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INTERVIEW: The Disconnect Between Agribusinesses and External Organisations in Times of Disaster

Source: Feedindo Logo Final

20 June 2022 - Animal diseases. Fires. Floods. Industrial accidents. Food safety episodes. Extreme hot weather losses. Serious losses of production. Financial business failures. These are all unfortunate events which have shaken companies in agribusiness in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

At the 2022 Poultry Information Exchange and Australasian Milling Conference (PIX/AMC 2022) in May, Dr. Peter Scott of Scolexia, an animal and avian health consultancy, argued that it is the way the industry works with the various organisations and the way the latter respond that determines the severity of the disaster and the duration of its effects.

This may seem straightforward and logical, but for companies in agribusiness, working with external organisations in times of disaster can have varied outcomes for a multiplicity of reasons.

Dr. Scott warned that an interpretation of what is a disaster is very much dependent on the impact it has, and on who or what that impact falls. The keys to a successful outcome when working with external organisations are: obtaining recognition of the nature of the disaster, preparing any required measures to accommodate for the disaster in advance, and having adequate resources.

Following his intervention at PIX/AMC 2022, Dr. Scott elaborated on this idea: “The expedient resolution of a disaster is initially influenced by the original nature, size, and character of the disaster, then through the available pre-existing resources, which includes facilities, equipment, monies (during and after), people and the existence of a prepared response plan,” he said, adding that a response plan must be reviewed and updated based on experiences from any previous disaster.

“It is the coordination of these resources that is pivotal for an expedient resolution,” he added. “Where there is absence of an agreed plan or where an organisation’s structure cannot make decisions, including variations in real-time, then the impact of the disaster and its resolution can be impeded.”

“It is not feasible in such situations to meet the requirements and agendas of all the organisational participants and there must be strong, if not collaborative, leadership that makes and directs decisions. This is certainly not facilitated in organisations where the responsible entity (positional leader) is rotated out of reporting position every few days, sharing this role with many others. This can result in delegation of responsibility to the next entity, with procrastinated decision-making,” Dr. Scott said.

"Unfortunately, either because of lack of knowledge, aptitude, political pressures and an existing bureaucratic structure, the decision-making process becomes compromised," he concluded.

At PIX/AMC 2022, Dr. Scott gave examples from his experience in the Australian poultry sector, which has its share of disasters, from those affecting only a single entity such as a shed fire, to those with a more regional impact such as floods or EAD (Emergency Animal Disease) events like bird flu or Newcastle disease. The latter have significant negative impacts on the producer involved as well as more broader effects on the industry because of movement restrictions, export and import restraints and loss of consumer confidence. He pointed out that the same applies to significant food safety events; even where these may directly involve only a few individual producers, the entire industry will be impacted by increasing compliance and legislative requirements.

However, when looking at the recent waves of bird flu outbreaks globally and their severity compared to previous years, it seems that even the countries with the larger and more qualified disease response networks are under pressure, in spite of all the emergency response and preparedness plans in place. For example, in the US, the USDA has emergency response teams who support control and containment efforts at state level. These teams have been rapidly deployed. But even so, the spread of bird flu in the US is ongoing.

Feedinfo asked Dr. Scott what else can be done in terms of disaster response when it comes to these kinds of outbreaks.

His response was that you should not assume that just because you have a response plan and even the material resources to deal with something, you have everything you need. Being able to rapidly mobilise a qualified team with a diverse set of skills is something many overlook. However, especially when responding to an EAD, it is essential. Just as importantly, the team needs to include those familiar with agricultural operations.

"There are often inadequacies in the area of applied capabilities. Having a good working knowledge and understanding of farming operational procedures is crucial,” he commented.

Government involvement

In Dr. Scott’s view, government involvement can impede normal practises by farm managers and staff, given that regulators are often less informed and less familiar with how measures are enacted on-farm.

“Unfortunately, there is a lack of recognition of this by the authorities, and instead of overseeing and facilitating those who are experienced, they take on operational control in areas they are not familiar with,” he said.

Dr. Scott used the example of free-range poultry.

“Objectively, free-range has the highest carbon footprint of other poultry systems (mainly due to feed), the highest need for therapeutics including antibacterials, insecticides and anthelmintics (dewormers), and the highest biosecurity risk for most avian pathogens including avian influenza and those involved in the faecal oral cycle. This does not consider the need for more staff under more difficult working conditions. So, if the retailers/regulatory bodies/politicians/consumers want free-range, then the offsets and outcomes need to be recognised and accepted,” he said.

“We saw layer producers attracted to the free-range egg market for an increased margin. Now through retailers they are experiencing margin squeeze and producing eggs at much higher costs with lower productivity and increased input costs,” he added. “Other than the niche producers who sell a small number of eggs at 300% the normal retail wholesale market price, there is, in my opinion, a growing dissatisfaction with free-range production from producers.”

“The recognition that solutions will be found but will not come without some compromise in regard to productivity outcomes and cost has to be accepted,” he went on to say. “The Australian RSPCA at the PIX conference several years ago indicated that consumers have to pay more for welfare … There are balances that can be achieved.”

Dr. Scott argued that there is also a need for a major change in the direction of regulators, politicians, and consumers in distinguishing between fundamental industry-critic needs and perceived needs by consumers: “Those making the various decisions around intensive animal production are generally not impacted by the issues of quality supply and price, and their approach does not consider the basic needs of food production, especially protein for third-world countries and those on low incomes.”

“Also, we fully support the reduction in fossil fuel use, improved management and care of the environment and appropriate welfare of animals, but all this must be undertaken in a balanced and sustainable manner that is objectively determined and not driven by perceptions and agendas of many that are uninformed.”