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Q+A: Damien O'Connor interviewed by Corin Dann

Relaxed cattle tracking will be punished – Agriculture & Biosecurity Minister

New Zealand farmers can expect biosecurity laws to be stricter in the wake of the disease Mycoplasma bovis, according to the Agriculture Minister.

Speaking on TVNZ 1’s Q+A this morning Damien O’Connor told Corin Dann the culture around tracking cattle movement had been too relaxed, despite measures being in place.

“I can tell you from MPI’s perspective and this government’s perspective, the culture’s going to change, and there’s going to be enforcement where there’s any blatant disregard for the law,” he said.

“I think the farmers now appreciate that we’re in this boat together, we need good traceability systems, we need a very good biosecurity system, and if we do this together, we’ll have a more robust system. Clearly, there have been failures, and that’s no good pointing fingers now; I think we have to focus on the future.”

He also said New Zealand’s total cow population could not continue to rise because of the effect of dairy intensification on the environment.

“Yes, there will be growth in cow numbers for some individual farmers, but overall, I think we’ve kind of got to what they might call peak cow,” Mr O’Connor said.

“We’ve said very clearly that we want water quality to improve. We want to stop any further degradation, and some of that is being impacted by intensification of dairy in farming. We know that. I think the farmers are doing a huge amount, and have been for some years, to try and reduce the impact of that growth.”

Q + A
Episode 1812
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

DAMIEN We’ve got close to 40 farms that are infected; we’ve got about 300 under Notice of Direction. So that’s a lot of farms affected – that is restricted animal movements to and from those properties at a time when they’re having to shift to find feed or shift to move to another farm. Those properties can’t. All the others, though, are, of course, concerned about what it might mean for them. They are able to shift, but they have to be really careful about their biosecurity measures, ensuring they go into properties that are clean. So it is a challenging time for farmers. They are asking reasonable questions, and we’re getting the answers as best we can to them.

CORIN How can you have confidence in a day like that, when so many cattle are being moved around, when you yourself have been very critical of the tracing system that was set up and its ability to track the movements of cattle?

DAMIEN I think the farmers appreciate now both the value of and the importance of the NAIT system. I hope that every one of them – and we’ve certainly sent the messages out there – has their animals tagged and they record the movements so that we can in the future, if we have to, trace back any of those movements.

CORIN But we know that they haven’t all done that, don’t we?

DAMIEN No, they haven’t, and they should’ve.

CORIN But so how can you have confidence on a big day of moving cattle around that it isn’t going to exacerbate the problem?

DAMIEN Look, to be fair to the farmers, when NAIT was brought in under the previous government, the messages to them were really, really soft. No one really played up the importance of the scheme, and so the farmers took a lax approach to it. There was no enforcement laid down, and so they took it for granted and didn’t really bother. They know now this is really important, and I expect them to do what they should have always been doing in the first place. The system’s a big clunky; we’re going to make changes and improvements. But I think they’re now asking the questions, ensuring that they’re doing the right thing.

CORIN The leadership comes from the top, though, doesn’t it? And MPI could’ve enforced that tracing system. I mean, one prosecution, I think, in six years. The message they were sending to farmers – you can’t blame farmers – was, ‘Oh, it’s not that big a deal,’ if that’s the only prosecution.

DAMIEN Well, I think you’re right. It does come from the top, and I think the top at the time didn’t want to offend any of their constituency. And so the government went softly-softly on it when they should’ve actually sent a clear message for the right reasons.

CORIN Yeah, because biosecurity issues are going to become more and more of a problem. We know there’s a big list growing, that M. bovis might not be the last scary one to come, so how can we ensure that the culture of farming and the culture of the enforcement and the regulation is going to change? I mean, it looks like it’s just been too lax.

DAMIEN Well, I can tell you from MPI’s perspective and this government’s perspective, the culture’s going to change, and there’s going to be enforcement where there’s any blatant disregard for the law. And I think the farmers now appreciate that we’re in this boat together, we need good traceability systems, we need a very good biosecurity system, and if we do this together, we’ll have a more robust system. Clearly, there have been failures, and that’s no good pointing fingers now; I think we have to focus on the future.

