Comment: Maybe it's time to consider an amnesty for the party responsible for bringing Mycoplasma bovis to New Zealand, so we can get to the bottom of the issue and ensure that pathway is closed off for good, writes Federated Farmers policy and advocacy general manager Gavin Forrest.

Morven is a quiet area in South Canterbury. It looks like it could be any scene out of Country Calendar, but on July 21, 2017, samples were taken from cows at a Morven property and it was confirmed the country had been infected with Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis).

It was a devastating discovery that would trigger arguably the nation's most expensive biosecurity response in recent history.

We still don't know exactly how the disease got here. Maybe it's time to consider an amnesty so we can get to the bottom of the issue and ensure that pathway is closed off for good.

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Hear me out on this.

The immediate public meetings run in the North Otago and South Canterbury community halls were full of Government officials handing out information to concerned farmers as quickly as the information became available.

As the Government officials, scientists, veterinarians and farming groups worked to identify the spread of M. bovis throughout the country, there was what was, in our opinion, bullying in communities of people believed to have the contagious bacterium on their properties.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

Rural communities have been greatly impacted by the disease.

M. bovis attacks cattle causing arthritis, mastitis, and forces pregnant cows to abort. While not deadly as such the disease practically renders cattle useless and causes the animal tremendous amounts of pain.

There has also been a remarkable hit to people's morale, which in turn goes on to impact their financial wellbeing.

While the Biosecurity Act requires affected farmers to be no worse or better off due to the use of MPI's biosecurity powers, this in no way compensates for the stress that management of the disease has placed on farming families and their staff.

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We are roughly at the two-year anniversary of the M. bovis being discovered here, though it's thought the disease has been in the country since late 2015 or early 2016.

The warning bells were rung thanks to the concerns raised by the Morven farmer and their vet, Merlyn Hay, from Vetlife Oamaru.

If anyone deserves recognition for service to their country it is Merlyn.

Federated Farmers policy and advocacy general manager Gavin Forrest. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers policy and advocacy general manager Gavin Forrest. Photo / Supplied

It appears the ongoing investigation into how the disease first entered New Zealand has failed to find any concrete proof of the pathway. As another year anniversary occurs it is time to assess what the nation has learnt, what other countries can learn from us, and ask if it is time to take a different approach to finding out how the disease got in.

Fighting M. bovis has been New Zealand's most expensive and extensive biosecurity response affecting the primary sector.

While we know the disease itself has had a devastating effect on a few farms, we are also acutely aware the process of eradicating the disease has had an even greater impact on farming families. Over 1200 farmers and their loved ones and staff have been directly affected by the response when you include those whose animals were tested on farm.

As the disease was found relatively recently, New Zealand had the opportunity to opt for eradication. Other countries are very interested in what progress we make on this.

What the nation has learnt in this process is the importance of having a workable animal identification and tracing system and obtaining a high level of farmer compliance. The Government and the current Minister for Agriculture Damien O'Connor have actively participated in this process by beefing up the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme. This has involved a lot of community consultation and learning as we go. Farmer behaviour towards the scheme has also improved over this time.

If New Zealand does eradicate M. bovis we will be the first country in the world to do so. We need to ensure the lessons learned from the M. bovis response are not lost and are ingrained in New Zealand's biosecurity system, so the risks of incursion are lowered and we are better prepared to respond to future incursions should they occur.

One of the key issues in the outbreak that remains is we still don't know how the disease entered New Zealand.

While many would like to find someone to blame for the introduction of M. bovis, two years down the track, the possibilities of finding the person or persons responsible and the pathway used is becoming increasing unlikely.

The Government could offer an amnesty from prosecution and or identification of the person or company responsible for bringing M. bovis into the country. Reassurance could be offered that the perpetrator's identity would remain confidential.

Arguably, what is more important than finding the "culprit" is knowing how the bacteria got here, in what product, and through what pathway, so we can reduce the risk of a repeat incursion.

We need to build a more robust biosecurity system that is as future proofed as possible based on what went wrong in the past. We need this information, so we can strengthen our ability to block future pests and diseases – not just M. bovis. We are a nation built on and run on primary industries. We are vulnerable to incursion of a wide range of exotic pests and diseases through a range of ever changing pathways.

The Government and the public need to consider an amnesty from prosecution and identification as it increasingly looks like it may be the only way we have of unearthing how M.bovis got in.