Monday, April 22, 2024

Report slams Govt’s ‘poorly executed’ M bovis programme

Neal Wallace
The authors of a damning study, critical of the emotional and mental impact on farmers of the Government’s handling of the Mycoplasma bovis cull, are yet to have a formal response a month after briefing officials.
New Zealand can breed animals that emit less, but that will take some time.
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The report by University of Otago researchers who interviewed affected farmers in Otago and Southland pulls no punches, labelling the response a “badly planned and poorly executed process, leaving farming families feeling isolated, bewildered and powerless”.

“A dominant theme of the research was the intrusive, impractical and inhumane nature of the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) eradication programme, in which local knowledge, expertise and pragmatism were ignored in favour of inefficient bureaucratic processes which made no sense to farmers,” the report states.

Despite briefing MPI officials on May 21 and providing an alternative structure for dealing with future incursions, the researchers say they are yet to have substantive discussions about their study.

“It’s very surprising that the minister has not been particularly interested in this issue,” researcher Chrys Jaye, of the university’s department of general practice and rural health, said.

Lead researcher and senior research fellow – rural health Fiona Doolan-Noble says the stress on farmers from a centralised, bureaucratic response was well-documented from the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in the UK and ovine Johne’s disease in Australia.

The mental stress and harrowing anguish felt by New Zealand farmers was similar to those outbreaks, indicating little had been learnt by NZ officials in dealing with M bovis.

“MPI worked in relative isolation, they alienated farmers, they would not talk to farmers about what would work or how to work with them,” Doolan-Noble said.

“They imposed this centralised approach, what was called during FMD in the UK as death by computer modelling.”

Fellow GP and rural health researcher at the university Geoff Noller says farmers and vets were sidelined and their knowledge and relationships, which could have helped, ignored. 

An apology by MPI director general Ray Smith for the way his department treated farmers and for contracting the Rural Support Trust were positive, but he says there must be changes as there will be future incursions.

“They don’t seem to understand that farms aren’t just a place of work, it is a home, it is where they live,” Noller said.

“When a Notice of Direction (NoD) is imposed, it not only restricts machinery movement and people coming and going, but it takes over their house and their life, it gives (officials) complete and absolute control.”

Doolan-Noble says tears and emotion were common during interviews with farmers even 12-18 months after their herds were culled, a sign of pent up stress and emotion.

“I would like to think in many respects the interviews were cathartic, that concerns and emotions came out during the interviews 12 to 18 months after the event were released after being held inside,” Doolan-Noble said.

The researchers are calling for MPI to seek solutions from rural communities and for these to be integrated into relevant bureaucratic processes.

They also suggest a standing army of rural-based experts be formed, which can shape the response to the next incursion.

“One of MPI’s key principles in terms of biosecurity is fair restoration – ‘no better or worse’. We believe this should not just apply to the financial impact on farmers, but should be applied to both the mental health of all involved, and also the social wellbeing of rural communities,” she said.

MPI awaiting full M bovis report

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) M bovis programme director Stuart Anderson says his office has not yet received a copy of the researchers’ full report or had the opportunity to review it.

“We look forward to being able to include the report into our lessons learned process, along with other reviews undertaken,” Anderson said.

“We know the M bovis eradication effort has been especially challenging for the farmers involved, and even when the process goes as intended and by the book, it is tough for those affected by movement restrictions and directions to cull their animals.”

Anderson says MPI has listened to farmer feedback and programme staff are focused on farmer welfare and getting farmers through the process faster with more support and shorter turnaround times for farms under movement restrictions.

That also includes faster payment of compensation.

“The programme has been through significant reviews and with what has been learnt along the way, taken substantial steps to make improvements – the overall aim being, to lessen the impact on affected farmers as much as we can, while we work to eradicate this disease,” he said.

A further review is under way.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor acknowledges the early days of the M bovis response created stress and disruption but says changes have been made.

“It was an extremely challenging and serious situation and the decision we made to eradicate required swift action.

“There were mistakes, and the lack of a robust traceability system also hindered progress.”

O’Connor says his focus has been ensuring MPI and the programme partners, Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb NZ, continually look for ways to improve response efforts to meet objectives but to also limit the stress for affected farmers.

“What became apparent to me was that the M bovis response needed both independent oversight as well as industry involvement as to how to do something that no country has ever achieved, the eradication of M bovis.”

The independent M bovis Governance Group includes Beef & Lamb NZ and DairyNZ, and has an independent chair, and he says this structure should ensure the wellbeing of farmers.

“I have been briefed by the authors of the study and listened carefully to their insights, which have focussed on the early stages of the response, 2017 to 2019.

“We’ve listened to a lot of farmer feedback and our programme staff have been very focused on farmer welfare, including getting farmers through the process faster with more support and shorter turnaround times for farms under movement restrictions.”

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