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Commentary: A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen


Having a backup plan is a good thing. Farmers know all too well that having a backup plan when the power goes out can literally be a life and death situation for livestock. Yet, the livestock industry does not have a backup plan if the unthinkable happened. A provision in both the Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill helps address this issue and could prevent what is happening in New Zealand.

New Zealand plans to slaughter about 150,000 cows as it tries to eradicate a strain of disease-causing bacteria from the national herd. Politicians and industry leaders announced the ambitious plan on Monday. They say it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and, if successful, would be the first time an infected country has eliminated Mycoplasma bovis.

Officials say the disease, which is also present in the U.S. and Europe, can be traced back to a single farm, and that the bacteria likely arrived in New Zealand 18 months before it was first identified. Officials are still trying to figure out how the bacteria got into the country despite strict biosecurity controls. This disease is not a major threat in the U.S., but this is an example of what could occur here with far more deadly diseases and far more disastrous consequences.

For example, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) would immediately close all export markets. The beef export losses alone within the first year would be estimated at around $6.34 billion, not to mention that the cumulative impact of an outbreak on the beef and pork sectors over a 10-year period would be more than $128 billion. The impact would also be felt well outside of animal agriculture. Corn and soybean farmers would lose $44 billion and nearly $25 billion, respectively, making the impact on these four industries alone almost $200 billion.

While the U.S. has a very vigorous inspection system and some of the best sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions in the world, we have seen over and over that it is impossible to keep insects, weeds, and diseases out. According to the National Beef Association, we currently do not have the resources to deal with a large outbreak of FMD. The current FMD vaccine bank in the United States is located at Plum Island, NY, and only contains enough vaccine to meet the need of a small, confined FMD outbreak. Additionally, preparation of a vaccine, from onset until delivery of a ready-to-administer dose, would currently take weeks. By the time vaccines could be administered, the entire beef industry would be in devastation. Worldwide FMD vaccine production is also limited, and there is no surge capacity available to produce the millions of doses needed in the event of a large-scale outbreak in the United States.

As part of the 2018 Farm Bill, full mandatory funding of $150 million a year for five years is proposed. It provides for a robust U.S. FMD vaccine bank, capable of responding rapidly and effectively to any potential FMD outbreak. While this is a significant budget request in an already tight spending situation, Congress needs to see this for the priority that it is.

There are some who say more research is needed on the issue and on alternatives to a vaccine-based solution. Yet, while we take more time, we leave the U.S. livestock industry and food supply at risk. Action is needed now before we find ourselves in the place New Zealand is in, having to make very painful and costly choices. It is time to get a backup plan in place.

By Gary Truitt