CORIN What about the culture of dairy farming in general in this country? Has it been that we’ve had intensive dairy farming, there’s been the gold rush to dairy farming? Some of the practices involve a lot of movement of stocks. Obviously, the selling of calves is an issue – potentially unregulated. Is it time for a rethink about the culture of dairy farming, the intensification of dairy farming, the way we do it?

DAMIEN Look, farmers are very innovative. They’re out there on their own. They have to come up with solutions on their own, and so they adapt to the circumstances. And I think the law and the circumstances were a bit lax in these areas. There have been opportunities farmers have taken, both to grow the industry– Previous government said double exports, so everyone just rushed out to double their efforts, whereas, actually what we needed to really do was focus on more value for what we were doing. That’s certainly the focus of our government. So the signals to the farmers were a bit mixed and muddled, and I think we have to be clear. We’ve tried to be clear to them. We want to get more from what they do now, not ask them to do more in the hope that they’ll be better off.

CORIN So what will that mean in terms of signals from your government? Does that mean that they shouldn’t expect to grow their herds, increase the intensification in areas where it’s not appropriate? Give me some examples.

DAMIEN Well, we’ve said very clearly that we want water quality to improve. We want to stop any further degradation, and some of that is being impacted by intensification of dairy in farming. We know that. I think the farmers are doing a huge amount, and have been for some years, to try and reduce the impact of that growth. But we’ve made huge increase in both stock numbers and intensification in sensitive areas. We’ve given a clear signal we don’t want that to continue. Yes, there will be growth in cow numbers for some individual farmers, but overall, I think we’ve kinda got to what they might call peak cow. Indeed, the cow numbers dropped over the last season – not because of anything this government has done, but we’re giving clear signals that if growth is going to continue, it will be growth and value from what they do, not just getting more from the land, with the environmental impacts of that.

CORIN It’s interesting to hear you say that, because, just looking at some of the, I guess, centre-left commentators out there, some have questioned, for example, the compensation you’re giving to farmers over M. bovis and the speed with which you’re moving to address that now and comparing it to the likes of beneficiaries. I mean, you could also compare it to meth testing. I mean, lots of people want compensation for that. Are farmers…? You know, how can you give tax--? Can you give taxpayers a reassurance that this compensation is going to be fair and that it’s worthwhile?

DAMIEN Well, I can tell you my cabinet colleagues want this to be spent very wisely. This is the single biggest export earner for the country – both the sheep and dairy industries combined – and this is the wealth that we need as a nation to keep our economy ticking over. We can’t afford to have that at risk. That’s why government is stepping in here. The farmers are contributing a huge amount as well. This is a new agreement. I’m not sure it would’ve happened under the previous government, but we have said that, you know, 32% of the cost of this will be borne by farmers themselves.

CORIN You wanted more than that, though, didn’t you? You wanted about 50%.

DAMIEN No, no, the original agreement in principal was 60-40, but there has been an agreement around exacerbator contribution, so that’s been wound back to 20% off the top. So the 32% is the agreed position between industry and government, and that’s a fair one. This is a very significant part of our economy, and, as a government, we believe we should contribute to, hopefully, the eradication and the cleanup of this. Not all of those individual farmers were responsible. They were working within the constraints and the guidelines that they were given. This is something that came in, and we hopefully will find out how that came in. But they are all contributing to the eradication of this.

CORIN How can you be sure? I mean, it’s an unfortunate case because it’s unfair, as you say, on many of the farmers who deserve—are potentially getting compensation. But we know there was a case where one farmer put in a Gold Coast holiday. That type of thing is damaging, isn’t it? Because working out the compensation is going to be very difficult. I mean, how do you compensate someone for potential lost earnings or the opportunity cost of milk that might have been reduced?

DAMIEN Well, look, it’s a complex calculation around compensation. Some farmers are complaining, I think, when it’s explained to them. We’ve got to improve the systems within MPI to deal with it.

