure and regional development minister in the previous Labor government. He understands the lingering bitterness towards Labor (not to mention economic loss) caused by the live export ban.

So combine that legacy with the fact that the Labor government is not the obvious first choice of country voters, nor most farmer advocacy groups.

Rural advocacy groups seem to find it harder to call out unwanted Coalition behaviour because of the Liberals and Nationals deep history in rural Australia.

Yet it has been instructive to listen to the quiet consternation of farmer groups as they watch cattle and sheep markets decline from record highs as buyers lose a measure of confidence with the opposition huffing and the media headlines.

Matt Dalgleish, a meat analyst with Thomas Elder Markets, estimates about half of the 20% drop in red meat markets in the last fortnight can be attributed to the loss of confidence both among domestic livestock producers and our export customers. But he underlines that it is impossible to prove why markets lose confidence.

The CEO of the Australian Meat Industry Council, Patrick Hutchinson, was one of a number of people stalking the halls of parliament in the first sitting week, counselling people to keep calm and stick to the science.

“It was about really trying to show them that what’s occurring here is not based on fact or science firstly and secondly is just having damage to the global brand,” Hutchinson said.

He also said the potential of Australia getting an outbreak of FMD based on the “known peer-reviewed, scientifically based risk assessments moved from 9% to 12%”. Conjecture around other figures was simply conjecture, he said.

To be clear, farmers (and the media) have been on their own trajectory of understanding, given Australia has not had to grapple with the disease since the 1800s and Indonesia has not had an outbreak since the 1980s.

There came the “holy shit” moment, as people realised how easily the disease spread via the dung encrusted shoes of Bali travellers. About 100 farmers did rally to temporarily suspend non-essential travel to Indonesia, a week after the opposition first called for travel bans.

But more recently, talk has eased into something more like risk management.

That is, we will do all we can to stop its spread, but we can’t control every human and animal movement. Under the Ausvetplan, in an outbreak, infected properties would be quarantined within at least a 3km radius.

So if it is not quite a zen moment on FMD, farmers are talking more about personal responsibility. Some breeders, for example, have decided to forgo some non-essential trips, like parading at the famous Ekka agricultural show. Others are getting their biosecurity plans updated.

The opposition, in the meantime, has toned down its language. Nationals leader and agriculture spokesperson, David Littleproud, has called for transparency on data and a science-based approach.

Still, the FMD debate has been a bit of a wake up call for your average sheep and cattle producer.

“All of this conjecture and all of this media has actually heightened people’s awareness of the responsibilities about biosecurity in the red meat industry, which has been there in the pork and chicken industries for many, many years,” said Hutchinson.

“Not having the virus but panicking as though we did has ensured that people are now starting to recognise that and I think, inadvertently or perversely, that’s a great outcome.”

It has also been a wake up call for those in the Coalition who purport to represent rural communities.

It can be seductive to claim the political point to win the headline battle but when political points start to move markets, perhaps it’s time to take the foot out of the mouth.


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