It’s a wonder of modern life that at a time when food is more widely available and more abundantly yielded than ever before, we increasingly live at a remove from its production. As the cliché goes, for most of us, our food comes from shops. What happens on farms, in feedlots, in packing houses and in abattoirs is out of sight and out of mind.

So it is quite probable that most South Africans are unaware of the blow dealt to South Africa’s farming economy in recent months by the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease.

For those unfamiliar with it – and this is a privilege of living in an economy where our food comes from shops – foot and mouth is a highly infectious viral disease that hits a wide range of animals. Those susceptible include cattle, pigs, sheep and various other ruminants – beef, pork, mutton and so on. While it poses no risk to humans, and is not typically fatal – at least not to mature animals – once introduced into a herd it can spread rapidly, effectively making the livestock ineligible for market.

The current outbreak was noticed in early November (there had been another earlier in the year), centring on Limpopo. In an attempt to control the spread, government suspended livestock auctions in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and Gauteng. This was rapidly escalated to a national ban on auctions. It is unclear when this will be rescinded.

In the last week in January, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development disclosed that an auctioneer had been arrested on suspicion of violating a ban on selling animals from Limpopo.

Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Thoko Didiza noted, quite rightly, that the outbreak of the disease ‘has had a devastating effect on the economy of the country as a whole’.

The outbreak is indeed a major blow to a farming industry already reeling from a lousy economy, drought and the prospect of reckless policy in the government’s determination to enable compensation-free property seizures.

Indeed, as KwaZulu-Natal farmer and auctioneer Rolf Aadnesgaard points out, the outbreak coincided with the time of year when a large opportunity opened up for small producers to sell a few head of livestock, particularly to households and stokvels looking to slaughter for the holiday period.

In addition, auctioning provided a means for farmers to reduce their herds when they were unable to maintain them.

More serious are the consequences for trade. Certification by the World Organisation for Animal Health (known by its French acronym, OIE) that a country is foot and mouth disease-free may be a requirement for exporting, with commensurate implications for losing access to it. In short order after the outbreak, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Mozambique prohibited the importation of South African livestock. Meanwhile, the threat of lost market share elsewhere in the world looms large. Dr John Purchase of the Agricultural Business Chamber put this into perspective: ‘It will take around three years to get our FMD-free status back from the OIE, and will cost the industry around R10 billion over this time.’

This is damage that the farming community, and the country at large, can ill afford. It means less money in the farming economy, and, quite conceivably, stresses on the food supply. (As an aside, no less a personage than President Cyril Ramaphosa was in the news recently for having retrenched a number of farmworkers, partly owing to the damage done by a previous foot and mouth outbreak.)

With South Africa’s prodigious wildlife, foot and mouth disease is a constant threat. It requires careful management, expertise and resources. Gerhard Schutte, CEO of the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation, notes that these are simply not in adequate supply through the official mechanisms. ‘The government doesn’t have the capacity to do this’, he remarks. Indeed, when disaster strikes, unclear lines of responsibility – between departments and between different tiers of government – compromise the response. This is aggravated by the fact that disease does not respect borders between countries.

Indeed, earlier last year, fencing on the border of the Kruger National Park was destroyed, with consequences both for the spread of disease and for poaching. The issue was batted between different agencies: SANParks disclaimed responsibility, saying the fences were a disease control measure and not owned by them – and therefore they were not responsible for repairs – while there was some confusion over whether South Africa or Mozambique was responsible for fences on the international border. None of this was productive for managing disease spread or protecting wildlife.

Sadly, the foot and mouth outbreak underlines the vulnerability of the farming economy to the vicissitudes of nature, and also to challenges in the governance that should help to mitigate them. Farming, as we who are removed from it all too often forget, is a difficult, unpredictable business. To successfully navigate the environment requires more than a ‘love of the land’. It requires both personal fortitude and a conscientious maintenance of the systems that make modern agriculture possible.

For Rolf Aadnesgaard, the problems need to be faced squarely by all concerned in a spirit of cooperation. The way forward lies in ‘mature, responsible, pragmatic leadership’.

The farming economy will, however, probably need to accept that state incapacity will be a persistent problem. If government is in any way serious about supporting the future of agriculture, it will need to acknowledge its responsibilities and undertake the institutional reforms and allocate the resources that will enable it to meet them.

For the foreseeable future, managing the transmission of disease – maintaining biosecurity, in other words – is a responsibility that will fall increasingly on the shoulders of farmers and their institutions. Says Gerhard Schutte: ‘Farmers will need to take control of their own destiny.’

There should be no illusions about the burdens that all this imposes on the farming economy. Or the threats to our food supplies comfortably unseen from the aisles of supermarkets.  

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

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