Keith Woodford explains how crucial decisions are pending re Mycoplasma bovis and Government must recognise its own limitations

Keith Woodford explains how crucial decisions are pending re Mycoplasma bovis and Government must recognise its own limitations

By Keith Woodford*

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 bovid. 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?

*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd.   His articles are archived at You can contact him directly here.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

'Farmers must make their own business decisions and take responsibility for those decisions.' Really? It's been pretty plain for as long as I can remember that farmers expect the government and thus the taxpayer (thus in great measure other businesses), to pick up responsibility for their business decisions - that is, whenever these decisions lead to some difficult cost.

Really? As far as I can see MPI is responsible for biosecurity, and to set and enforce protocols to keep NZ free of exotic diseases. Unless someone has done something illegal, M.Bovis seems to me to be another epic fail on the part of MPI.

What was the result of the class action taken against MPI by kiwifruit growers?

We are still awaiting a decision from the Judge re kiwifruit Psa.
She has been working on it for seven months now, no doubt working on trying to ensure that whatever she decides cannot be successfully appealed.
It could go either way.
Incompetence is one thing, negligence is another.
In that case of kiwifruit Psa , a key issue is whether MPI had a 'duty of care'
In the case of kiwifruit Psa, it is fairly easy to show that MPI stuffed up in a big way. So the issue is whether they were also negligent at a level that creates liability.
Negligence will be harder to show for Mycoplasma bovis unless we can find the source.
The problem at the moment is that the MPI 'cure' has become a big part of the problem.

hmm too true, tracking a disease back to a source can be a costly bit of substantial testing. Normally you need to be able to test across the infected population and the potential sources and with fingers crossed and prayers to all the gods hope there is genetic proof resulting from all that testing. However while finding a source would be useful to know I would assume it does not have the same priority compared to the recovery and management of the situation now. Do you foresee a financial or legal benefit for the industry once a source is identified? (aside from the general management to prevent reinfection which can have quite a bit done already without knowing the exact source).

If I buy shares in Fletchers or any other company for that matter, and I loose money for whatever reason, then I do not expect the Government to help me out.
Farming is a business and like any other business it is about risk and reward. Plenty of rewards over the last couple of years but now there is a risk and they want to be socialists.

I think you would find that there are many farmers who would also like the Government to step back. At that point, the issue of who should pay becomes a much smaller issue as we are only talking about the costs to date plus 'wind-down' in terms of the public purse versus industry contributions. Much of the headline costs in the media were always costs that farmers would bear (rather than MPI costs) through their normal farm operating expenses which will increase because of their own biosecurity measures and the effect thereof on their farming system
Keith W

Unfortunately, KW, we have ourselves a Gubmint that, armed with billions of Our Munny, a sense of 'Let's Do It' and a disdain for field data (oil/gas can be shorthanded as 'Gubmint to Naki - Just Die'), is wedded to top-down, central, and almost by definition less than fully competent 'Action'. It's great for headlines, has nice snappy soundbites ('NAIT's failed because Farmers', 'Dirty Dairy', 'Farming's sooo 20th century') and as you have noticed, has ensnared many voters' minds in the resulting NewSpeak.

Until the zeitgeist moves back to a less hubristic setting, I honestly cannot see them taking your sage and sensible advice. The beatings will continue until morale improves....

Back in the land of reality, it was actually Simon Bridges this morning who was advocating farmers paying less of the load and...someone else, whoever that might be but I think it's you and me...taking up the rest of it. Let's do socialism?

Unfortunately WM we have in you someone who has forgotten what government is supposed to do - manage nationally important issues for the greater public good.

I appreciate it's been easy to forget that fact, especially over the previous 9 years of fingers-in-ears, see-no-evil, nothing-to-see here style of "government", but we now have folks in charge who understand what needs to be done to manage a country, not just manage the rural accountancy firm or fluff about with flags.

Should they step back from the $85m allocated in Budget 2018? Many have said it is not enough anyway and that more money will be needed.

I just wonder - needed to do what - is it only needed if we eradicate?

What hasn't been made clear by the Government is whether the $85m is purely operational funding (for testing, MPI/biosecurity staffing etc.), or is it compensation to farmers for loss of income/culling etc.?

I'm just keen to know what we are paying for.

we have had years of government under funding MPI.
we are an island nation that imports a hell of a lot from some countries that have a lot of nasty critters and bacteria, fungi etc.
MPI are lucky if they can inspect 1 % of what comes in, so it becomes a matter of when something arrives how do we handle it not if it arrives.

at the moment MPI are fighting this and stink bug and myrtle and pea weevil which have all been found to be here
Major biosecurity threat: 15 stink bugs found alive in Christchurch after fumigation failure

In the same way that Labour under Ag Minister Jim Anderton didn't see bee varrhoa mite as a serous issue , needing to be quaranteed , and stamped out before it established ... the Gnats under Ag Minister Nathan Guy were slack when Michael Bovis erupted , and failed to realize the seriousness of the situation ....

... in both instances , MPI plus governmental tardiness utterly stuffed up any sensible response to the threat ..

Lord help us if Foot & Mouth ever takes hold in this country .... under the stewardship of our industry and political leaders we will be right royally buggered !

all our governments pay no attention and ham it up for the media until the SHTF .
the biggest joke was this stunt by the nats, what a joke 28 m to get rid of all pest in NZ yea right pull the other one. he has most likely never been in the back country with possums, rats and mice trying to steal your food and eat through your pack to get at it.
nothing funnier that watching foreign hikers chasing possums to get there food back because they didnt hang it up to protect it , or jumping up in fright when a mouse runs across their bed in a hut

The Government wants to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050, formally adopting a target to eradicate all pests that threaten New Zealand's native birds.

Prime Minister John Key announced the goal, alongside Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, as well as a $28 million funding injection into a joint venture company to kickstart the campaign.

"Rats, possums and stoats kill 25 million of our native birds every year, and prey on other native species such as lizards and, along with the rest of our environment, we must do more to protect them," Key said

Your access to our unique content is free - always has been. But ad revenues are diving so we need your direct support.

Become a supporter

Thanks, I'm already a supporter.