With South Africa focused on expanding its red meat and livestock product exports, strengthening biosecurity is essential to this ambition. In part, the weaknesses in surveillance and control of the disease contributed to the spread of various animal diseases that South African farming businesses suffered in the past few years.

The temporary closure of certain export markets was costly to beef farmers and wool growers. The upside of the difficulty was the realization that the government and private sector must work collaboratively to enhance the country’s biosecurity system – the measures aimed at preventing disease spread.

This effort is now underway, and exports are also recovering. As we recently stated, in 2023, beef exports lifted by 3% year-on-year to 27 675 tonnes. In addition, South Africa’s wool exports increased by 18% year-on-year to 49 715 tonnes.

The opening of export markets is evidence of the country’s efforts to address animal health concerns. The deliberate marketing of livestock products to various growing export markets, such as China and Saudi Arabia, also added to this progress.

South Africa must apply more resources to strengthen livestock health in the coming years. This is vital for South Africa to remain a reliable supplier of red meat, wool, and other livestock products in the world market. What makes this more urgent is the frequent occurrences of animal diseases worldwide and the increased complexity of the diseases.

An April 12 report indicated that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and State veterinary and public health officials are studying an illness among dairy cows in various States . This comes after the H5N1 strain of avian influenza (bird flu), which commonly affects poultry farms, was discovered in dairy cows and the subsequent infection of a dairy farm employee.

There are rising concerns in the US about the subsequent transmission to humans and the two cases of human transmissions that have been detected. The scientists are currently studying this outbreak and have urged for calm amongst the consumers.

But outside the US, we don’t know of any cases where bird flu has transitioned into livestock and people. After noticing the news of this outbreak on April 12, we communicated with the leadership at South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development to understand if this matter is under monitoring and the country remains safe. Indeed, South Africa remains secure, and this issue is primarily in a couple of states in the US.

In conversations this week, the South African authorities again assured us that South Africa remains safe.

Positively, because South Africa has recently suffered the spread of animal disease, farming businesses and government officials arguably remain on high alert, which helps with surveillance in times of such high risk of animal diseases globally.

The frequent occurrences of animal diseases also imply that some countries, like South Africa in 2021 and 2022, will occasionally lose access to export markets while they work to clear the disease. During such times, the disease-free countries would potentially increase their volume of exports to markets.

South African red meat and livestock product exporters should always be alert to opportunistic export gaps. This is not a unique practice in South Africa; competitors typically increase their market presence when other suppliers are constrained.

In essence, animal diseases are increasingly a significant challenge globally. South Africa has undergone various cycles of foot and mouth disease in the cattle industry, multiple strains of avian influenza in poultry, and the African swine fever in the pig industry. All these episodes were costly to farming businesses and distracted South Africa from its export ambition.

We will likely continue seeing animal disease outbreak reports. Europe, Asia, and the Americas are some regions that typically report disease outbreaks. Therefore, South Africa must strengthen surveillance to ensure an agile response from regulators when there are outbreaks.

As part of the long-term planning, South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development should also increase its spending on animal health-related matters and build local capacity. This is essential to support the subsector, making up nearly half of South Africa’s agricultural economy.

The news of the US bird flu transmission to dairy and humans reminds us of animal disease risks and uncertainty. Fortunately, South Africa remains safe. Still, the farmers, feedlots, and regulators should remain vigilant. The consumer should not be concerned and should continue with typical purchases.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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