WHEN a disease strikes our agricultural industries, the first response is usually to wipe it out. Equine and avian influenza are two well-known examples where this has occurred.
When the disease is not amenable to eradication, because it is too well established or the cost is too great, the question then becomes whether to control it through regulation or leave it to the market.
There are plenty of contagious and economically significant diseases in which the government plays no role apart from offering advice. In sheep these include lice, blowfly strike, pulpy kidney, worms, liver fluke, blackleg and scabby mouth.
But there are also a few in which the government makes the rules. Currently in sheep in NSW these are anthrax, footrot, tuberculosis and Johne’s disease.
Livestock producers were once subject to government regulation across a wide range of diseases. With lice, for example, inspectors would examine sheep in saleyards and send home any found to be infested.
The problem was, it made no difference. The prevalence of lice in sheep remained pretty much the same no matter how much public humiliation was inflicted. Eventually it was agreed that producers had sufficient incentive to control it themselves.
A debate is now raging in sheep producer circles about what to do about ovine Johne’s disease (OJD). On one side are those who want the government to enforce rules intended to control it. On the other are those who consider it’s time to leave it to the market, like lice.
OJD has been common in sheep overseas for a long time but only officially appeared in Australia in 1980 (some say it was here for longer without detection). It is now found in roughly 20% of flocks, mostly in high and medium rainfall zones.
It is an insidious wasting disease, spreading slowly and difficult to detect early on. It reduces weight gain and wool production and can kill about 10% of adult sheep each year if left unmanaged. The organism can live for long periods in shaded areas.
Although caused by bacteria, there is no known cure. However, a vaccine is available that protects uninfected sheep and reduces bacterial shedding in infected animals. It can be used to protect lambs and introduced sheep as well as reduce spread so the disease can be brought under control.
It is not free though, so those who believe their property is uninfected are reluctant to use it. Their preference is to avoid bringing infected sheep onto the property, as introduced sheep are by far the biggest source of risk.
Since 1998 there has been a series of national control programs based on the establishment of zones according to their infection status, with movement restrictions between zones.
The expectation was that trade in sheep would mainly occur between properties having a similar classification, thus limiting spread of the disease. The program was enforced by state governments.
As with lice, results have not been good. The disease has continued to spread. Further, surveys show many sheep producers found the schemes confusing, bureaucratic and restrictive. A large majority remained unaware of the infection zone in which their property was located, while a substantial proportion simply ignored the whole thing.
Continuation of a regulatory approach is favoured by those who not have the disease but are concerned about it, although they do not like being subject to movement restrictions if they happen to be located in an infected area.
Those who have the disease but believe they can manage it with vaccination and husbandry prefer to avoid the restrictions of regulation altogether.
Quite a lot, most of whom have no idea whether they have the disease, wonder what the fuss is all about.
A new program due to commence on 1 January (but now postponed) would reduce the number of zones to two - infected and uninfected. It will also give greater emphasis to Sheep Health Statements (SHSs), which describe a flock’s OJD status together with other bits of health-related information.
However, it seems neither the Victorian nor NSW governments intend to enforce the zones. And there are quite diverse views between the states as to how SHSs should be used, creating problems for those who buy or sell sheep across state boundaries, and in the availability of the vaccine.
Queensland has very little OJD and requires a SHS for all sheep entering the state, while the vaccine is not available there. Several others have higher levels of disease but also require SHSs for introduced sheep. WA, on the other hand, does not use SHSs but requires completion of its own certificate for sheep entering the state.
SHSs are also required for all sheep movements within SA and within NSW other than for sheep sent to slaughter. By contrast, Victoria does not regulate OJD at all and merely encourages producers to have their sheep tested and vaccinate if necessary.
The vaccine is widely available in Victoria, NSW, WA and Tasmania, but only available from government offices in SA.
Surveys indicate sheep producers are not impressed by compulsory Sheep Health Statements, with compliance low. However, they are willing to vaccinate if they see the need.
What all this indicates is that spending the taxes of people to whom OJD is utterly irrelevant on enforcing compliance with a control scheme that can only benefit sheep producers, and probably will not even do that, is impossible to justify.
If sheep producers find OJD in their sheep and neglect to control it, they will pay a heavy financial price. That also applies to lice and a host of other diseases in which governments are not involved. So why the difference?
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org