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Animal diseases: a lack of leadership

PUBLISHED: 15:49 20 March 2008 | UPDATED: 08:23 28 March 2014

MARCH 20, 2008: Mary Marshall, an expert on animal diseases who represents Smallholders Forum on stakeholder groups consulted by Defra, looks at the issues behind the controversy over ‘biosecurity’

Small scale or ‘hobby’ farming has been accused recently by the NFU of putting the agriculture industry at risk of disease spread through poor ‘biosecurity’.

My initial reaction was to be critical of the assumptions underlying this accusation but, on reflection, the mindset, shared presumably between government and the NFU, which provokes this attitude needs to be carefully examined and challenged. The proposed remedy of licensing will need to be discussed in line with current misconceptions. (The NFU has since claimed its president was misquoted and that it does not currently favour licensing livestock keepers - Editor.)

What are the assumptions?
Small scale, less intensive, livestock husbandry is outside the industrial system of direct communication with government and strict adherence to the regulations that have been agreed between them. As for the NFU, one wonders whether they’re adequately representing their 60,000 Countryside members, many of whom are hobby farmers, paying a minimum annual subscription of £41.50 which provides the NFU with £2,490,000, when their president is allowed to make such accusations?

The reality
The small scale sector often spends more time inspecting their animals and spends a larger portion of their disposable income than does the intensive sector on obtaining and implementing advice on husbandry and on preventive medicine from their own local veterinary practices. But there is great variation within these sectors  with different levels of risk both to their own animals and to animals outside their holdings. It’s a mistake to assume that one descriptive term applies equally to all the holdings which belong in that group. Instead, we should examine and encourage the specific practices which minimise risks.

What is meant by ‘biosecurity’ and where does it fit in with a sensible proposal for responsibility and cost sharing?
The meaning of biosecurity has quietly deviated from its original reference to prevention of the escape of dangerous pathogens from one source to another, to now include the protection of one source from the introduction of dangerous pathogens from another, for which the word ‘biosafety’ is sometimes used. This distinction is important and the concept shouldn’t be lost, as it has great implications for responsibility and, consequently, for fair costs and funding. And it doesn’t always fit neatly into the accepted descriptions of husbandry.

What is the source of these dangerous pathogens? A healthy herd can only become infected by an exotic pathogen through exposure that has been introduced from outside the holding. Introduction by aerosol, as in the wind, is actually a rare event – which is lucky, as there are few means for protection. Much more frequently, introduction is from another animal, a person or a thing, such as meat products and vehicles. 

For the livestock holding, protection through simple and inexpensive practices of hygiene and sanitation is readily available without complicated equipment. But it needs the right attitude and some planning. For example, this would include cleaning hands and clothing after touching animals from another holding, whether at a show or a market, and separating new animals to allow time to observe and perhaps test for disease before they join your herd or flock.

The risks increase as the scope increases.  A closed holding on a single premises that only rarely if ever brings in new animals as breeding stock is at less of a risk than a small or large scale commercial enterprise where animals are often run on separated fields with shared vehicles and personnel, inevitably resulting in a breakdown of biosecurity, and where animals and animal products are transported great distances.

A system of licensing could be helpful provided it’s organised and managed sensibly. It would require substantial funding, which, in my opinion, should be a government responsibility, but with decision making delegated to a stand-alone body that would control the budget, raise funding outside the government core funding and impose a variable levy on livestock keepers related to their biosecurity/biosafety risk, as independently assessed and certified.  Membership would have to be funded to enable small scale representatives who have no source of industrial funding.

How can the introduction of exotic diseases into the country be prevented, or detected rapidly if prevention fails?
This is a government responsibility. Farmers have little, if any, power to prevent such introduction. The government must implement and maintain adequate isolation, quarantine, and diagnostic facilities at ports of entry. The government must also be capable of testing animals for notifiable diseases, or allow veterinary practices to use rapid diagnostic kits for on-farm testing. The international movement of livestock and their products is largely within the realm of agribusiness.  Control of the risks involved requires government regulations and effective monitoring and data handling.  

Does the polluter really pay, or are the innocent livestock keepers held to share the costs when mistakes, whether deliberate or accidental, are made?
If a system of licensing based on minimising risks is to be imposed on livestock keepers, a comparable system of licensing must be imposed on the government, and the livestock sector must be apportioned costs that reflect the risks involved in their practices. There’s an excellent and comprehensive industry cost sharing proposal available at www.warmwell.com/05aug5breezecost.html
We have seen that the choice of words and how they are used are important. Biosafety, biosecurity – how does Defra score? Take a look at the New Zealand Department of Agriculture’s website at www.biosecurity.govt.nz, which provides an excellent resource of useful advice to farmers. Then compare that with what is available on Defra’s website, www.defra.gov.uk. New Zealand starts with a national strategy that is logically laid out, with attention to all livestock sectors. It provides leadership.
Leadership is what is absent in the UK. In its place, Defra is working with the NFU to propose cost sharing and licensing strategies. The small scale, less intensive, sector needs representation and a voice in these discussions which will most certainly lead to regulations.


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