Looking at the big picture of our agricultural industry

Workers in protective suits are seen at a checkpoint on a road leading to a village near a farm where African swine fever was detected, in Fangshan district of Beijing. Photo: Reuters
Workers in protective suits are seen at a checkpoint on a road leading to a village near a farm where African swine fever was detected, in Fangshan district of Beijing. Photo: Reuters
I'm often stunned by the interconnectedness of the world's food supply. When I travel into the Otago or Southland heartland, it feels a long way from the bustle of urban China or San Francisco.

Yet increasingly, what happens in far-flung parts of the world has immediate impacts on rural communities in New Zealand.

Right now, there is a major animal disease sweeping the Chinese pork industry - African swine fever (ASF). ASF is a virus which causes fever, haemorrhage and often death in pigs - it doesn't affect humans. ASF was discovered in China in August 2018 and has now spread to every province in mainland China and further south into Vietnam, Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

ASF has been estimated to have affected 150million-200million pigs with an expected 30% loss in pork production in China. This is equivalent to wiping out Europe's entire pork industry (according to Rabobank animal protein analysts).

The Chinese eat a lot of pork. The average consumer in China eats about 1.5kg of pork for each 500g of chicken and beef. When there is an increase in the price of pork, Chinese consumers turn to other protein sources, such as chicken, beef or lamb, and so, the farmer in Winton or Middlemarch sees an increase in demand for their products. But there's more.

Most of China's pigs are fed indoors, and whey protein, extracted from cow's milk, is often mixed into their grain rations. Decreased demand for pig feed negatively affects whey protein prices. Similarly, demand for soybean, used to feed the pigs, has also dropped.

All the businesses along the supply chain are affected one way or another, depending on which side of the fence they lie - soybean crusher companies see reduced revenue, New Zealand meat export companies see increased revenue. ''The leg bone's connected to the knee bone, the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone's connected to the hip bone, now shake dem skeleton bones!''

''World class biosecurity,'' is the No1 priority for New Zealand agricultural leaders for the ninth year in a row (according to the annual KPMG Agribusiness Agenda). The tale of the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak in New Zealand has been a frightening example of how farmers' livelihoods and standing in the community can be shattered overnight, through no fault of their own. If you think the answer is to stop farming animals, think again. The bacterial Psa (Pseudomonas syringae pv. Actinidiae) incursion nearly decimated the kiwifruit industry and right now we are still grappling with how to manage disease threats to our native flora, such as fungal disease Myrtle rust (Puccinia psidii).

None of this is new - in the 1840s the ''Great Famine'' in Ireland was caused by a fungal disease, Phytophthora infestans, wiping out entire potato crops for five seasons. ''The Famine began quite mysteriously in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had wafted across the fields of Ireland.'' (The History Place, Irish Potato Famine.)

So it is that New Zealand's agricultural industry bobs away as a tiny champagne cork in a huge ocean - how do we stay afloat?

Investment in diversity of agricultural export products is important. So too is maintaining the biodiversity of our plant and animal germplasm and continued breeding for disease resistance. This all takes thought, time and money - the Psa devastation was overcome by the kiwifruit industry reaching into germplasm produced over many decades to find resistant varieties which could be quickly incorporated into commercial breeding programmes.

Sometimes the science and technology that underpins biosecurity is unsexy, routine and seemingly non-transformational. In the agricultural science sector, we are facing a wave of retirements of scientists with huge knowledge and experience in disease detection, farm systems, management and breeding.

This on top of under-investment into fundamental agricultural science doesn't bode well for a resilient agricultural country. In response to the ASF pork crisis, the Vietnamese Government announced in May ''this is probably the most serious animal health disease [the world has] had for a long time, if not ever.'' A salient reminder that we must not take New Zealand agriculture for granted.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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