Disaster for beef industry

SHARE   |   Monday, 18 April 2016   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane
Disaster for beef industry

Botswana's economy was thrown into a crisis during the week when a buffalo – a carrier of the dreaded Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) – was found and destroyed at Moreane crush of Letlhakane East extension area in the Southern district. The buffalo incursion has led to a ban by Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) on movement and slaughter of cloven hoofed animals in Southern, Kgatleng, South East and Kweneng districts (known as Zone 11). Zone 11 has a population of approximately 700 000 cattle produced by an estimated 20 000 farmers. Cloven hoofed animals include cattle, goats, sheep and pigs. “These restrictions are primarily to try and contain further spread of the disease in the event test results come out positive,” said Patrick Ralotsia – agriculture minister when addressing meetings in Magotlhwane, Kgomokasitwa and Goo-Seno during the week. State media reports that Ralotsia also hinted at the possibility of three other buffaloes still roaming the area.


BMC shuts down
Consequent to the ban, beef monopoly Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) has shut down production at the Lobatse abattoir pending the results of an investigation by DVS, after opening on January 25. Such closure means the abattoir will not be receiving any cattle from farmers and contracted feedlots. Further, no direct cattle purchase has been taking place at BMC after it was recently stopped to cut costs. Beef exports to the European Union (EU) and other trading partners have therefore been frozen indefinitely. In 2013 the EU market, which is the money spinner for BMC contributed 41 % to the total revenue, after the abattoir sold 16-17 % of their stock to the market. But BMC Communications Manager Brian Dioka says it is early days to start counting losses at BMC, especially that the abattoir received a lot of cattle in Q1:2016 and currently only holds less than 20% of their annual stock in their feedlots. Moreover, BMC still has stock held at facilities in Cape Town-South Africa, awaiting export which will sustain the business in the interim. BMC procures 80% of their stock from individual local farmers in communal grazing land and the remaining 20 % from EU compliant ranches and feedlots. At full production BMC slaughters 600 cattle per day, 3 000 per week and 10-12 000 per month.


The Dr Akolang Tombale-led Commission, established in 1967 for slaughtering and marketing all beef exports, has never met the EU quota, partly due to outbreak of livestock diseases like FMD in some parts of the country. After recording a profit of P23 million in 2013, BMC went on to lose P9.6 million in 2014, which was partly due to measles outbreak and inadequate supply of stock (cattle) by farmers. "The Southern part of the country (covering zone 11) has been the hardest hit by shortage of rainfall, which negatively affected agricultural production. We are very worried about the situation especially the impact on the small farmers and the general public who conduct transactions using their livestock. It is a serious blow to them especially that they were just emerging from another drought spell. We can only hope that no FMD is found in the area," said Dioka.


Francistown gives hope
Should DVS find FMD in the wandering buffalo(es) BMC will be caught in tenterhooks as Zone 11 is the heart of their source of cattle. The beef monopoly will find solace and little comfort in the Francistown abattoir where government has been making strides to ensure that it regains listing as supplier of EU. In 2013 the Francistown abattoir stopped supplying the EU market with beef after it was delisted to allow for upgrade and maintenance of the plant. One of the major changes was the relocation of the Zone 6 (Matsiloje) cordon fence to 20 kilometres away from the abattoir, and the upgrading of the plant. Inspection by the EU was conducted by veterinary inspectors in November 2015, and is currently awaiting approval by the EU parliament. Preliminary reports are positive after inspectors were happy with reforms on infrastructure after finding that the abattoir met all the requirements. The neighbouring Zone 10, 12 and 13 (all within the non-FMD Green zone) could become suppliers to Francistown for export to EU.


Farmers cry out: No meat at funerals, weddings! 
Southern Beef Farmers Association Chairman Boyce Mohutsiwa was at pains trying to come to terms with the calamity. He said should the ban be prolonged farmers will suffer huge losses as some had already booked sales to the BMC while others supply butcheries and individual buyers for weddings, funerals, parties and other ceremonies. Members of the association have approximately 300 000 cattle in the Southern district. "We have no option but to sit and wait. We hope it won't be long before the ban is lifted. It is very strange that suddenly a buffalo can appear out of nowhere. This has never happened before," said Mohutsiwa, conceding that many conspiracy theories will be thrown about. The suspension of movement and slaughter within and outside zone 11 spells doom for cattle producers (farmers), butcheries and the general public as social functions will have to make do without meat from cattle, goats, sheep and pigs.

DVS says the instituted movement stand-still and restrictions of cloven hoofed animals and their products including slaughter for EU will only be lifted once the post buffalo incursion surveys have been completed and showing absence of either FMD or its virus infection or transmission. According to the Procedure for buffalo incursion provided by DVS only movement for direct for none EU slaughter shall be allowed after clinical inspections showing no clinical signs of FMD. The movement restrictions shall be periodically reviewed depending on the extent of buffalo crush in contact and the findings of the post buffalo incursion surveys. Cattle originating from the affected zone shall remain ineligible for EU export until the FMD surveillance has ascertained that there has been no introduction of the disease or the virus. Meanwhile members of the public have been urged to take safety precautions because buffaloes are dangerous animals. They should be reported to the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS), Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) or the Police immediately.

What went wrong?
Briefing the media on Wednesday Permanent Secretary Ministry of Agriculture Boipolelo Khumomatlhare, Director-Veterinary Services Letlhogile Modisa and Deputy Permanent Secretary-Technical Services Kekgonne Baipoledi struggled to allay fears that it was only a matter of time before the disaster struck due to poor maintenance of fences around Zone 11. "We are currently clueless about where the buffalo could have come from. We can only know that after advice on tests results from DVS," said Khumomatlhare. The trio denied that the lack of cordon fences around Zone 11 to keep out buffaloes from livestock pastures, and the conflicting land use policies in the country amount to negligence, which contributed to failure to keep buffaloes out of the zone. Madisa said there are no buffalo fences in Zone 11 because the area has never had buffaloes before and the installation of fences could disrupt migration paths of other animals and disturb livestock pastures. Zone 11 shares the border fence  - which always pose immigration problems between the countries – with South Africa to the south from Kgatleng through South East to Southern districts, and Namibia to the south-west.

It borders Zone 10 (Mahalapye/Dibete area to the north, and Zone 12 & 13 (Gantsi district) to the north. Zones 10, 11, 12 and 13, known as the Green zone in categorisation for export market, are FMD free. It also emerged that Botswana does not have fences designed to keep out animals like buffaloes along her borders with neighbouring South Africa and Namibia despite that the two countries provide for rearing of non-FMD buffaloes in private game farms in adjacent provinces. In recognition of the FMD threat Botswana, on the other hand, does not allow for keeping buffaloes in private game farms, according to minister Ralotsia. Botswana Police Service spokesperson Dipheko Motube could not rule out the possibility of foul play where unscrupulous person(s) could have deliberately driven the buffalo(es) into the lucrative Zone 11 to sabotage and cripple the beef industry in the country. "We cannot at this point say we suspect any foul play until we have completed investigations into this matter. At the moment we are considering all possibilities to find out if there is any wrong-doing," said Motube.