Opinion: Keep the pressure on to defeat M. bovis.

  • Opinion
  • 21/02/2020
Damien O'Connor is confident New Zealand can achieve eradication.
Damien O'Connor is confident New Zealand can achieve eradication. Photo credit: Supplied

By Damien O'Connor.

OPINION: Attempting eradication was a bold decision, with no country having attempted it before. However, the estimated economic impact of allowing this disease to spread, in just the first 10 years, was $1.3 billion in lost productivity in the cattle industries.

And on top of that is the increased antibiotic use, animal welfare issues, and having to make fundamental changes to how freely we can move cattle to grass, limiting our potential industry growth. 

It has not been an easy fight, but it's one we are winning. The independent Technical Advisory Group says that eradication is feasible. We are testing more farms and finding fewer cases. More than 93 percent of farms that are put under restrictions due to a risk of infection are found to be clear of disease. On average it is taking fewer than five days to put farms under restrictions when risk is identified. 

The Bulk Tank Milk Surveillance programme shows us that the disease is not widespread and that we are finding infected farms. On average only nine farms a month are now having a 'detect' result on this screening test, and 97 percent of those farms are found to not be infected after on-farm testing. We have also begun testing on a random selection of beef farms, alongside Tb testing, to assure us that the disease is not established in the beef breeding herd.

The compensation process, which was taking too long in some cases, has been greatly improved. It's more agile, has more expert advice from industry, and is getting payments done quicker. More than $127 million has now been paid out in compensation, and 90 percent of claims lodged have been processed.

Part of the reason that the Programme is starting to see success has been the partnership between MPI and its industry partners DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb New Zealand. They have developed meaningful ways to work together in the field, and to govern and lead the Programme from the boardroom. 

Farmers are contributing 32 percent of the total cost of the eradication effort (including compensation), and the industry groups have made substantial contributions in time and resources to the Programme's operations. Having industry and farmers at the table has fundamentally improved the effort, and has shown us the way forward for future biosecurity incursions. 

While we are still working to halt the spread of the disease, and cannot ease our efforts now, we are also making sure that we can reach the next phase, which is running a long-term surveillance Programme to give us confidence that we have achieved 'freedom from disease'. This is likely to involve ongoing bulk tank milk testing and testing at slaughter and on-farm testing of beef stock. 

With weaner sales starting, and Moving Day not far away, all cattle farmers need to be focused on making sure they are completely NAIT compliant. Accurate NAIT records are our greatest weapon against the spread of M. bovis, and we are still seeing far too many farmers failing to comply. The dedicated NAIT compliance team at MPI is cracking down, and issuing infringements and taking prosecutions against the most serious offenders. It is your responsibility to make sure you meet your NAIT obligations - tag every animal, register the tag against it in the system, and record every movement - no excuses. 

The impact on the farmers affected by M. bovis, and the steps required to eradicate it, cannot be understated. We will continue to do everything we can to support them - to get decisions made quickly and on the ground, to get compensation paid quickly, and to get farms and farmers back to farming free from this disease. I want to thank every farmer that has worked through the hardship of M. bovis for their efforts to get through such a challenging period and get back for farming. 

Damien O'Connor is the Minister of Agriculture, Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth and Minister for Biosecurity, Food Safety and Rural Communities.