Farming

Front Page: Farming community’s anxiety about foot and mouth outbreak

Foot and mouth disease could decimate New Zealand’s dairy industry. Photo / Michael Craig

A farmer has described the risk of foot and mouth disease as similar to worrying about a heart attack.

“There’s always the possibility of it happening, and you sure don’t want it to happen because it could be catastrophic,” Federated Farmers vice president and Golden Bay dairy farmer Wayne Langford tells the Front Page podcast.

“You’re always aware of the possibility, but you can’t worry about it every day. You just hope that border security has control of it.”

Langford’s analogy comes off the back of comments by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying that an outbreak could impact as many as 100,000 jobs.

Agriculture and biosecurity minister Damien O’Connor mirrored those sentiments, describing it as a doomsday disease.

“That’s 100 per cent accurate,” Langford responded when asked whether these comments were an accurate representation of the threat posed.

“This is no joke. I’ve compared it to the likes of what happened to the tourism industry with Covid. But this would be far worse than that. It would be overnight. It would be a flick of a switch and our primary sector would just be annihilated. It’s exactly as they’re describing it, and that’s why there’s so much emphasis on keeping it out.”

Indonesia faces an outbreak of the disease, but has not yet crossed the borders of either Australia or New Zealand.

Foot and mouth disease infects cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, deer and sheep. It’s highly contagious and spreads quickly through stock once it has infected an animal.

The disease doesn’t often kill the animal, but it has a detrimental effect on what that animal can produce.

“It pretty much just wipes it out completely,” explains Langford.

“A cow could go from producing 20 liters of milk a day down to less than two liters. It completely annihilates it.”

A 2014 report looking at a hypothetical outbreak suggested $16 billion would be wiped off our GDP across eight years if foot and mouth took hold.

Langford says the Government’s decision to alert the public to the threat is important in terms of raising awareness of just how dangerous this virus is to New Zealand’s economy.

“It’s still considered a low risk for New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean that our country shouldn’t play its part – and that’s not just farmers,” says Langford.

“That’s a message for everyone traveling from the likes of Bali or potentially importing products that could be carrying the disease. Everyone’s got to play their part.”

The threat of the virus also serves as a reminder to the public that time-consuming steps like removing walking shoes for cleaning at border control exist for a reason and should be taken seriously.

“As a farmer, if I could stand there and give everyone a hug or shake their hand and thank them every time they did that, I would. That’s how important it is to us. And we really appreciate it.

“Something like this would have a drastic effect on my farm personally, but also the economy of the country. I know it’s often said flippantly, but agriculture really is the backbone of our economy and that’s why we need to protect it.”

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

• You can follow the podcast at nzherald.co.nz, iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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