Surra, Screw Worm Fly, Foot and Mouth, Varroa Mites, Africanised Honey Bee, Wheat Blast, African Swine Fever, TTTTF Stem Rust: the list goes on. There are hundreds of pests and diseases around the world that are a threat to Australia’s $65 billion agricultural industry.
In recent years we have seen that an outbreak of fire ants in Queensland which has burnt though tens of millions taxpayers funds will likely cost $380m to eradicate. In the United States, these ants cost the economy $7 billion annually and have been responsible for over 100 deaths.
In the United Kingdom, the Foot and Mouth outbreak cost farmers billions and resulted in the destruction of 5.5 million livestock. If Foot and Mouth entered Australia it would shut down exports of much of our red meat industry just as an of outbreak of African swine fever would decimate our pork industry.
Recently we have had outbreaks of some seriously destructive diseases which have cost various sectors of farm production their livelihoods including Panama Disease in bananas, Cucumber Mosaic virus in vegetables and White Spot disease in prawns.
It’s only a matter of time before we are having to deal with the next major outbreak in Australia, with African Swine Fever it could happen any time which is why our biosecurity system should be up there with our defence system in terms of planning and manning. We need to have the people, the quarantine systems and the regulatory powers to stop all movement of livestock without any public debate.
But all of this costs money, lots of money, but some vocal agri groups in our industry believe that its all the government’s responsibility and funding via any form of farm levy for biosecurity monitoring, research on new resistant varieties, control and eradication programs is a tax on farmers and that growers should be able to opt-out of all levy’s no matter how important the common good. It’s a free country they claim and they should be free from any form of industry funding scheme as it’s the first step towards socialism. McCarthy would be proud.
No doubt, if such a policy was adopted by the federal government for the Rural Research Development Corporations and a opt out system put in place, the farmers that bailed out would be the first to scream for federal government support when a disease hits, the farm gate is locked and the banks are at the door. The brutal reality is both farmers and governments have to jointly pay to keep the nasties at bay and if it’s one in it should be all in if we are serious about defending the farm.
According to the various budget papers across Australia the government is seemingly doing its fair share. With the federal government spending around $60m a year on direct front line agricultural defence and hundreds of millions more on border force protection through its 5800 staff. In turn the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries spends $80m in their annual budget plus has over 400 staff allocated to its biosecurity section.
On top of this is industry funding coming from the various national RDCs (GRDC and MLA) along with the three state-based Primary Industry Schemes. The one thing we know is that funding is increasing across the board and there is a lot happening on the ground. In part, this is because the state and federal governments recognise that to maintain our clean safe image, we need to keep out the really nasty pests and diseases which, if they were to hit our shores, would cause major losses on farm. The latest threat from swine fever is a wake up call that we need to do more.
While politically it’s easy for industry to endlessly demand that government cough up, this approach rarely works without good arguments. Biosecurity is a complex area and we have already seen government undertake some serious work into upgrading our legislative regulatory systems, border force protection and the supporting physical quarantine systems.
We have seen the state government roll out the new BAM Act which was years in the making, and the federal government completed its own independent review in 2017. This resulted in the introduction of a new biosecurity imports levy on containerised and bulk cargo coming to Australia by sea. The levy, which is soon to commence has been set at the rate of $10.02 per container and $1.00 per tonne which will raise an additional $80m a year. This is designed to support both state and commonwealth activities for enforcement, outbreak planning, response, intelligence and innovation.
In addition, the commonwealth’s infringement scheme has been modernised with the introduction of the new Commonwealth Biosecurity Act in 2016. This brought in a swath of 52 new penalties with each penalty unit being set at $210 which opens up huge fines for major breeches.
We are lucky that as an island continent, we can actively protect our borders but unless we want to turn into a North Korea or give up on free trade agreements, we will always have to accept a degree of risk. And the only way to reduce risk is to pump more funds into protection and response.
So should we do more? The question immediately raises the follow up question of who will pay? If farmers demand more protection, are farmers themselves prepared to pay more? We know that few farmers opt out of the various state based biosecurity schemes that fund on farm projects like footrot control and the eradication of three horned bedstraw.
This shows a high level of commitment of specific farmer funded programs even through some projects like skeleton weed are heavily criticised. Other schemes like footrot were seen as half-hearted and the state government should have stepped in on farms that continuously fail to clear themselves of quarantine restrictions. But as with any farmer funded scheme as the risk changes the funding focus can and should change, it’s why you have farmers on the various scheme boards to set the priorities.
So, what as an industry should we be seeking from government? My thinking is that we need a simple formula that links government expenditure to the size of the whole ag industry and we need another formula that directly links the container funding to a specific program.
The National Farmers Federation, which WAFarmers supports financially, has set a goal of lifting total ag production from its current $65b to $100b by 2030. Hence ,it’s in a position to advocate for the Federal Government to match the growth of total farm production by continuing to lift public expenditure on biosecurity in line with the size of the industry. That is the $65b farm gate value is matched by $65m in front line agricultural biosecurity spend which becomes $100m in time matching the $100b by 2030 goal or another formula 0.01% of production.
In addition, the entire amount of the biosecurity container levy of $80m needs to be allocated to a stand-alone budget trust fund preferably targeted at emergency response to a pest and disease outbreak such as African Swine Fever. Think of it as the SAS ready action force.
At the state level the WA government has finally locked down its new Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development budget, so we can begin to track their budget expenditure on biosecurity. I note that it is essentially flat, moving from $79m to $81m over forward estimates and the BAM Act funding is listed as going down from $5.37 m to $5.31m. The government should target to lift the combined figure to $100m by 2022-23 in line with the value of farm gate production heading from $8b to $10 billion, or in percentage terms set it at 1% of total production. And this should be seen as a minimum, biosecurity is important, too important to become part of the debate around levy’s.
Like Defence, we need to allocate a percentage of government expenditure and stick to it. In the case of the defence budget, Australia currently spends $1.93% of GDP with the goal of achieving 2% of GDP. The Australian government should have a long term goal of maintaining 0.1% of expenditure of our national farm gate output going directly to agricultural biosecurity, and Western Australia should target 1% of our state’s agriculture and food production going into biosecurity. Simple trackable formulas.
As the industry grows, the biosecurity funding should grow, and personnel with the expertise and training to respond to a biosecurity outbreak will then be available to come from well-funded government departments. Hence DPIRD’s staff numbers must be held at a minimum of 1580 FTEs as per the budget papers. No longer should we accept endless cuts to this department as we have seen over the past 20 years by both sides of politics. At least this state government has committed to holding the line on staff numbers, the next challenge is to get the opposition Liberals and Nationals to also make the same commitment.
If federal and state opposition agricultural spokespersons want to make their mark on agriculture they could do well by outlining where they sit on biosecurity and funding. Federally the ALP is still in disarray following the election loss so there’s no point asking them.
As for the state shadow liberal spokesperson we see no policy position on much at all, but we do know where he sits on levy’s (he’s not a supporter), which raises some very challenging questions on how seriously the liberals take biosecurity.
Do they support farmers paying federal levies such as to GRDC and MLA that in part go towards mitigating bio-security threats, or should levy’s and biosecurity be an opt-out choice for farmers? Does he support farmers funding state based wild dogs, footrot and bedstraw control programs via levy’s or are they to be abolished?
Politicians and farm lobby groups that hold simplistic views via being opposed to all farm levy’s present real threats for the industry as a whole, sometimes one in all in is the only way to effectively defend the farm.