Strategic foresight and animal health

02 May 2024

Image: AI generated image reflecting strategic foresight – credit Microsoft Copilot Designer (supplied DAFF)

Weathering the storm with the help of strategic foresight - how climate change impacts animal health and biosecurity risks

Climate change and extreme weather events have always existed, but their impact on the agriculture sector, particularly on animal health and biosecurity risks, is rapidly evolving and often hard to foresee.
Within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, an important issue we are considering is how climate change and weather events could affect animal health and biosecurity risks and how best can we prepare for what might be ahead. Strategic foresight is increasingly recognised as a critical tool for enhancing animal health and biosecurity, as it enables sector stakeholders, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to anticipate, prepare for, and respond effectively to emerging threats and opportunities. By leveraging foresight methodologies, stakeholders can develop more resilient and adaptive strategies for managing animal health and biosecurity.
This involves monitoring for emerging issues and opportunities for animal health, horizon scanning for future trends, analysing strategic opportunities and threats, and working collaboratively to provide integrated intelligence and foresight to support decision-making. Strategic foresight, coupled with horizon scanning - the systematic identification of emerging trends and threats - can equip us to address the risks of climate change and other influences on animal health. It is not about reacting to the present but preparing for the future.
The Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer (OCVO) works collaboratively with our departmental colleagues and external stakeholders to assist the agricultural sector to be as prepared as possible for the unexpected. We continue to develop our strategic foresight capacity and scan for emerging issues and trends that could affect animal health and biosecurity, and our early warning capacity.
Here, we describe some of our areas of focus for animal health and some of the tools that are available to help prepare for the unexpected.

Multiple important areas of focus

Areas that we are currently monitoring that could impact animal health are climate change and weather events, geo-political changes and shifts (such as global conflicts, changes in country leaderships and national policies or trade route disruptions), veterinarian workforce issues, rapid technological advancements including opportunities and potential threats from the use of Artificial Intelligence, animal welfare concerns, wildlife health and changing societal expectations.

For example, by using strategic foresight methods and processes, we can explore how climate change and the associated extreme weather events could affect animal health risks and the biosecurity continuum. With the knowledge of potential impacts, we can take steps to be better prepared.

Some of the inputs we scan are the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) updates which are increasingly expected and historically relied upon by the agriculture sector stakeholders. In its recent update on 2 April, BOM stated Australia had the third-wettest March on record this year, with above average rainfall for most of the country. There are also projections that a La Niña will reappear by late winter, which will usually lead to higher rainfall totals and cooler average daytime temperatures. Wetter environmental conditions could lead to floods and increased risks for animal displacement, water contamination and increased risk of waterborne and vector-borne diseases disease pathways. Conversely, when El Niño weather events are predicted, the hotter and drier conditions can lead to increased heat stress in livestock and reduced water and feed availability, in turn affecting overall animal health and susceptibility to disease. These weather events need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand on-farm animal health issues, plan preparedness activities and ensure access and delivery of veterinary services.

Futures wheel for strategic foresight

An example of the use of these tools in OCVO was a futures wheel exercise undertaken at the end of 2023, with the aim to consider the direct and indirect influences of the global and regional weather outlook on biosecurity risks and risk pathways for Australia.

Futures wheel is one of the foresight methods that helps us identify potential problems our sector might face. It involves choosing an event or trend and brainstorming its direct and indirect consequences, using interconnecting lines to visualise the relationships. It can help in developing multiple scenarios of possible future development and identify the impacts and patterns of an event or decision. From the exercise, El Niño and general climate changes were seen as having potentially significant direct and interconnected environmental, economic, social, technological, political and values impacts. For example, participants in the exercise noted the potential environmental impacts of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall leading to a scenario with drying landscapes and reduction of water resources thus increased bushfire and weather-related emergencies.

Image: An example of a futures wheel from OCVO’s climate outlook exercise (supplied DAFF)

As these conditions persist, they could lead to animal health stress, crop failure, aggregation of animal populations around water sources. Furthermore, other effects could be a surge in food and feed imports, increased interest in alternative feed or swill, potentially causing changes in regional disease or pest distribution. As a result, the third-order impacts could include increased biosecurity risk requiring additional human power and financial resources, wildlife distress amplifying pathogen transmission, diversity in regional forecasts and impacts requiring a diversified customised response, and systems and resources being placed under increased pressure. Whilst this might seem like an extreme scenario, by further exploring the web of possible impacts from one event, we were able to identify problems or consequences that we might not have noticed or considered before.

What you can do

Building capacity, collaborating, and taking part in strategic foresight activities are therefore vitally important to ensuring we are ready for the future. No matter if you are a veterinary graduate or an experienced practitioner, working in a practice, research, government or industry, by constantly scanning the horizon for emerging trends and changes and thinking about how they might affect your work, you can make small moves that could have bigger future positive impacts. This could mean, for example, understanding disease distributions abroad, what patterns and treatments emerge, what new technological developments are on the horizon, or understanding what weather events are predicted and how they could impact disease spread and animal health. By being ready for these changes, you can plan, spot trends, learn and communicate in new ways, and continue to ensure Australia’s animal health is robust and ready for the future.

For the latest updates on the work of the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer, please follow the social media channels of the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer on Twitter/X and LinkedIn.