Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Biosecurity systems make gains

Professor Nicola Shadbolt was on the team that reviewed New Zealand’s Mycoplasma bovis response, which while having its issues was ultimately a success.

The news that there is a foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in Indonesia is disconcerting. 

Although it provides no immediate threat to New Zealand, Indonesia has been clear of FMD since 1986.

It also comes at a time when we’re opening our borders, with the increased risk that involves.

As we all know NZ makes the vast majority of its income by producing and exporting food and any biosecurity incursion puts that at risk.

It is, therefore, good to see an increase of $42.9 million for biosecurity in this year’s budget. 

We have a good system now but that will make it better.

There’s also an additional $68m for Mycoplasma bovis (M bovis) eradication and that, despite a bumpy start, has been a real success story.

It hasn’t come cheaply with $635.9m spent so far and 172,422 cattle having been culled. 

In addition, 267 farms have been confirmed properties with 2342 having been placed under Notice of Direction. 

The disruption caused by the virus has been considerable.

The other alternative was to live with the disease at an original cost estimate of $1.2 billion.

It’s important to remember that M bovis is in most countries and accepted as such. 

In NZ we decided to eradicate it. 

It was a brave call and the right one.

What has been interesting is the full review of the incursion that has been undertaken. 

The Government appointed a small team to do that review consisting of Professors Nicola Shadbolt and Caroline Saunders, disease management expert Dr Roger Paskin and Southland farmer, entrepreneur and financier Tony Cleland.

I thought they did an excellent job that will assist with future incursions. 

Their report is available on the Ministry for Primary Industries website and worth a read.

Simply, the review points out that the reaction was shambolic at the start of the incursion. 

In addition, and surprisingly so in my view, it decided that biosecurity systems in place at the start of the incursion weren’t fit for purpose. 

A comprehensive communications strategy was also lacking.

That view was supported by then Federated Farmers president Katie Milne, who was there at the start but was “removed” because she felt she asked too many hard questions. 

The committee had decided that those funding the exercise, DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, should only be at the governance table. 

Milne made the point that the money involved was farmers’ whatever way you considered it, but that point didn’t register. 

She believed the committee’s actions were “an old boys club shut-out”. 

That move by the old boys obviously contributed to the shambolic start the review committee found. 

At the end of the day we did, by whatever route, get rid of M bovis. 

The only country in the world to do so.

M bovis arrived in NZ in July 2017 ahead of the late September 2017 general election that brought a Labour, NZ First Government.

The person responsible for picking up the pieces in October 2017 was Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

He’d immediately decided that a disease manageable in the Northern Hemisphere would create chaos here. 

We have top producing animals that like top athletes are easily stressed. 

That would make them vulnerable to M bovis.

“The timing wasn’t easy,” O’Connor said. 

“We came to power and there was little debate. Cabinet accepted my recommendations and we got onto it.

“An early decision was to get industry involved and not to leave the decisions to me and officials. We needed farmers on the ground and that was a key part of our success.

“It quickly became apparent that the Nait system wasn’t up to scratch. I’m happy where we’re at now.

“Biosecurity is where I’m at. We’re continuing to ramp it up. The increase in trade and people movement is equal to an ever-increasing risk from a biosecurity perspective.

“Lots of New Zealander’s have got in behind the eradication process and I’m really pleased with what we’ve achieved.”

He should be.

The review makes some additional and reassuring points.

It believes the lessons learned from managing the M bovis incursion should be treated as a significant opportunity to strengthen New Zealand’s biosecurity preparedness. 

I totally agree.

“The panel is confident that the lessons leant from M bovis, if acted upon, will enable NZ to have a far stronger biosecurity preparedness platform for future animal disease incursions.”

That’s important.

I fully accept that there have been many farmers hugely affected by the M bovis incursion. 

It must be absolutely gutting to develop a high producing herd and then have to cull it. 

No amount of money can compensate for that.

The fact is no-one invited M bovis here, it arrived. 

What is fortunate is that we had a Minister who understood the issue and acted, officials who stepped up and a sector that after a rusty start united to eradicate the problem.

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