As we get toey about FMD should we ban flights?

Market insights | 17th July 2022 | By Andrew Whitelaw

The Snapshot

  • FMD has been in Indonesia for a couple of months.
  • Interest has reached new highs since it was confirmed in Bali.
  • There are many calling for a ban on flights to Indonesia
  • There are many nations around the world which have FMD, including South Africa and Thailand (popular destinations).
  • Banning flights may be a knee-jerk reaction, and cause unintended consequences to our trade.
  • There are also many other diseases, including African Swine Fever (ASF) and Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD). At what level do you decide to close a border.
  • The probability of an outbreak of FMD in Australia remains relatively low, albeit with a high severity if it occurs.
  • An infected animal still has to transmit to a susceptible animal in Australia.
  • Educate tourists.
  • The government should concentrate on assisting Indonesia get their outbreak under control and extra controls and profiling on our borders.

The Detail

FMD is clearly the talk of the industry at the moment. It’s everywhere. We have wrote about this a couple of times since May’ A personal and trade perspective‘, ‘The impact of FMD on the grain industry‘ and ‘The other disease risk‘. In our spare time, Matt and I run a podcast ‘AgWatchers’, not affiliated with EP3, where we had a number of discussions about FMD:

Whilst FMD has been in Indonesia since May, all the excitement seems to have started since it was discovered that FMD was officially detected in Bali. The concern is that Indonesia is physically close to Australia and that we Australians have an affection for jaunts to Bali.

One of the solutions proposed by many is to close the borders to Indonesia. This is certainly an option which would likely dramatically reduce the potential for the spread of FMD to Australia. However, is it the right option?

The risk of FMD has increased with the incursion into Indonesia, although CEBRA (Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Analysis) have only increased the probability of an outbreak over the next five years from 9% (March 2021) to 11.6%.

It is, however, not the only country that has had an outbreak (see map below).

The chart below shows the number of outbreaks solely during the past year and half. As we can see, there are a lot of countries on this list. Many of these nations are also popular destinations, especially South Africa, a country where lots of ex-pats come from.

Let’s look a little further into the data after the chart.

We always like to delve a little bit further into the data. I have selected a few of the key countries which have specific arrival data available on ABS. These were South Africa, Israel, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia. These nations are all in the ‘top 15’ in terms of the number of outbreaks during 2021 and 2022.

Out of these countries, Indonesia is clearly the country with the lion’s share of travellers going back and forth. However, these other countries are clearly still a risk.

Do we ban flights from all these countries? My view is that it becomes a very slippery slope, at what point do you stop. The world is teeming with exotic diseases – Germany has African Swine Fever. Should we ban flights from Europe? How long do we close the border with Indonesia, weeks, months or years?

Luckily, Australia has strong biosecurity protocols compared to the rest of the world. We have been able to keep out a lot of diseases from Australia.

All actions tend to have unintended consequences, something we discuss a lot. Indonesia is a huge market for our agricultural produce, especially wheat, read ‘The golden wheat treasure on our doorstep‘.

If we were to ban flights to Bali, it would severely hamper their tourism industry, which COVID has already hit. This isn’t the best way to develop a relationship with a strategic and commercial partner.

Indonesia is extremely important for our future exports; we don’t want to damage this relationship. The future prospects for Indonesia are huge, as outlined by an article by Matt late last year ‘Beyond China

FMD in Indonesia is making farmers toey, but we need to cool things down a little. The probability of an outbreak is still relatively low, albeit with a high severity if it does occur.

The disease has to get from an infected animal in Indonesia to a susceptible animal in Australia to cause an outbreak. The majority of tourists transiting back from Bali are unlikely to be heading near a farm. During the middle of winter, with the cold, they are especially unlikely to do so in their Bali gear.

The most significant risk is through infected food, so the increased use of sniffer dogs at the airport will assist with this.

Additionally, increasing biosecurity controls on the farm, checking visitors etc., should be considered a critical ‘front line’ approach to minimise the risk of an outbreak.

We must be extremely vigilant at our borders and on our farms. At the moment, we don’t need to shut the borders; the best bet is for the government to assist as much as possible in bringing the Indonesian outbreak under control, and educate passengers coming in.

At the most extreme, fines for people who go onto a farm within X period might be a valid approach, but again from Indonesia solely, or all FMD-infected nations?

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