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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

With SA focused on expanding its red meat and livestock product exports, strengthening biosecurity is essential to this ambition. This refers to the measures in place to reduce the risk of infectious diseases transmission to livestock and poultry.

In part, the weaknesses in surveillance and control of disease contributed to the spread of various animal diseases that SA farming businesses suffered in the past few years. The temporary closure of certain export markets was costly to beef farmers and wool growers.

The upside of the difficulty was the realisation that the government and the private sector must work collaboratively to enhance the country’s biosecurity system. This effort is now under way, and exports are recovering.

In 2023, beef exports lifted 3% year on year to 27,675 tonnes. In addition, SA’s wool exports increased by 18% year on year to 49,715 tonnes. The opening of export markets is evidence of the country’s efforts to address animal health concerns. The deliberate marketing of livestock products to various growing export markets, such as China and Saudi Arabia, also contributed to this progress.

SA must apply more resources to strengthen livestock health in the coming years. This is vital for the country to remain a reliable supplier of red meat, wool and other livestock products in the world market. What makes this more urgent is the frequent occurrences of animal diseases worldwide and the increased complexity of these diseases.

An April 12 report indicated that the US department of agriculture, its Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state veterinary and public health officials are studying an illness among dairy cows in various US states.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza (bird flu), which commonly affects poultry farms, was discovered in dairy cows. The most recent reports suggest that the virus has now spread to 16 herds in six US states.

There are rising concerns in the US about the subsequent transmission to humans, with two cases of human transmission having been detected. The scientists are studying this outbreak and have called for calm among consumers.

But outside the US we don’t know of any cases where bird flu has transitioned into livestock and people. After noticing the news of this outbreak on April 12, I communicated with the leadership at SA’s department of agriculture, land reform and rural development to understand if this matter is under monitoring and the country is safe. Indeed, SA remains secure, and it seems this issue remains confined primarily to a couple of states in the US.

Because SA has recently suffered the economic consequences of the spread of animal disease, farming businesses and government officials remain on high alert, which has helped with surveillance in times of high risk of animal diseases globally.

The frequent occurrences of animal diseases also implies that some countries, like SA in 2021 and 2022, will occasionally lose access to export markets while they work to clear disease.

During such times disease-free countries would be expected to increase their volume of exports to fill the vacuum. SA red meat and livestock product exporters should always be alert to opportunistic export gaps. This practice is not unique to SA — competitors typically increase their market presence when other suppliers are constrained.

Animal diseases are an increasingly significant challenge globally. In recent years SA has undergone various cycles of foot and mouth disease in the cattle industry, multiple strains of avian influenza in poultry, and African swine fever in the pig industry. All of these episodes were costly to farming businesses and distracted SA from its export ambition.

We are likely to continue seeing animal disease outbreak reports. Europe, Asia and the Americas are regions that typically report disease outbreaks. Therefore, SA must strengthen surveillance to ensure an agile response from regulators when there are outbreaks.

As part of its long-term planning, SA’s department of agriculture, land reform & rural development should also increase its spending on animal health-related matters and build local capacity. This is essential to support the subsector, which makes up nearly half of SA’s agricultural economy.

The news of the US bird flu transmission to dairy and humans should remind us of the risk of animal disease and uncertainty. Fortunately, SA remains safe. Still, farmers, feedlots and regulators must remain vigilant. The consumer should not be concerned and should continue with typical purchases.

• Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and author of ‘A Country of Two Agricultures’, is senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics.

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