COMMENT:

Nearly a year ago, Cabinet and the cattle sectors decided to attempt eradication of Mycoplasma bovis, a disease that causes horrible animal welfare issues, and could cause $1.3 billion in productivity loses for the cattle sector in just the first ten years if it was allowed to spread throughout New Zealand.

This decision was supported from day one by Federated Farmers, the Meat Industry Association, DCANZ and a range of other industry organisations.

MPI was tasked to lead a joint Programme with DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb to get the job done. No country has ever eradicated M. bovis – there was no playbook to work from, and the bridge had to be built as we walked across it. Designing an eradication programme whilst implementing it has been difficult.

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Since then, 170 properties have been confirmed as having the disease, 97,000 animals have been culled, and $67 million in compensation has been paid. Nearly 400 staff have been hired, trained and put to work eradicating this disease, and working to support those farmers that are affected.

The sad reality is that eradication means culling animals. You and I can't imagine the impact of the government turning up at your farm gate and telling you that your animals, your livelihood, might have a disease, and that the entire herd may need to be destroyed in order to get rid of it. The emotional and psychological impact is immense, and while we do work hard to support them, we cannot remove that impact entirely.

To make it harder, we are not working with perfect information, and we aren't working with perfect tools. NAIT (the National Animal Identification and Tracing system) is extremely valuable but historic information about cattle movements is frequently incomplete.

New information comes to light, and sometimes we have to revisit our original decisions. The Biosecurity Act was not designed for this type of challenge, and requires changes. This is hard, complicated work, and we are constantly reviewing our approach, and looking to improve.

MPI and its Programme partners have and continue to listen to farmers. We have held over 200 public and farmer meetings – meetings at which farmers are asked to talk about their experience, to tell officials what it has been like, and how the Programme can make it better.

And from that feedback major changes have been made, we strongly believe that the experience now, while still difficult and upsetting, is vastly improved, and that the experience for farmers entering the process now is very different that in was for farmers in the early days.

We have trained and funded more than 80 Rural Support Trust facilitators to be the front-line in supporting affected farmers. We have Regional Recovery Mangers in each of our Regional Headquarters, as well as regional vet techs to provide expert advice, and regional Welfare Advisors to co-ordinate welfare resources and support.

And we know that the most important thing that we can do for farmer welfare is to get the job done and let them get back to farming. We've invested heavily in getting testing completed faster, in speeding up decision making, and in supporting farmers to farm through while under regulatory controls.

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And we know the importance of getting compensation paid as quickly as we can. We've created a dedicated compensation claim assistance team (DBCAT), run by industry and staffed entirely by people from the rural sector to support farmers making compensation claims. We've increased our compensation assessment team to more than 50 people, taking down the average wait for payment from 70 days to 26.

Mistakes have certainly been made. This is a large Programme, attempting something that has never been done before anywhere in the world. When mistakes are made, we have and will apologise, and look to make sure mistakes aren't repeated.

M. bovis is a horrible affliction for animals and it takes an enormous personal toll on those that care for them. For the 170 farmers that are affected, the cure may well be worse than the disease. For the 23,000 other farms in New Zealand, it's important that we take the necessary steps to stop this disease spreading, and ultimately eradicate it from New Zealand.

- Geoff Gwynn is director of the M. bovis Programme