As I write this on 20 May 2018, New Zealand is at a crucial point in deciding how to manage Mycoplasma bovis. There are no good options. The worst option is for the Government to try and be the boss.
So, who should try to manage Mycoplasma bovis?
At the national level, the answer is ‘no-one’. Farmers must make their own business decisions and take responsibility for those decisions.
Elsewhere in the world, governments do not try to manage Mycoplasma bovis. It is up to farmers to do this.
The role of our Government should be to continue monitoring at the national level using sampling techniques. But trying to identify all infected animals so as to eradicate the disease, and even trying to limit stock movements, this will be counter-productive. Government has neither the resources nor the expertise. And the mess will just get bigger and bigger.
Currently there are about 300 herds across the nation in lockdown.
According to the MPI Minister Damien O’Connor the situation is a disaster, worse than foot and mouth disease. Well, I can’t agree with that.
Foot and mouth would indeed be a national disaster. In contrast, Mycoplasma bovis is a disaster for MPI and some farmers, but not for the nation. The qualification to that statement is that it does indeed have the potential to become a national disaster if MPI and the Government do not step back.
A current epicentre of the disease would seem to be in Mid Canterbury, some 150 km north of the first identified Mycoplasma positive properties in South Canterbury, and several hundred kilometres north of the likely original infected properties in Southland.
On 17 May, according to Minister O’Connor, an additional 50 properties in the Ashburton District were given a Notice of Direction (NOD) that prohibits animal movements without a special exemption. This came as no surprise. They were on the list of properties to be so notified for more than a week, but staff shortages had delayed the implementation. It is likely that a significant proportion of these properties will be confirmed as Mycoplasma positive.
A key issue in the South Island is that most dairy farmers winter their cows on support blocks away from the milking farm. These animals need to be going to the support farms right now. So, across the South Island, but particularly in Mid Canterbury, we have a situation where movement-restricted cows are in a different location from their feed.
Quite simply, these cows need to go to where the feed is. Otherwise there will be an animal welfare disaster.
In the North Island, the situation is somewhat different. North Island cows are typically wintered on the milking farm, so less animal movements are needed. However, many sharemilkers do need to move their herds to a new farm at the end of this month on Movement Day. Currently, there are no restrictions on that except for NOD properties.
Although most infected properties are in the South Island, more infected properties are also likely to be found in the North Island. In that context, last week’s Waikato announcement should have come as no surprise – there are at least two other provisional positives in the Waikato, plus others elsewhere in the North island, and this has been an open secret for some time.
Some commentators have been suggesting that we should manage the disease in the short term but still work towards long term eradication. However, the epidemiology of this particular disease is such that this is unlikely to happen. No other country of the world – and Mycoplasma bovis is present in all the main dairy producing countries – is attempting to do this. Unless some new technologies come forward, this disease is always going to be with us.
In the long term, it may be possible to produce a vaccine for Mycoplasma bovis. However, I do not know of anyone currently working on this.
The hard reality is that all farmers now need to manage their own situation, supported by advice by their veterinarians and other rural professionals with whom they work. We know the risk factors. It is simply a case of making sure that these risks continue to be communicated, and then decisions must be made for each farm in the context of its specific situation.
Perusal of online comments demonstrates the ongoing lack of understanding in relation to this disease. MPI has to take considerable responsibility for this.
It was MPI who decided to focus on forward tracing from the original identified properties rather than also focusing on backward tracing, and who thereby created the impression that the disease started in 2017 with the Van Leeuwens in South Canterbury. That was always unlikely.
This flawed messaging also created false optimism in relation to eradication. This in turn created false optimism amongst farmers in other districts that it was not going to be their problem.
MPI now accepts that Mycoplasma bacteria were present in New Zealand at the start of 2016. But among my informal networks, there is no-one who is confident that this is time zero. The debates that we have, based on various pieces of evidence, include whether time zero was around 2014, or whether time zero was even earlier than that.
With hindsight, it seems that the battle between Mycoplasma bovis and MPI was always going to be a victory for Mycoplasma bovis. For it to be otherwise, MPI Biosecurity would have either had to stop its first entry to New Zealand, or else have identified the first incursions before they had spread.
Clearly there have been major deficiencies in NAIT (the national animal tracing system) but this is not the reason that Mycoplasma is currently out of control. Much more fundamental to the issue is that Mycoplasma had a head start, probably of several years.
There will also need to be hard questions asked about MPI itself – not the individuals but the system. Within my networks, which include people working directly on the Mycoplasma project, there is frustration that field-level understandings get lost as messages flow up the chain.
I would like to see MPI staffed at the highest levels by specialists rather than by managers drawn from totally different fields of expertise. From the website, I can see a ten-member senior leadership team with military experience, social development experience, communications experience and even a love of ballet. But apart from one forester and one agricultural economist, I cannot see any signs of people with experience of how things actually happen out in the field, nor an understanding of relevant sciences which determines how different diseases must be attacked differently. If the expertise is there, it is not evident.
I have significant doubts as to whether lack of funding is a key cause of the current situation. More likely, it is about organisational culture. It also needs to be recognised that generic management taught in MBA type programs may not be the ideal training for a Biosecurity Unit.
Questions now have to be asked as to whether or not we have appropriate systems in place in case of a foot and mouth disease outbreak. I cannot answer that.
Foot and mouth disease would play out very differently than Mycoplasma bovis. If Mycoplasma bovis is a stealth bomber, then foot and mouth disease would be a nuclear event.
With foot and mouth disease, there would need to be immediate 100 percent accurate tracing of animal movements of the preceding days and possibly weeks, but not long term historical movements. There would need to be immediate and total lockdown on all animal movements across the country. Emergency vaccinations may need to be part of the toolbox. All scenarios would need to have been thought through in advance.
With Mycoplasma bovis, it is evident those scenario analyses were not in place, so perhaps they are also not in place for foot and mouth disease.
Coming back to the immediate issues of Mycoplasma bovis, the key constraint going forward may well be for Government itself to recognise that it does not have the capacity to either eradicate or manage Mycoplasma bovis. The idea that ‘we are the Government and we are here to help you’ may well be an oxymoron. Can Government understand this?