By Keith Woodford*
Prior to this week, I had no particular knowledge about the current shipment of 50,000 ewe lambs that are heading to Mexico. So when I was approached by Jamie Ball from the NBR for comment, my immediate thought was to say nothing. I simply assumed that this was indeed a very large shipment of future breeding stock.
However, once my attention was focused, and I started scratching around, all sorts of warning bells started to ring. It seemed a very large number of breeding animals to be sending there. And surely, if this was a genuine shipment, then at the other end there had to be either a huge rural development project, or alternatively a very large agribusiness.
So I started to dig a little deeper. As I dug through the layers, a fascinating story began to emerge. I am sure there is still more to uncover.
It seems evident that the sheep are being imported into Mexico on behalf of two internal state governments. These are Mexico State and Hidalgo State. They will then be gifted to about 1500 small farmers. They may end up being distributed even more widely.
On the surface, this all sounds very beneficent. Helping small farmers is an admirable goal. But is this the way to help small farmers to step-up and become more productive?
One way and another, I have been involved in international rural development projects for much of the last 25 years. What I know is that getting breeding animals is just one step. Genuine programs need pasture development, animal management expertise, overall farm management, and lots of extension guidance to the farmers. Even with all of these in place, the failure rate can be very high.
This is not the first large shipment of supposed breeding sheep to Mexico. They started back in the 1980s, but I am told that subsequently there was no trace of those animals or their descendants. The last big shipment was of 35,000 sheep in 2007, managed by the same importers.
So what has happened to that last shipment? By now, given natural increase, they should have multiplied to at least 200,000 breeding ewes. I am told, however, that they are nowhere to be found. I am also told through Mexican sources that the vast majority ended up being barbequed at village-level festivals and parties.
It is important that these large scale shipments are not confused with stud stock that typically go over to South American and other countries, including Mexico, in small shipments. That is a genuine trade in breeding animals.
So why would these two Mexican state governments import 50,000 sheep if they are going to be slaughtered?
We’ll, to understand the logic, one has to shed New Zealand perspectives and understand something of life in some other parts of the world. It needs to be seen in the context of the challenges that both democratic and not-so-democratic governments face in trying to maintain support. We need to recognise that the rule of law does not work in outback Mexico quite like it does in New Zealand. Political drivers and behaviours can be somewhat different there than here.
Some of the comments I am reading back here in New Zealand are along the lines that it makes no sense for Mexico to pay the price involved in getting these sheep to Mexico and then to slaughter them. And the answer to that is ‘indeed’ - as long as you are using New Zealand-based contextual thinking. It is different over there.
When I learned that these were indeed sheep that would otherwise have gone to slaughter in New Zealand, an early warning bell rang in my mind. That is definitely not the way that I would be organising a big breeding project.
This shipment has been in the planning phase for some two years but until the ship arrived in Timaru there was no publicity. All of those involved kept very quiet. Clearly, the aim was to get the boat loaded and out of New Zealand’s jurisdiction before the story came out.
The export has been organised by a registered company here in New Zealand which has Mexican owners. It seems that the exporting and importing company are very closely aligned. In all likelihood they are the same people.
Clearly there are also some animal welfare concerns. There are multiple reports that a considerable number of lambs died from pneumonia prior to embarkation. If this is confirmed, then in all likelihood the pneumonia organisms will have also been taken on board. In crowded conditions and crossing the tropics, and particularly for young animals, the risks of a major outbreak are considerable.
New Zealand’s MPI also needs to explain more clearly why they allowed young sheep aged 10 months and less to be exported when their own criteria - at this stage still guidelines - state that animals should be at least one year. Why have guidelines if they are not to be followed?
Given that there are no New Zealand veterinarians on board, we have no way to know what is happening. There is absolutely no verification possible of any reports the exporter/importer chooses to provide.
In time, someone will no doubt lodge a freedom of information request seeking disclosure of the communication between the NZ Embassy in Mexico and MPI back here in New Zealand. My guess would be that the Embassy has a fair idea what is happening, but feel hamstrung by assurances they have been given, but in which they are less than confident. Whether there is a paper trail about their concerns is another matter.
Unfortunately, for this load, and to use an analogy, the horse has now bolted and the stable door is left swinging. However, the least the New Zealand Government should do is seek approval from the Mexican federal authorities for New Zealand Government veterinarians to monitor both the unloading in Mexico and the subsequent fate of the sheep. And unless everything stacks up, this should be the last large shipment of supposed breeding ewes to Mexico.
Keith Woodford is Honorary Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University. He combines this with project and consulting work in agri-food systems. This a regular column here. His archived writings are available at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com