Foot-and-mouth – the stock disease that could inflict a huge economic cost on our economy if Biosecurity defences fail

Ray Smith,  director-general  of  the  Ministry for Primary Industries,  sent  a  shiver  through  the  NZ  China  Summit in Auckland  when  he  warned  that  foot-and-mouth  disease  getting  into NZ   would  be  a  “scary”  and  a “gigantic thing”.

The  highly  contagious  disease has  been  sweeping  through Indonesia  and  since  it  was  first discovered  in  May  429,000 cases   have  been  identified    through  24   provinces  including Bali,  a  popular  holiday  destination  for many  New  Zealanders.

Indonesia  is  struggling  to  bring the  disease under  control, underlining  what  a problem  it  could  be  for NZ’s  main  export  industries.

The disease, which could cost the country billions of dollars and more than 100,000 jobs if it ran rampant among our livestock, is causing major concern in South Asia. After  the disease was discovered in Bali fragments of the virus that cause the disease have also been found in meat products entering Australia from Indonesia, creating fresh concerns about the possibility of it arriving in New Zealand.

In the UK, a severe outbreak in 2001 led to more than 6 million animals being slaughtered.

“Foot and mouth disease has been  considered the doomsday disease for the New Zealand farming sector,” NZ Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor  said.

So  what  is  the  Government  doing  about  it?

He  says it is taking the threat seriously. It  is  applying tighter screening as part of the wider plan to combat the disease.

Over 60%  of NZ”s exports come from the primary sector.

The disease would cause chaos if it spread to wild animals.

The Government was doing as much as it could to alert New Zealanders about the risks and had learned lessons from the 2017 Mycoplasma Bovis (M Bovis) outbreak, he said.

“We’ve been keeping in contact with farmers and the farming sector leaders… stopping all stock movements would be one of the things that would have to happen immediately. 

“They’re aware of that and… because of the experience of M Bovis, we’re in a better position to communicate with farmers and express to them the importance of adhering to those instructions, should foot and mouth ever arrive here.

“We’ve learned many lessons from that and so prevention’s better than cure; making sure we don’t assume anything, that we check our systems and we make sure that everyone bringing anything into the country adheres to the current law.”

Foot and mouth could spread far more quickly than M Bovis. That is why New Zealand couldn’t afford to take shortcuts, O’Connor said.

Reserve Bank modelling projects a widespread foot-and-mouth outbreak in New Zealand would have an estimated direct economic impact of around $10 billion after two years.

New Zealand

“… has never had an outbreak and we want to do all we can to keep it that way”, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

And:

“To all New Zealanders and travellers please be responsible. Please be honest and thorough in your biosecurity declarations as you return from overseas travel.” 

Other authorities  say  a  foot-and-mouth outbreak is the single biggest biosecurity threat to New Zealand due to the impact it would have on New Zealand farmers and  on  its ability  to  trade.

Estimates on what it  might cost vary, with  MPI figure reckoning a loss of $5.8bn  in  GDP.

A FMD outbreak would essentially cripple the livestock industry, which currently accounts for about $28bn of New Zealand’s GDP. It would also cause a significant drop in the exchange rate and lead to a possible recession, a MPI spokesperson  said.

MPI has developed a response and recovery plan for dealing with FMD with 150 organisations and 55,000 people ready to respond through the National Biosecurity Capability Network.

The MPI has  poured more funding into systems, technology and staff to  monitor  more  effectively New Zealand’s borders. It employed 101 new biosecurity officers in 2019, bringing the total to 600.

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