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How exposed are we to H5N1?

19 Jun 2024

New Zealand is a nation of dairy farms.

Milk-realated products are a leading generator of the export receipts on which so heavily rely in order to fund the import of products we can't or don't make here.

If the sacred cow were to falter or die then we, as a nation, would be in big economic trouble.

So should we be worried that H5N1 (bird flu) is currently spreading like wildfire within dairy herds in the USA?

What would be the effect on our economy and our health if this virus also hits our dairy industry ?

According to The British Medical Journal, "the hazard and risk of a major outbreak of H5N1 are large, plausible and imminent" so perhaps a little concern is warranted.

Although there are documented instances of transmission of H5N1 from cows to humans it appears that pasteurisation of milk kills the virus so those not directly involved in dealing with the animals (such as farm-workers) are safe... for the time being.

The threat of a bird flu mutating into a variant that allows for human to human transmission has been around for decades and so far it does not seem to have happened, however there are those who warn "it's only a matter of time".

More worrying for New Zealand, at least in the short term, could be the effect that a widespread infection within our dairy industry could have on our economy.

Not only could there be a resistance to NZ products within our export markets as a result of this but we could also see our production levels fall precipitously due to the sickness of infected animals.

The chances of New Zealand stopping this infection from crossing its borders is also next to zero. Since it is a bird flu, migrating species could easily bring it into the country from almost anywhere on the face of the planet.

One must wonder what sort of mitigation we could use to reduce the impact of such an event and I guess the only answer is diversification.

While it is great that the NZ dairy industry generates so much export revenue, it's also a very dangerous thing to be so dependent on any single industry. I believe that government should be working hard to emphasize the importance of not having all our export-earning eggs in a single basket.

To this end, it would have been great to see the power currently being given away to Rio Tinto perhaps used instead to support the growth of a data-centre industry in the South Island. Given that the demand for data centres, in the age of AI, will continue to grow at an enormous rate and that the environmental impact of such industries, when powered by renewables such as hydro, is zero -- this would be a far better way to spread risk and sure up our economic diversity.

Sadly, as usual, politicians seem unable to think any further ahead than their next expensive meal at Bellamy's so I have no doubt that if/when H5N1 does decimate our dairy industry and its exports we'll see the usual faces fronting press conferences claiming "there was nothing we could do".

Carpe Diem folks!

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