Indonesia is grappling with its first major outbreak of food and mouth disease in nearly 40 years. Image: Screengrab / Al Jazeera

JAKARTA – Indonesia may be thrilled to see foreign tourists flooding back into Bali, but agriculture authorities in Australia and New Zealand fear the worst, worried they could bring back the foot and mouth disease (FMD) which would devastate their livestock industries.

First detected about two months ago, FMD has now spread to 23 provinces across Java and Sumatra, Indonesia’s two most populous islands, and infected as many as 400,000 cattle, according to the Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).

Officials say a newly-formed BNPB-led task force will supervise controls over the movement of dairy and beef livestock, in particular, and in expanding a massive vaccination program to rein in the disease before it can ravage domestic herds even further.  

Until now, Indonesia had been free of FMD since 1986. Australia hasn’t had it for more than a century. New Zealand has never experienced an outbreak because of its isolation and some of the world’s toughest border restrictions.

Australian officials have put the cost of the disease reaching their shores at US$55 billion, while New Zealand estimates the damage at a conservative $10 billion. But in the longer-term, experience shows it could take decades to rebuild the industry.

For pastoral New Zealand, with six million dairy cows and four million beef cattle, it would leave the economy in ruins when it depends on agriculture for as much as 80% of its merchandise export earnings and 12% of its gross domestic product (GDP).

Ironically, while a border closure and primary produce export receipts kept New Zealand safe and solvent during the Covid-19 pandemic, the re-opening process could potentially see those receipts dry up and plunge the country into a recession.

New Zealand’s dairy industry is at risk of foot and mouth disease imports from Indonesia. Image: Twitter

In Australia, the sense of danger has only heightened since viral fragments of the disease were found in an undeclared beef product brought in by an airline passenger from Indonesia and also in Chinese pork sold recently in central Melbourne.

Although the fragments were not alive and could not be transmitted, National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said it showed the disease was circulating. “The risk is heightened and increasing,” he warned.

Still fresh in many minds is what happened in Britain in 2001 when an outbreak of FMD, caused by pigs being fed untreated swill led to the slaughter of more than six million sheep and cattle at a cost of $11 billion.

“It is quite hard to comprehend the impact,” New Zealand equity farm manager Craig Hickman wrote in a recent column. “I would have to kill around 1,250 animals. It would have to lay off five full-time workers and I could no longer pay the businesses that support the farm.” 

Australians, who have always been the mainstay of Bali’s tourist trade, have only just started returning to the island after a hiatus of more than two years; Indonesia’s Tourism Ministry has set an overall target of 1.5 million foreign visitors in 2022.

FMD, which causes extreme lameness and death in all cloven-hoof animals, has spread from China to Malaysia and now Indonesia, where the often close interaction between livestock and tourists in rural Bali has become the main area of concern.

According to the province’s agriculture and food security agency, Bali has an animal population of about 800,000 pigs and 600,000 cattle, along with large numbers of free-roaming goats and sheep.

Officials have reported 200 cases of the disease in different parts of Bali after spreading across the narrow strait from Java in recent weeks; outbreaks have now been reported in most districts of all four Javanese provinces and across the length of Sumatra.

Australian experts have suggested Canberra should consider taking tougher measures. “As a country, we seriously need to think about banning people going to Bali, as extreme as that sounds,” said Global AgriTrends analyst Simon Quilty.

Empty deck chairs by the beach in Sanur, near Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali on October 14, 2021, on the first day of the island’s reopening to foreign tourists from 19 countries amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP / Sonny Tumbelaka

Diplomats say there is no scientific reason to take such a drastic step, given the political fallout that would result. As one put it: “There are no plans to ban travelers, but we do expect them to do their best in following the biosecurity measures in place.”

So far, returnees are only asked to declare whether they have been near a farm, with a subsequent inspection of shoes and clothing.  The disease can survive for four or five days in dirt carried on the bottom of footwear in particular.

Bali’s Ngurah Ray international airport has installed sanitation pads, dipped in mild citric acid, for passengers to walk across, and Darwin and Cairns airports have followed suit in a forerunner to tighter precautions elsewhere as the disease enters an endemic stage in Indonesia.

“All they really have to do is to tell people to wash their shoes and clothing before they come home,” says one Indonesia farm manager, noting that on a recent flight to Melbourne that message was only delivered when the plane was on its final approach.

The Bali Hotels Association has been calling on tourists to avoid the hassle at home airports by leaving their shoes and clothing behind to help its orphanage fund.

There are no direct flights between Indonesia and New Zealand, but New Zealand officials say they have confidence in the stiff biosecurity precautions already in place for home-comers who will be transiting mostly through Sydney and Melbourne.

Indonesia’s Agriculture Ministry declared an FMD emergency shortly before the post-Ramadan Lebaran holiday in late April, but little effort was made to shut down the movement of livestock until after Eid al-Adha, the day of sacrifice which fell on July 9.

“Religion overrode common sense,” says one industry source, blaming the failure to keep cattle in place and delays in importing three million doses of a French-made vaccine for a 60% drop in milk production in East Java and a 40% decline overall.

Most of the vaccine was distributed among small farmers, but about 82,000 doses were earmarked for larger farms, including Greenfields’ herd of 19,000 cows, Indonesia’s largest single dairying operation. 

The FMD scare has had little impact on the livestock trade from Western Australia, with Indonesia likely to import about 400,000 head of cattle this year. But demand has softened as a result of farmers selling off domestic animals, fearful they will catch foot and mouth.