Friday, December 8, 2023

PULPIT: Covid tracing lesson for farmers

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Contact tracing, a key part of the covid-19 response, mirrors the importance of a strong lifetime traceability programme for farm animals.
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Farmers can learn a lot from the covid-19 emergency and how diseases can be managed more effectively through a sound traceability system.

Farmers are familiar with the words and concepts outlined daily by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the health director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield. They talk about the virus, the way it spreads and the data that helps us intercept, eliminate and eradicate it.

They’re talking about a global coronavirus pandemic but they could as easily have been talking about disease management for farmed cattle and deer because it all comes back to traceability.

Where movement data is captured it can inform and optimise an effective disease management response. It is working for New Zealand’s covid-19 response, it is working for TBfree’s tuberculosis eradication programme.

The crucial requirement for beating covid-19 is data accuracy and integrity and that depends on people observing the lockdown, recording contacts and movements. 

That’s everyday stuff for farmers and the wider primary sector – dairy companies, meat processors, stock agents, transporters – who have successfully coped with the Mycoplasma bovis disease outbreak. 

Some farmers who’ve been in the game for longer are as familiar with bovine tuberculosis, which the farmer-supported TBfree programme is getting closer to eradicating, reducing infected herds from 1700 at peak infection in the late 1980s to fewer than 30 today.

Where good records are held the tracing of animals infected with either disease has been much faster and more effective, enabling a quick response for affected farmers. Good tracing will be our crucial defence when, not if, the next biosecurity incursion arrives on NZ farms.

The strength of NZ’s biosecurity readiness ultimately relies on our ability to swiftly trace livestock movements and properties where there might be a risk. 

For a country reliant on agricultural exports, effective traceability is essential to reducing the impact of animal diseases and the economic risk they carry. 

Our National Animal Identification Tracing system (Nait) gets stronger every time a farmer records a movement. It’s never so important as now with dairy animals moving farms and moving to grazing.

The Nait programme continues to evolve as a key instrument in NZ’s biosecurity defence network. Data captured in Nait can optimise decision-making around managing biosecurity responses, providing support for ongoing surveillance and imposing movement controls where required.

Traceability safeguards our agricultural exports, now worth $39.5 billion, according to the Primary Industries Ministry, builds trust among our trading partners and endorses the safety of our products in international markets. That creates tangible benefits for farmers, industry and all New Zealanders including the thousands employed in the agriculture sector. 

In the post covid-19 world customers and markets might be more discerning about the source and integrity of the food they’re buying. At the farmgate traceability helps animal health and monitoring and leads to better business decisions. And the value is delivered by the markets.

Lifetime traceability of animals needs to become the bedrock of NZ farming because the response to the next global pandemic will depend on it.

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