The last couple of months have presented various opportunities to board an airplane for interesting meetings and shows. Seems I am one of no less than 6 billion travelers that tend to the skies every year. An almost unimaginable number which – as we can all remember – carries quite a risk for the spread of disease. Subsequently, mitigating a disease outbreak generally follows predetermined lines: biosecurity of course, combined with travel restrictions and border closures. A human disease such as Covid-19, in essence, doesn’t trigger a different response as we are used to in the animal livestock business.
But, as Covid-19 and animal diseases such as avian influenza and African Swine Fever prove time and time again, viruses cannot be stopped by borders. There will always be vectors to transmit the disease. If not via air transportation, then via migratory animals or other routes. And there is another problem with closing borders: our food system is so fragile that disruption of free movement of goods seriously impairs food availability.
At a recent conference in the shadow of VIV Asia, Rabobank global analyst, Justin Sherrard, presented a fitting example. After an avian influenza outbreak in Argentina, the country unilaterally decided to close its borders for export, depriving the world market of a substantial tonnage of poultry meat. “The slightest mismatch of supply and demand can cause empty shelves,” said Sherrard, “And when shelves remain empty, we immediately attract a lot of attention from governments.”
Albeit it is undesirable from an industry point of view for a government to step in to solve problems – please leave that to the experts and the market – crises do lead to solutions. When it comes to avian influenza, there is a lot of effort invested in coming up with solutions besides just closing borders. In multiple countries, the discussion around possible vaccination is in full swing. As with Covid-19, this is a way out.
Ceva CEO, Marc Prikazsky: “We have the technology in hand to control the global pandemic, which is called avian influenza. It is the only rational way forward.” And according to him, it is not just to protect birds, farms, and profits. Vaccination, in the broader sense, lessens losses. “If 80% of all animals were to be vaccinated against life-threatening diseases, we could feed another 1.6 billion people without putting more pressure on our valuable planet.”
With the prospect of an ever-growing world population, we must protect our birds. Currently, we have the ‘luck’ that governments feel the need to propagate (research into) vaccination, driven by high consumer prices and shortages.
At the same time, it is imperative for the industry to watch for complacency both inside and out. Chances are that, as we have seen in previous outbreaks, discussions among government experts and research centres will continue until the disease fizzles out and is soon forgotten. The discussion will then only be reignited with the next outbreak, and, in the meantime, we aren’t making any progress.