The Cabinet faced an invidious decision yesterday on the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. Should it persist with the attempt to eradicate it, or should it decide it is too late for that and settle for an attempt to contain it? It has opted for eradication, which so far has meant killing thousands of cows, many with no symptoms and pregnant, and incurring unknown costs for affected farmers, emotional as well as financial.
Containment would have been less popular, certainly in dairy farming regions where the disease has not yet appeared. And, for New Zealand as a whole, containment, if even that is possible, would be a sad surrender in a biosecurity battle for a country that depends so heavily on the international image of our food products.
While this disease does not harm milk or meat from the cows that contract it, the failure to keep it from our shores diminishes confidence that our biosecurity vigilance is up to the task of keeping out more serious diseases that would close markets to our products.
Containment would mean culling all cows with symptoms and isolating those who may be carrying it. Either way, farmers will surely pay closer attention to their obligation to register and track all dairy stock. If possible exposure to the disease is reflected in the price of stock, all farmers will be more attentive to where a beast has been born, reared and finished.
This Friday, June 1, is the start of the dairy year, when sharemilkers and their herds will be moving to new farms on new contracts and last year's replacement heifer calves are moved to grazing properties. The annual moving day will be a nervous one this year.
There may be less movement in future, more dairy calves may be kept where they are born, reared near the herd they will replenish, reducing the area for the herd to graze and lowering milk production. It could take many years of containing M. bovis for farmers' confidence in stock movements to be restored and dairying to recover its most efficient and productive use of land.
But first, confidence needs to be restored in our biosecurity practices. The Ministry of Primary Industries is taking the brunt of rural anger that this disease has somehow entered the country. It may have happened several years before it was identified on a South Canterbury farm last July. The ministry has tracked the movements of stock from the infected farms to identify farms now at risk.
It has ordered the culling of their cows and calves whether symptoms are present or not. There has been a taste of how unpleasant continued eradication will be. The Government will need to be alert to the emotional toll it will take on those who work with livestock and support will be needed along with financial compensation.
And, as it sets about the eradication programme, the ministry must also review all its biosecurity checks and procedures and find out how this breach could have happened. If it happens again the pain could be much worse.