Mycoplasma bovis is here. It’s what comes next that’s important

by The Listener / 17 May, 2018

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At a time when the link between town and country is weak, our reaction to cow disease Mycoplasma bovis will be a revealing test of national solidarity.

It almost seems like the stuff of science fiction: a debilitating epidemic spreads unseen and stays several steps ahead of efforts to contain it. But the cow disease Mycoplasma bovis is not part of a far-fetched plot in a Hollywood film. For the rural sector, it has become a real-life horror story. Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor bluntly describes it as a disaster.

It’s a crisis with heartbreaking personal consequences as well as serious economic dimensions. Good farmers care deeply for their livestock, and few people would not have been moved by the sight of a Canterbury farmer almost in tears as he talked of his infected herd, painstakingly built up over decades of careful breeding, having to be slaughtered. This was the human face of an industry often pilloried for greed and environmental vandalism.

New Zealanders heard of the disease for the first time when it was identified on a South Canterbury farm in the middle of last year. M bovis poses no food-safety risk, but it’s serious enough to require the culling of infected stock. Symptoms include lameness, arthritis, mastitis, abortions, and pneumonia in calves.

How the disease got here isn’t known, but European farmers have lived with it for many years and, until last year, New Zealand was the world’s only major dairying nation to have escaped it.

At first, the Ministry for Primary Industries seemed confident the disease could be quarantined and eradicated. But as reports of infected herds multiplied, that hope looked more and more forlorn. Now, the disease has been confirmed as present in the dairying heartland, Waikato, and the crisis assumes new urgency with the approach of June 1 – “Gypsy Day”, when sharemilkers move their herds to new farms. That raises the possibility that the infection, which for the most part remains invisible, will unknowingly be spread even more widely.

Briefing MPs on the crisis, BioSecurity New Zealand chief Roger Smith theatrically announced that M bovis could be wiped out, but only by slaughtering six million cows and closing down the dairy industry – after tourism, New Zealand’s biggest source of export income. That was as good as saying that officials had given up on the idea of eradication and the emphasis must now shift to containment.

It’s not an outcome that any New Zealand farmer wants, but the outlook isn’t totally dismal. European farmers have learnt how to manage the disease, and there’s no reason why their New Zealand counterparts can’t do the same.

The agriculture sector can look to its own successful record of combating bovine tuberculosis, which affected 1700 cattle and deer herds in the 1990s but is now at an all-time low. Farmers can also take some encouragement from what happened in the kiwifruit industry: threatened with devastation by the vine disease Psa, it mounted a co-ordinated response and has bounced back spectacularly. Similarly, beekeepers have accepted that they can’t eradicate the parasitic varroa mite, once seen as potentially ruinous, but have found ways to keep infestations to manageable levels.

In the meantime, though, the dairy industry is hurting. Angry and anxious farmers have turned on the ministry. Some have accused it of overreacting; others say it was too complacent. A recurring criticism is that potentially affected farmers were given insufficient information about the risk they faced. Every crisis brings its lessons and the MPI has faced an unusually sharp learning curve.

What is, perhaps, more surprising is that farmer has turned against farmer, some claiming to have been kept in the dark by neighbours whose herds were infected. It seems clear, too, that some farmers have traded livestock on the black market, hampering efforts to trace infected animals. But it’s not a straightforward case of an irresponsible minority putting at risk the well-being of an entire industry; an estimated 70% of otherwise law-abiding farmers have been too casual about fulfilling their obligations under the National Animal Identification and Tracing (Nait) scheme. They must therefore accept some responsibility for the difficulties faced by authorities trying to track infected animals. That is another hard lesson.

To use an overworked phrase, farmers and the ministry have been given a very unpleasant wake-up call. How the Government and the country respond to this crisis, particularly at a time when traditional links between town and country are so much weaker than they were in the past, will be a revealing test of our national solidarity.

Video: TVNZ

This editorial was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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