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