Common Sense Is the First Step in Biosecurity

By Chris McClure, Contributing Editor

The first documented importation of livestock into the Western Hemisphere is of those animals brought by Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the New World in 1493. Those sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and chickens were breeding stock for the newly established colonies in the Canary Islands. Much later, the English, French and others also brought similar animals to provide long-term sustenance to their colonies throughout the northern and southern continents of the New World.

Movement of livestock has been long established in international trade as a way to ensure the means of provision. Not only did those early importers bring livestock, they brought seeds, growing plants and the insects, vermin, bacteria and viruses that rode unobserved along with them. No longer were pests confined in isolated pockets where they evolved; natural barriers were overcome by the humans who depended on the very same hosts for their own sustenance.

It has only been in recent years that governments, researchers and agricultural producers have recognized that these harbingers of destruction should be isolated and contained in order to prevent vast economic loss to our food supplies. With that recognition came regulation and restrictions on the movement of live agricultural species – whether plant or animal.

Approximately 150 years ago, scientists began to understand that there were microscopic organisms inhabiting the earth and that it was those organisms that were the source of many diseases. That knowledge led to vaccinations to activate the body’s defenses against such disease-causing agents. It wasn’t until early in World War II, however, that we first used an antibiotic – penicillin – to help fight those organisms. Discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, it took almost 20 years to utilize the bacterial-inhibiting agent to fight infections that previously were thought to be a death sentence.

We still have not found effective means of combating the even tinier and more difficultly recognized viruses, which seem to be almost sentient in their ability to adapt through mutation into forms that exploit various host organism. It is their adaptability that makes them a useful tool for splicing genes and for carrying targeted treatments into the body – we just don’t know of good ways to kill them without killing their host.

As our world becomes more and more crowded with what some call the most highly evolved form of life and others term a plague upon the earth (I refer to homo sapiens) the movement of living pathogens in the form of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other quasi-life forms is increasingly difficult to control. It requires ever-evolving tools ranging from regulation to technological innovations, but, even more important, the use of sound management practices to mitigate their spread within and between species.

The novel coronavirus that is thought to have been transferred from a bat in China to a large percentage of the world’s human population is just the most recent form of zoonotic disease to rampage across the planet. Previous examples include such things as bubonic plague, anthrax, tuberculosis and Ebola. As humans push more deeply into the jungles, deserts and other less attractive places, they will “stir the pot” of potentially devastating pathogens that may have lain dormant for millennia. Unleashing them will likely become a more frequent occurrence. Mobility will allow them to cover the earth in a fraction of the time it would have taken via sailing ships in the 1500s.

The real question in my mind relates to the evolution of tools necessary to combat the inevitable outbreaks. Governments will use the threat as a way to take more power and decision-making from the people and to increase their own control over us. Pharmaceutical companies will exploit the threats for profit through increasing use of ever-more-expensive drugs and other therapies as well as “new and better” vaccines. Computer and software companies will find ways to leverage the threat into tracking programs and analytic services to hopefully control and stop the spread – one term is “flatten the curve.” The solution, I think, will require some of all of those tools, but more important, one additional one – common sense.

Recognizing problems is something that is natural to people; the ability to solve problems that have never been seen before is rare. It requires a different approach to thinking – common sense. It is as simple as a child learning not to touch a hot stove and as complex as recognizing an upcoming weather change by observing the natural world around us. We must learn to look at our operations critically on a regular basis with the expectation to not only become more efficient, but more robust in dealing with the inevitable problems which arise.

Biosecurity is a buzzword that made its rounds in the industry 10 or 12 years back, but has been somewhat ignored recently. It’s just a fancy term for good fences. If you want to keep the coyotes out of the chicken coop, you need a coyote-proof fence around it. We need to do the same with our ranches and feeding facilities. We need to have solid biosecurity in place and plans for mitigating problems when things go wrong. It is easy to get complacent.

While we are at it, perhaps animal traceability would be a good idea. After all, if you find a coyote in the chicken coop, you want to be able to find the hole in the fence so it can be patched in order to prevent the next one from getting in.