Nathan Guy: The Mycoplasma bovis blame game achieves nothing

OPINION: As the Mycoplasma bovis incursion continues to spread across New Zealand, so too does worry and anxiety, with blame and finger-pointing in hot pursuit.

As an island nation reliant on trade, any threat to our biosecurity is a threat to our economy and the social and economic structure of our rural and urban communities.

The primary industries sector earns around $40 billion a year, making it the most vital element of New Zealand's export economy.

A strong economy like we have means more imports and tourists cross our borders, and with them comes increased threat.

Managing New Zealand’s biosecurity is a real challenge. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has a multi-layered biosecurity system that generally works very well. Ideally it is focussed on keeping pests and diseases offshore, but in an age of booming tourist and visitor numbers, incursions can and do happen.

The first layer of defence onshore is a robust border inspection process but, if an incursion occurs post border, then systems and protocols are activated and a response is rolled out.

In the context of the Mycoplasma bovis incursion, it was heartening to hear MPI’s chief operating officer tell MPs recently that the ministry is more than ready to respond to an incursion of this scale. MPI can be managing up to 20 biosecurity responses at any one time but responses tend to be more short-lived than this one has been.

Science, intelligence gathering and technology are all factored into a decision as to whether a pest or disease can be contained or eradicated, or if long term management is required. This essentially means we learn to live with it.

Of course there are always financial, environmental and social considerations that need to be made.

Mycoplasma bovis is a bacterial disease that causes mastitis, abortion and lameness in cattle. There is no vaccine treatment and numerous tests are required to confirm animals are free of the disease. It creates productivity issues but, fortunately, doesn’t infect humans and presents no food safety risk or trade implications.

That’s where lawmakers have an important role to play.

A framework for compensation is included in the Biosecurity Act 1993 to encourage people to come forward and alert MPI to the presence of a pest or disease and know that they may be compensated if the regulator puts a restriction on their property.

If compensation wasn’t included in the law then authorities are unlikely to be alerted in time to stop the resulting spread.

Because incursions can have a significant financial impact, it’s important to have industry engaged early in any response. That’s why I worked hard with industry and officials to introduce Government Industry Agreements (GIA) in 2013. This means industry organisations have a mandate to levy their members for response costs.

So far 17 primary sector organisations have signed the GIA, ensuring they are engaged when a response impacts on their sector. Importantly, the cost share between the Government and these industry groups is agreed and this partnership model is working well.

Strengthening the core of the biosecurity system was a key focus for me during my tenure as minister. In Budget 2017 we invested $18.4 million into biosecurity as part of a total primary industries package of almost $250 million – a record investment. By comparison, in the recent Budget the coalition Government chose to invest only $9.2 million into biosecurity – half what we invested.

In recent years funding went towards doubling the number of dogs in the detector team, new X-ray machines at airports and for screening cruise line passengers. It also helped boost front line staff numbers. It was a credit to MPI that they eradicated three Queensland fruit fly incursions.

In 2015 we put Parliament into urgency to bring in the Border Clearance Levy to enact a law so that visitors would pay about $22 for border services, rather than the taxpayer. Both Labour and New Zealand First voted against this law which has since gone on to be a huge success.

Despite these precautions, incursions do happen. When officials first informed me on 21 July that Mycoplasma bovis was likely to be confirmed via testing, I was deeply concerned.

As soon as it was confirmed, MPI initiated a high priority response.

Infected properties were locked down and animal testing and tracing began to track any possible pathways.

MPI officials reached out to Australia for technical staff and consulted international experts.

I regularly updated my Cabinet colleagues and ensured MPI had enough resources to respond. As culling began the need to keep farmers well-informed was crucial and many have attended the 70 public meetings MPI has held to discuss the response.

When I left my ministerial post following the change of government last year, there were seven infected properties in a localised area around Oamaru and MPI was still confident of being able to eradicate this disease. Now there are 39 infected properties across New Zealand.

At the time of writing it is unknown how the disease arrived here but I understand several properties have been issued search warrants as part of MPI’s ongoing investigations.

It’s my expectation that once MPI has established the facts, any individual or company that has knowingly spread this disease should face the full force of the law.

The financial and emotional toll on farmers has been significant and the Rural Support Trust has done an outstanding job supporting farming families.

I have spoken out lately because farmers have been contacting me desperately waiting for their compensation claims to come through. Some have waited for months and the pressure has become too much. I’m pleased to see the Government has now responded and will pay out some money within two weeks of stock being culled.

For anyone to have to go through the soul-destroying process of having their infected animals slaughtered through no fault of their own, fast and fair compensation that allows them to get on with their business is paramount.

It was timely in 2016 - prior to the confirmation this disease was here - that industry and Government kick-started a review of the National Animal Identification and Tracking (NAIT) system. This tracing system requires everyone involved in the supply chain to play their part - that includes farmers, truckies, stock agents, dairy and meat processors. This has been a wake-up call for all and I expect farmers to lift their game on recording animal tracing movements.

Like any large biosecurity response, this one will be reviewed when the time is right and I am happy to have my role in it put under the microscope in the hope that any lessons learned will ultimately help strengthen the overall system.

The Government and industry are very close to announcing a decision to either continue to cull to eradicate the disease or to move to a long-term management plan. Regardless of what option is chosen, farmers, industry leaders, Government and politicians need to try and work constructively together to get on top of it to ensure the ongoing prosperity of the primary industries sector.

Nathan Guy is the MP for Ōtaki representing the National Party


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