Commercial agriculture, while essential for ensuring food security for a burgeoning population, poses certain challenges. One of these is an increased risk of disease outbreaks due to livestock farming on an intensive scale, where animals live in close proximity. However, few countries have had to manage disease outbreaks to the extent that South Africa has had to do in recent years.

The consensus among various experts is that the almost simultaneous disease outbreaks are driven by various factors. These include irresponsible or illegal movement of animals in violation of regulations; a lack of state oversight, vaccinations and proper awareness; a lack of capacity to reinforce control measures; and little to no government funding.

What are the challenges?

The protocol for controlled diseases like foot and mouth disease (FMD) and avian influenza is to place all affected farms under strict quarantine, euthanise surviving animals, and dispose of the carcasses to restrict the disease from spreading.

Unfortunately, the system has major weaknesses: state veterinary services don’t have sufficient resources to manage the outbreaks effectively, and because the state doesn’t compensate farmers for their losses, farmers are reluctant to comply with orders to cull, resulting in outbreaks spreading.

Vaccines are also a challenge, and after production lines broke down at state-run Onderstepoort Biological Products, the industry experienced a severe shortage of FMD vaccines earlier this year. Surprisingly, avian influenza vaccines aren’t available in South Africa yet, but government talks to finalise access are reported at an advanced stage and the registration of these medicines is being fast-tracked.

The impact is severe.

Unfortunately, this situation threatens the livelihoods of producers, as well as the 500 000 people employed in the livestock industry, while the disruption of national and international markets is another major consideration. Beef exports accounted for about 1% of agricultural exports in 2022 but were down 12% year-on-year according to data from Trade Map, primarily due to closures of various export markets following the FMD outbreak.

The sheep and pig industries were also impacted by FMD. Trade Map data showed that China, a significant market for South African wool, suspended imports in 2022, resulting in a 21% year-on-year decline in the export value of wool that year. Until now, FMD has not occurred in any pigs, but fears that the disease could transmit to pigs prompted Namibia, which was our largest pork export market prior to August 2022, to impose its current ban on South African pork.

On top of the FMD woes, the pig industry was put under more pressure late last year when outbreaks of African swine fever were reported. More recently, poultry livestock farmers have had to deal with avian influenza, with about a quarter of South Africa’s chickens dying or being culled, and breeders suffering losses of around $25 million (R460 million) so far.

What needs to change?

Experts agree that both government and industry role players need to accept accountability for biosecurity and develop a collaborative approach to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, there is mistrust between the private sector and state organisations. New and innovative thinking and putting our differences aside are needed to deal with the reality on the ground.

The lack of a reliable national disease control system leaves assurance of food safety, agricultural financing and trust between consumers and farmers hanging in the balance, with farmers bearing the brunt of the resulting financial strain. Our agricultural sector faces many urgent challenges, but biosecurity must be recognised as one of the most pressing – the country’s food security and export potential depends on it.

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