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Botswana admits deficiencies in enforcing beef export standards

The Botswana Ministry of Agriculture recently asked the European Commission to remove Botswana’s abattoirs from the EU list of approved facilities until deficiencies observed during a January inspection by the EC Food and Veterinary Office can be corrected. This will mean that exports of Botswana beef to the UK, Europe’s biggest consumer, will be halted for at least the next six months.

The UK will not notice this absence of cut-price beef, as Botswana only supplies a miniscule fraction of the EU imports - 2% of chilled beef and less than 0.5% of frozen beef in 2006. But it can be seen as a serious blow to the agricultural sector of Botswana’s economy in a country already suffering financial setbacks in the other main sectors – tourism and diamonds. However, it does not come as a particular surprise, and might lead to an internal review of the benefits vs costs of the cattle industry in Botswana.

Cattle profits and losses in Botswana

 Last November, I wrote an in-depth article about the Botswana cattle industry and the effects on wildlife  The main points to be made were these:

• Before diamonds were discovered, cattle was the only export worth mentioning (40% of GDP at Independence compared to 1% for mining), and was encouraged by the UK pre- and post-independence. Foreign aid to support the livestock industry is substantial even today and comes from agencies like USAID, NORAD, and the EU.

• Nowadays, agriculture and livestock production accounts for only 4% (or 1.6% or 2.8% according to various analyses) of the country's GDP, but still employs over 25% of the country's labour force. That figure is probably much higher as agriculture, in one form or another, occupies a significant number of those who work "informally"

• Poor soils and little rainfall means that 80% of agricultural production is based on livestock grazing rather than crops - and each cow, sheep, or goat needs a very large range to survive. The national livestock herd fluctuates in number according to drought conditions, but is considered in excess of 5 million animals and this is not counting donkeys and horses. The spectre of environmental destruction due to overgrazing in fragile regional environments looms, and already has established precedents in South Africa and Namibia. Yet livestock production continues, perhaps not surprisingly as prominent past and present politicians, top district and local functionaries, and many business leaders own lots of cattle. Indeed, owning cattle has always been and remains a measure of social status, and cattle are greatly intertwined with culture.

• Botswana beef is seen by advocates as being free-range, high quality and hormone free, and therefore competitive with export beef originating from Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, the USA, and Argentina, to mention but a few of the major beef exporting nations. Unlike those countries, Botswana has been granted tremendous export advantages. The latest of these, an EC Interim Economic Partnership Agreement, allows Botswana to export unlimited quantities duty free. Such imports into the UK are already selling well below prices for locally produced beef.

• In addition to being hormone-free, the EU also insists that imported beef is disease-free, especially with regard to Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). Botswana has regular outbreaks of the disease among cattle herds, and has built a very extensive network of veterinary control fences that criss-cross the country and secure the borders. These fences are supposed to achieve three main purposes - prevent contact between cattle and wildlife, especially African buffalos that are seen as the main reservoir for the disease; allow diseases to be contained in case of an outbreak; and allow strict controls to be exercised in terms of cattle movements in the country. The continuous outbreaks, however, indicate that disease control is a difficult undertaking and that an illegal flow of cattle occurs both across borders and through fences.

•  It is becoming more and more costly for Botswana to supply the EU market. The Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) is the sole entity handling exports, and therefore needs to comply with stringent EU food and safety regulations. Each consignment has to meet EU standards. This implies control of animal feed, handling and transport, ensuring that a cow has not come from a potential FMD area, etc. To comply, the Ministry of Agriculture spent 211 million Pula (about $45 to$50 million) up to 2007 on a traceability system to ensure transparency from birth to slaughter, and further many millions on upgrading abattoirs. This system has now been found wanting.

• The Botswana government also supplies substantial support for productivity increases, borehole drilling subsidies (to provide water), financial assistance for infrastructure development, and subsidised loans and tax advantages. The bottom line - livestock maintenance is costing the government huge amounts of money.

• Beef  production operates at a net loss to environmental quality and to another income earner - wildlife tourism.

• Construction of veterinary cordon fences was done with near-total disregard for migratory routes of a number of species. Migratory species like wildebeest, zebra, hartebeest and springbok suffered most. Studies conducted in 1978 and 1999, for example, indicate a decline in wildebeest numbers from 315,000 to 47,000; hartebeest from 293,000 to 31,000; springbok from 101,000 to 52,000; and zebra from 100,000 to 55,000. During the droughts of the early 1980s, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 wildebeest alone died along the Kuke Veterinary Fence in northern Botswana. A recent study by Mbaiwa and Mbaiwa (2006) concluded the following: "The erection of veterinary fences in Botswana indicates that [as] in most developing countries, immediate economic benefits for sectors such as agricultural development are often implemented to the detriment of other sectors, such as wildlife management" and "Instead of promoting the sustainable use of Botswana's wildlife resources, globalization and international trade are thus contributing to the depletion of its wildlife resources".

• An expanding cattle sector has caused considerable loss to populations of carnivores. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, hyenas, African wild dogs, and jackals increasingly come into contact with domestic stock and are destroyed as problem animals. As both farmers and wildlife authorities deal with problem animal control, statistics for this decline are extremely difficult to gather - but between 1992 and 1998, 135 lions were reportedly killed as problem animals by the Wildlife Department alone in zones bordering protected areas in northern Botswana, most of them on the southern perimeter of the Okavango Delta (Rutina 2000).  In 2000, 80 lions were reported trapped or shot due to cattle conflict in northern Botswana, mainly along the Boteti River near Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

• Wildlife tourism is a current and future growth industry in Botswana and accounts for substantial employment and foreign exchange earnings. The cattle industry only succeeds with Government subsidies and a temporary lack of international tariffs. 

• An ever-expanding livestock herd with resulting environmental degradation, uncertainty of future status in a highly competitive world market, the lack of assurances that the current special status will be maintained, and the high Botswana government subsidies paid to maintain what is essentially a high-risk endeavour in a country beset with periodic droughts and disease outbreaks all weigh against the cattle industry.

• The mainstays of Botswana’s economy – diamonds, tourism, and cattle – are thus all based on elements with some risk. Diamonds and tourists depend on a healthy global economy to be afforded, and cattle exports rely on the absence of droughts and disease and the presence of national and international generosity. 

Dangerous products?

 Given the very high levels of Botswana Government subsidies needed to maintain the beef export market, and given the dire financial straits Botswana finds itself in due to downturns in the demand for diamonds and tourism during the currently stressed global economy, it is not surprising that EU inspectors found the safety measures for beef exports wanting. It is possible that a cut in subsidies and Botswana Government input into maintaining and improving the facilities and regulations for export became increasingly lax.

This creates a problem for the Botswana beef currently being sold in the UK. First, the EU inspectors were in Botswana from Jan. 25-28, and only published their negative report on March 16. The Government then announced a voluntary shut-down on April 1. But how long was Botswana in non-compliance? One can assume that Botswana beef exports to the UK did not meet EU standards well before the inspection took place, and then at least until March 16. Second, how many Botswana beef shipments to the UK, which clearly did not meet standards including disease control, took place during that interim period?

Overall, the UK and the EU should encourage the economies of less-developed countries by trade agreements and a reduction of tariffs where necessary. But the UK and the EU also should ensure that their citizens and agricultural industries are protected from potentially substandard and risky products. This is why regulatory agencies and standards were put in place. It is not worth importing beef from Botswana that does not meet EU consumer standards and that could lead to a risk to the domestic beef industry by introducing diseases. And after all, why is the UK partner to subsidising an industry that is detrimental to the environment and wildlife of the exporting country? 

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:04

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