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Opinion: Dare to be dull

Canada’s livestock sector can learn from pandemic

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At a social gathering some years ago, a friend listened to the many crazy things going on in people’s lives and he stated that we should “dare to be dull”.

He meant we should focus on the important things.

On a related note, I am sure you have heard the old saying “May you live in interesting times.” Now, into month three of COVID-19, never have I wished so much not to be living in such “interesting times”.

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There is no doubt that we are living through an event that will have prominence in the history books. And yet this was not a surprise. It had been repeatedly predicted, modeled and in most countries, planned for.

Clearly things did not go according to plan. There will be a lot of lessons learned for the next time and there is also, at the right time, a real opportunity for the livestock sector to learn from this experience and be ready for our own next epidemic.

We are all now in the midst of the largest biosecurity and response exercise in the history of the planet, only this time we are the animals. There are several key aspects of any epidemic that impact the outcome: monitoring for emerging diseases, testing for known diseases, prevention, vaccination, insurance, treatments, tracking, disinfection, specialized skills, equipment needs and compensation.

There has been a wide range in country responses to the pandemic challenge. Clearly, there has been an added layer to the response that you would hope not to see in an epidemic in Ontario livestock. And response has been impacted greatly in some countries through politics and internationally due to geopolitics.

Several key elements needed to avoid and respond to an epidemic are in place for Ontario livestock. Some livestock sectors are much better prepared than others, but if you look at the whole picture across sectors, we remain vulnerable on many fronts.

Each livestock sector has its own unique threats, such as avian influenza and African swine fever, while perhaps more terrifying are the cross-species threats such as foot and mouth disease (FMD).

In less than five minutes on the internet, you can see that losses to these and other diseases are nothing short of staggering. For instance, the FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2000 cost about $13 billion. A 2018 article in the Canadian Veterinary Journal estimates the impact of an FMD outbreak in Canada to be $65 billion. Even the best-funded risk management programs would cover only a portion of that loss.

Recognition of the shared risk by every livestock sector and all levels of government must lead to effective planning. Like insurance, you hope you never need to take advantage of that time and effort, but no one can afford the consequences of not taking the time and then facing an outbreak.

When you look to recommendations from those who studied the most recent livestock disease outbreaks, there are several: The importance of a real and current plan, clear roles and responsibilities, testing of the plan with simulations, improved biosecurity, detection and rapid action to limit spread, sufficient expertise and equipment supplies, disposal plans for the event of mass disposal, clear expectations of both farmers and compensation programs and pre-established cross-sector action plans including governance in the case of cross-species diseases like FMD.

The current COVID-19 situation has put planning for, and responding to, disease threats clearly in the spotlight. It has also brought significant attention to the entire food supply chain.

In the coming months, livestock producer groups and government would be well advised to seize the opportunity to examine each element affecting the outcome of a livestock epidemic in light of the pandemic experience.

Many of those elements take time and money and frankly can seem dull. We need to learn from history, and we need to learn from our own experience during COVID-19. We need to roll up our sleeves and dig into the dry, but necessary work.

Let’s dare to be dull.

Mike McMorris is chief executive officer of the Livestock Research Innovation Corp., and has more than 30 years experience in the livestock sector working for government, producers and industry organizations. Follow LRIC on Twitter: @LivestockInnov.

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