New Zealand will learn from the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, says Geoff Gwyn.
It is now two years since Mycoplasma bovis was first detected in New Zealand, kicking off the largest biosecurity response we've ever seen.
The decision to eradicate was made by Cabinet and cattle industries, and supported by Federated Farmers, the Meat Industry Association, dairy companies, and a range of other industry organisations.
It was a tough call, but we believe the right one for the long-term interests of farmers, and all New Zealanders.
Since then, 180 properties have been confirmed as having the disease, 108,000 animals have been culled, and $84.8 million in compensation has been paid. Nearly 400 staff have been hired, trained and got to work eradicating this disease, and working to support those farmers that are affected.
The genetic analysis of the bacterium that we've found so far indicates that the disease spread comes from a single incursion, and a single strain, introduced in late 2015 or early 2016. M. bovis is not widespread around the country, and it is generally a slow spreading disease. Based on the information we have now, we remain confident that we can and will achieve eradication.
The impacts of allowing M. bovis to spread throughout New Zealand were clear – $1.3 billion in lost productivity in the first ten years, animal welfare issues and increased use of antibiotics, and needing to make major and difficult changes to our approach to cattle farming. Allowing M. bovis to spread could reduce the national herd's resilience to other diseases in the future, as the bacteria can sit dormant until the herd is under stress for other reasons.
However, there are still substantial challenges, and a huge amount of work to get done. There is no playbook to work from; designing an eradication programme while implementing it has been a challenge. Mistakes have been made – this is a large programme, attempting something that has never been done before anywhere in the world. When they do occur we have apologised, and looked to make sure that the lessons have been learnt.
MPI and its programme partners have and continue to listen to farmers. We have held over 200 public and farmer meetings. And we have carried out two reviews into issues within the programme, and planned out how their recommendations will be implemented, and there are regular reviews by the independent technical advisory group. From the feedback and reviews we have made major changes.
We strongly believe that the experience now, while still challenging, is vastly improved, and that for farmers entering the process now is very different that it was for those first affected.
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 veterinary managers to provide expert advice, and regional welfare advisors to co-ordinate welfare resources and support. We are investing in new data and information management systems, and are pushing decision making down into the regions by creating regional advisory groups, to find local solutions to local problems.
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.
Part of our challenge is that we are working with imperfect tools (although all of us work with imperfect tools every day, and still get the job done). The Biosecurity Act is 26 years old, and isn't currently the legislation we might want. NAIT (the National Animal Identification and Tracing system) has issues, both with usability, data management, and compliance with the system. And the testing required to determine disease status is complex and nuanced.
Government has announced that it will overhaul both of these pieces of legislation. Biosecurity is fundamental to protecting our economy, our environment and our culture, and this is an important opportunity to get these important pieces of legislation fit for the future. We need to, and will, learn from the M. bovis experience, and the other biosecurity responses we've had to deal with in the last few years, to make sure we've got the tools we need to take on the next challenge that tries to arrive on our border.
M. bovis is a horrible affliction for animals once it's allowed to spread. And its impact, and the impact of eradication can take an enormous personal toll on those 180 farmers and their families, staff and communities. For the entire sector, it's important we take the necessary steps to stop this disease spreading, and ultimately eradicate it from NZ.
• Geoff Gwyn is director of the Mycoplasma bovis Programme at MPI.