By Mupakamiso Makaya and Tapiwa Bere
THE development of a new Bio-warfare Act is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to the imminent management and protection of Zimbabwe; its people, plants and animals, from the potential onslaught of biological threats, whether naturally occurring or employed in an act of aggression by potential enemies of Zimbabwe.
The Bio-warfare Act will consolidate existing Zimbabwean Acts, as well as a number of regulations that protect macro-organisms from micro-organisms.
Many nations, including those hostile to Zimbabwe, possess the capability to produce and disseminate virulent biological agents on a limited scale.
In our previous instalments, the Agriculture Ministry was identified as one of the Ministries involved in civil and biodefence against bio-warfare or bioterrorism.
Attacks targeted at agriculture are commonly referred to as agro-terrorism.
By definition, agro-terrorism is the premeditated introduction of animal and plant diseases at the farm or the entire food chain.
The definition, however, does not include the deliberate contamination of food products which food terrorism is another subset of bioterrorism or bio-warfare.
Agro-terrorism is identified as a subset of bioterrorism or bio-warfare, thus making the Ministry of Agriculture a stakeholder in biodefence and strategy.
It is herein proposed that the envisaged bio-warfare or bioterrorism or public emergence act should identify agro agencies and their roles in biodefence and protecting the fraternity of agriculture, in relation to agriculture security.
In carrying out these new responsibilities, those identified agencies will co-ordinate the development of plans and protocols for better management of national response to bio-warfare, or those agencies are supposed to conduct exercises to test these new protocols and their response capabilities, including vulnerability assessments of the agriculture infrastructure.
In combating bio-warfare directed at agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture should create a network of laboratories capable of diagnosing animal, plant and human diseases; develop a national veterinary stockpile that aims to include vaccines against foreign animal diseases; and create national emergency co-ordinator positions to help States develop emergency response plans for the agriculture sector.
Agriculture is the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, contributing about 16-17 percent of the GDP.
The sector provides employment for some 70 percent of the population and about 60 percent of all raw materials for the industry.
About 45 percent of the country’s exports are of agricultural derivation hence protecting agriculture is critically important to the well-being of Zimbabweans and the Zimbabwean economy.
Zimbabwe’s land reform and other agro-sovereign policies irked Western countries, the US and her allies resulting in the impostion of illegal sanctions.
The sanctions onslaught have the same adversarial effects as that of actual bioterrorism or biological aggression.
Bio-warfare and bioterrorism remain an option for our enemies.
Our agricultural assets (agricultural land, livestock, facilities, buildings and machinery used for farming) are vital targets to the enemy.
Our farms (A1 and A2) and communal lands have minimum biological security, making them a vulnerable to manipulation.
In the last five years, Zimbabwe has lost around half a million cattle to the tick-borne disease and Theileriosis, better known as January disease.
The Ministry of Agriculture should form agencies and license private players to protect the agriculture fraternity.
More like a sectoral council, the Agriculture Sector Co-ordinating Council will help the State and industry share ideas about how to mitigate the risk of an attack on agriculture.
The creation of training schools that offer professional development courses for veterinarians for them to recognise the signs of foreign animal disease is crucial. Agricultural inspections at ports of entry – the first line of defence against the entry of foreign animal and plant diseases, should be capacitated.
The primary responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture on biological threats is the protection of our crops and livestock, through its departments, such as the Department of Veterinary Services.
The Department of Veterinary Services is an arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development that was established to provide services and facilitate the development and co-ordination of the livestock sector towards sustainable food and nutritional security, including biological security.
One aspect of the role of the Ministry of Agriculture in plant protection was, and still is, the registration and regulation process intended to ensure that the right types of chemicals are imported and safely used in Zimbabwe.
Other entities in the Ministry of Agriculture are: The Agricultural Research and Extension Services (AREX) that deals with the safety of crops while the Veterinary Services Department (VSD) deals with the safety of animal products like meat, poultry, fish and milk. This department, through its meat hygiene units, inspects and certifies abattoirs.
There is, therefore, need for the above departments to be included into biodefence matrix.
In the event of a disease outbreak, AREX should provide technical support to other Government agencies and the private sector to ensure the protection of land, drinking water and air from potential contamination associated with the disposal of diseased animal carcasses and infected plant material.
AREX should also be responsible for reviewing and approving the use of pesticides to prevent the spread of crop and animal diseases, both during an emergency and for prevention purposes.
In the event of an agricultural emergency that the Ministry of Agriculture cannot handle alone, it should work with security forces who should provide veterinarians from its various Veterinary Corps.
Co-ordinated with other agencies, the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development should create a proposed interim ‘National Agricultural Infrastructure Protection Plan’ to guide the efforts of the Government and private industry to protect critical infrastructure sectors, including agriculture, against terrorist attacks.