Canada must act like African swine fever is already here

The reality of African swine fever is so obvious that Canada should already be acting like it’s here.

There’s lots of talk about getting ready to act if ASF hits, but that’s not good enough.

To protect Canadian farmers against the worst of the multibillion-dollar impact that any ASF outbreak will have, Canada needs to have more than plans and a general awareness that the disease could appear.

Even if, by good fortune, ASF doesn’t hit this country in the next couple of years, there is no question that a similar plague like it will appear some time. For the past few years when I’ve been down in Des Moines, Iowa, at the World Pork Expo, swine veterinarians and American pork industry leaders point out that a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United States is almost inevitable. It will appear some time, from some source, and the U.S. industry and government had better be able to handle it. Its appearance leads to the immediate loss of foreign markets, and when you produce a pork surplus like the U.S. does, that can shatter the market.

Canada is in a much more precarious situation because it exports a far higher proportion of its pork production than the U.S.

Canadian farmers and the Canadian hog industry are well down the path toward being ready for an ASF or FMD outbreak, with plans to divide the country into disease-control regions and other measures that could minimize the disease outbreak and keep any outbreak confined to one region of the country. That would limit the financial damage in the rest of the country, outside of the region where the disease was discovered.

My colleagues Robert Arnason and Barb Glen have outlined some of these efforts in this newspaper.

But it’s the provincial and federal government responses that need to be radically boosted. Small and thoughtful steps are being made provincially and federally and within federal agencies like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

We have reported on the federal government’s increased efforts to protect Canada against things like ASF, as in the $31 million in funding for airport dogs that will hopefully be able to sniff out the carefully hidden Polish sausage and other foreign foods in passengers’ luggage.

But there need to be bold moves before an outbreak occurs. What are those? I’m not going to make suggestions because I’m not an expert.

But physical regionalization should be able to occur within hours of a problem being flagged. There was a livestock inspection station at West Hawk Lake, on the western edge of the Canadian Shield, which is a chokepoint between Western and Eastern Canada. Is that still manned? If not, it’s time to get people back there to better track animal flow.

Financial aid for farmers should be already designed and ready to be implemented, even if government officials need to do it secretly and keep the plans hidden beneath old copies of The Western Producer on a dusty shelf far from the coffee maker.

When a disease like ASF or FMD strikes, the financial impact will be immediate and severe. Money needs to be rolling out within weeks, not months.

As human beings, we seem to be designed to respond to crises, with fight-or-flight responses evolving from panic and adrenaline. As a civilization, we have the ability to plan out our response more carefully, so when the panic and adrenaline hit we can react in a less visceral manner.

Let’s be civilized and prepare today.

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