CORIN But you have to speed those systems up. You’ve said, ‘We’re going to do it faster now.’

DAMIEN Yes, we are.

CORIN How can we know that you’re going to get that right?

DAMIEN No, well, it won’t be for final payment, and there will be a cleanup around the loss of production, which is a complex calculation in itself, but we’ll make sure that no one’s getting money that they shouldn’t have. And there will always be the rogue player. I’m not going to beat up on the farmers for one rogue player – in the same way that we shouldn’t beat up on beneficiaries for one rogue player. You’ve got to be fair to the vast majority of people, and this is a unique challenge for New Zealand. We’ve never had this before. No other country has attempted to eradicate. It’s a bold move, but it’s the right move.

CORIN A difficult position for you, given you’re somebody who comes from a farming background, but Labour has obviously incurred the wrath of farmers. When you think of a water-nutrient issue – David Parker, your colleague, upset many with his comments around that. You’ve got the prospect of being included in the Emissions Trading Scheme. We know that large-scale irrigation projects have also been cancelled as well. Is Labour being too tough on farmers here? And I wonder, as a farming representative in some ways, will you be lobbying your colleagues to give them a break?

DAMIEN Look, if you go back through history – more recent history – I guess Labour took off subsidies in the ‘80s. We weren’t very popular in the farming sector then. Indeed, I was one of the people protesting, or asking questions. We formed Fonterra. That wasn’t entirely popular either in some circles. We’ve made the hard decisions for agriculture through history, and this is another one of those times where, when it comes to the Emissions Trading Scheme, when it comes to water quality, we’ll make the hard calls because it’s in the best long-term interests of farmers.

CORIN Even given that farmers are now grappling with M. bovis, their morale has taken a real beating, they are feeling under siege, would you still go through with including them in the Emissions Trading Scheme at this time?

DAMIEN Even more the reason that we’ve got to get more value from everything that we produce in this country, and if we’ve got a brand that we’re proud of, and I think most people would say we have, then we’ve got to uphold that with integrity of production, with systems that protect the environment, and we’re committed to an international movement around reduction of emissions off the back of Kyoto and then Paris. We’ve said that if we bring in agriculture, it will be at 5% of its obligations. I think that’s a very fair pathway in, and it then allows us to sell the products they produce to the world’s most discerning customers on the back of environmental integrity.

CORIN And on that note, have you picked up any signals from our trading partners regarding M. bovis and our response as to whether it could affect our export markets? Have any raised concerns with you?

DAMIEN No, they haven’t with me, but I’m sure that all those trading partners will be asking— I know they’re looking at us. They’ll be asking questions around how we’re handling this. We’ve had interest from both BBC, from the US. This is a bold move, they say, to try and eradicate Mycoplasma bovis.

CORIN It’s not exactly a positive on, though, is it, for consumers? Given that we try and market our meat, for example, that it’s traceable back to the farm. We couldn’t even trace where the M. bovis was going. That doesn’t send a great message to consumers who we’re trying to attract, does it?

DAMIEN Well, I guess that the roundup on this will be a better animal-tracing system. I can assure you of that from both the farmers’ willingness and, I guess, the government’s determination to get it right. We’ll then be in a position to sell the finest protein to the world’s most discerning customers.

CORIN Will those discerning customers know whether that meat came from a herd that was culled because of M. bovis?

DAMIEN Well, I mean, most of the countries that they buy meat from around the world are infected with M. bovis. It doesn’t have an issue with animal health; it doesn’t affect the quality of the meat. If you let the diseased animals get into the system, then, clearly, that might. But the problem with this is that they can have an infection but not show their symptoms of the disease.

CORIN Just finally, Minister, can you do this? Can you beat this?

DAMIEN Yes, we can, and we as a little country have taken on many challenges before. Brucellosis was one in the animal area. We’re focused on eradication of bovine tuberculosis. We’ve done many other things through history. As a nation, we can do this again.


Please find attached the full transcript and the link to the interview

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
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