Foot-and-mouth disease is taking a heavy toll on the food and agricultural sectors of affected nations, but incomplete knowledge of the disease is exacerbating the impact. In Latin America, several nations have been crippled by broad base export bans on goods that cannot transmit the disease and simply smack of protectionism. Steve Lewis looks at the export bans used to control FMD in Latin America.

Foot and mouth disease is taking a heavy toll on the food and agricultural sectors of affected nations, but incomplete knowledge of how the disease is transmitted particularly amongst Central and South American nation is making the cost of the disease much higher than it needs to be. A crippling ban on Argentina’s meat products and crops has had a ripple effect through that nation’s food supply chain, causing a sharp rise in bankruptcies. Some of the bans, including live animals and certain animal by-products, make sense, but others smack of protectionism.


One problem with food bans is that unjustified restrictions gain credibility when several nations apply them. As of early April this year, Brazil and Uruguay had placed broad bans on virtually all crops and their derivatives originating in Argentina. Noting that trend, Bolivia and Chile made preparations to do the same. The bans included grains and vegetables that pose no threat of foot and mouth disease.


In late March, Brazil imposed a ban on all plant-based products produced within a 25-kilometre radius of a foot and mouth disease outbreak. The fact that Argentina had roughly 150 acknowledged outbreaks of the disease spread over various provinces at that time, the ban was impossible to enforce. The only sure way of complying was to ban all such products coming from Argentina.


MERCOSUR in disarray


Some of the trade blocks in the Americas were able to agree on uniform import restrictions aimed at preventing foot and mouth disease, while others were unable to reach a consensus. The most harmonious blocs were CARICOM and the Central American Community. Central American nations focused their bans on animal products, whereas the Caribbean nations blocked the entry of other items such as used vehicles and farm equipment.


The greatest economic damage occurs when contagious animal diseases lead to intra-bloc trade battles, as occurred in MERCOSUR this year. Member nations took radically different approaches to protecting themselves from Argentina’s foot and mouth outbreaks.


Paraguay took a very low-key approach, only restricting products proven to have disease carrying potential, such as live animals and fresh meat. At the other extreme was Uruguay, which promptly mounted an all-encompassing ban on Argentine products, including animal products and crops. Even derivatives of crops, such as soy flour, were banned.


Brazil quickly erected trade barriers similar to those of Uruguay, but they proved cumbersome and a prompt reversal was inevitable. The Brazilian ban included wheat, in spite of the fact that Brazil imported 7m tons in 2000, 97% of which came from Argentina.


Andes nations squabble


The Andes Community is famous for infighting on trade issues, and the advent of foot and mouth disease has only exacerbated the situation. Every member nation now has problems with the disease. Rather than combining efforts to combat the problem, the nations are dedicating their resources to enforcing intra-bloc trade barriers.


Venezuela blames its disease problems on Colombian smugglers and has tried to seal off vulnerable border areas. Colombia prepared trade restrictions on Ecuador because of suspected cases of triangulation in animal imports. In other words, animals purportedly imported from Ecuador came from nations of the world affected by foot and mouth disease. At the same time, Bolivia imposed trade barriers on Paraguay, claiming that animal smugglers in that nation introduced diseased animals to the border region.


The last thing that nations stricken by contagious animal diseases need is to be punished by bans on products that do not transmit the diseases. Unwarranted broad-based bans drive one of the worst enemies of disease control: denial. If nations are aware that the trade consequences of a disease outbreak will be economically crippling, they will attempt to cover up and deny outbreaks at all cost. Such denial impedes all-out disease control campaigns and, as was the case in Argentina, allows a localized problem to become a nation-wide crisis.


By Steve Lewis, just-food.com correspondent