Swine fever helps keep red meat prices high

The value of Australian agricultural production is forecast to remain high despite bushfires and prolonged drought, with overseas demand balancing drought-related falls in farm output and incomes.

ABARES’ chief commodity analyst Peter Gooday said the value of farm production in fiscal 2019-20 was expected to fall slightly to $59 billion, down on the previous year’s $62 billion and above the 10-year average due to higher prices for livestock and some other agricultural commodities.

“Widespread bushfires over the 2019–20 summer are not expected to have had a significant impact on the agricultural sector on the whole,” said Gooday, launching the latest Agricultural Commodities report at the ABARES Outlook 2020 conference in Canberra.

“The bushfires and smoke impacts in some areas were locally devastating. The majority of Australia’s agricultural production and exports, however, takes place outside the affected areas.”

This year, Gooday said, was another drought impacted one, with many regions having experienced their driest 12 months on record, even as others – particularly in Victoria — saw improved conditions, making for an uneven national outlook.

“Farm production and average farm incomes are estimated to have fallen for a second straight year in drought regions, with incomes for all broadacre farms projected to fall 8 per cent to $153,000 per farm in 2019–20 – around 4 per cent below the 10-year average,” he said.

“In NSW we are expecting farm cash incomes to be close to zero this year. As bad as things have been at a state level in the last 20 years – and some regions are substantially worse than the average.”

“For dairy farmers, average farm cash incomes nationally should increase from $120,100 per farm in 2018–19 to $165,000 per farm in 2019–20, with modest improvement for around 73 per cent of Australian dairy farms due mainly to higher farm gate milk prices.

“Those gains come from comparatively low levels in Queensland, parts of Victoria and New South Wales, and drought-related falls in milk production plus high feed and irrigation costs are constraining improvement.

“Meat and livestock prices have stayed high as African swine fever (ASF) has decimated China’s swineherds, driving red meat prices up and requiring Chinese consumers to look elsewhere. Without those good prices, this year would look a lot worse.

“Livestock prices medium-term are expected to soften but remain high, although coronavirus poses a significant risk as Chinese demand for agricultural products has declined under restrictions put in place to contain the outbreak, particularly for items like seafood and wine.

Gooday said that in 2019–20 Australia would have the lowest number of beef cattle since 1990 and lowest sheep flock since 1904, with production 12 per cent lower than five years ago.

“Over the medium term to 2024–25, a gradual recovery in the production of livestock and livestock products is expected to follow herd and flock rebuilding, although recovery will take several years and livestock related production in 2024–25 will still be 8% below the 2014–15 peak,” he said.

“The value of Australia’s agricultural exports overall is forecast to fall by 11% to $43 billion in 2019-20, which in real terms is 16% below the record value of exports in 2016–17, reflecting 3 consecutive annual falls in crop exports.

“We can expect grains and oilseeds exports to rebound quickly, but livestock numbers will take some time to recover and for cotton the speed of recovery will depend on how quickly irrigation storages are replenished.”

“The signing of phase one of a trade deal between the United States and China is a welcome sign of easing tensions. But the deal contains some very ambitious targets for agricultural imports, and the implications of that for Australian agriculture are not yet clear.

CSIRO working hard on African swine flu

African swine fever (ASF) is a fatal pig disease. And it’s on Australia’s doorstep with confirmation of outbreaks in Timor-Leste, 680 kilometres from northern Australia.

The disease is found in sub-Saharan Africa and has been detected in countries in Eastern Europe, including Russia and Ukraine. This year we have seen the disease sweep down through Asia and towards Australia.

ASF kills about 80 per cent of the pigs it infects and there is no vaccine or cure. Some estimate a quarter of the world’s pigs will be dead by the end of this year from ASF.

The consequences cannot be understated as pork and other red meat prices are already seeing an increase in Europe and Asia. There is also talk of a global protein shortage for 2020 as a result of ASF.

READ MORE: Western Meat Packer appoint new Australian sales manager

Australia, which has a $5.3 billion pork industry and 2700 producers, continues to be free from the disease. The CSIRO is working with the Australian government and industry to keep it that way.

ASF on our doorstep
The Department of Agriculture has implemented tight biosecurity measures. This maintains strict controls over imported products, which could be contaminated with the ASF virus. It also has heightened surveillance and increased screening for banned pork products.

Recently, Australia deported a Vietnamese tourist after border officials found 10 kilograms of banned food products in her luggage. This included a large amount of raw pork. She was the first tourist to have her visa cancelled and be expelled from the country over breached biosecurity laws.

In September 2019, researchers at our Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) tested pork products, seized at international airports and at international mail processing centres, for ASF virus. AAHL is Australia’s leading high-containment laboratory for exotic and emerging animal diseases. It has unique facilities and expertise to manage the biosecurity risks of testing samples for the virus.

The results from AAHL’s testing last month showed 48 per cent of seized products were contaminated with ASF virus fragments. This is an increase from 15 per cent in the testing AAHL undertook earlier this year.

Detection of these virus fragments does not necessarily mean they can cause infection. But it does highlight the need for Australia’s strict biosecurity measures. Authorities are now using these results to refine and strengthen Australia’s border measures.

ASF is harmless for humans but spreads rapidly
ASF is harmless for humans but spreads rapidly among domestic pigs and wild boars through direct contact or exposure to contaminated feed and water. For instance, farmers can unwittingly carry the virus on their shoes, clothing, vehicles, and machinery. It can survive in fresh and processed pork products. It is even resistant to some disinfectants.

With no vaccine available, controlling the spread of the virus can be difficult. This is especially so in countries dominated by small-scale farmers who may lack the necessary resources and expertise to protect their herds.

For example, swill feeding—giving pigs kitchen and table waste in which the virus can persist—is a common practice throughout Asia. This is a major factor contributing to the spread of ASF. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to enforce a ban on this practice. Especially across so many small holder farms in resource-poor countries affected by the disease.

But, action is being taken.

Australia’s domestic biosecurity network
many Australian agencies are  working together to manage surveillance and monitoring as the risk of ASF entering Australia is on the rise.

In addition to testing, these agencies continue to strengthen our national biosecurity network. The CSIRO is working with quarantine services, agriculture and human health organisations to build awareness, assessment, resilience, preparedness and response.

Our researchers are working on understanding how ASF infects pigs as well as looking at novel approaches to producing a vaccine. With no vaccine currently available, outbreaks of ASF are difficult and costly to contain and eradicate.

In the policy space, a round table meeting at Parliament House was recently held. Along with other leaders, scientists and governments, the CSIRO shared the work currently being undertaken and the actions needed to keep ASF out of Australia.

Plans are underway for a simulation exercise later this year. This will test Australia’s disease response capabilities to make sure the country is as prepared as it can be.

Helping our international neighbours
AAHL has an important role to play in the Asia-Pacific region. Its international team work with partner agencies and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide expertise, training and laboratory skills to rapidly identify disease.

This support enhances the region’s capacity to manage emergency disease outbreaks. It also assists Australia’s pre-border security through better threat assessment and management of viruses circulating in neighbouring countries.

It also provides regional expertise to the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization (a specialised agency of the United Nations) for emergency preparedness missions to the number of countries at risk of virus.

We can all help
Fortunately, Australia’s pig industry is better equipped to manage the necessary biosecurity measures. And producers are willing to put strict controls in place to keep the disease at bay. Hobby farmers must also be careful to follow the rules.

Nobody wants to see images of dying pigs and farmers struggling to make ends meet on our screens. Everybody can play a role in good biosecurity.

Be aware of the risks and, most importantly, please don’t import illegal meat products or feed pigs with food scraps.