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How WOAH International Standards contribute to boosting trade: the case of Namibia

FMD vaccionation in Namibia
Highly infectious diseases such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) could spell disaster for livestock exports. Implementing WOAH’s International Standards, however, secures safe and fair international trade of animals and their products.

The development of Namibia is deeply rooted in the agricultural sector. With 90% of land suitable for livestock farming, a large proportion of the country’s rural population depends on this activity for food security, livelihoods and economic well-being. The estimated livestock population amounts to around 2 million cattle, 2,5 million sheep, 1,8 million goats and 17 thousand pigs. Animal production represents therefore a driver of economic growth, making key contributions to the local GDP.

Transboundary diseases such as FMD (foot and mouth disease) have the potential to dampen cross-border livestock trade and, more broadly, upend a country’s position within the global marketplace, making meat exports difficult. Worsened by drought, which affects rain-fed agriculture pushing pastoralists to seek more favourable areas for livestock grazing, an unforeseeably changing disease landscape has long put the economy of Namibia under strain.

The reliance on animal exports makes Namibia’s economy vulnerable to , whose outbreaks can result in severe production losses and lead to major halts to livestock trade. Preventing this disease, however, is possible through the implementation of effective sanitary measures aimed at preventing the introduction of the virus into the animal population. Early detection and response systems are equally important as they allow for an effective containment and eradication.  

Namibia’s overall animal health situation is also shaped by its geographical position, sharing borders with countries and areas that are not free from FMD. Here, the movement of farmers grazing family cattle in areas where wild buffaloes may be present can occur, posing serious challenges to the control of transboundary animal diseases and the regulation of cross-border flows of goods. This movement has indeed led to outbreaks of both contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP) and FMD in animals returning to Namibia.

Keeping infectious diseases at bay

There are several ways to control endemic diseases. A zoning approach is one of them. Zoning is a provision explained in WOAH Standards, which allows a country to concentrate its resources in a defined restricted area where controlling and eradicating the disease would be achievable. A progressive extension of the free zone may lead to the eradication of the disease from the entire territory.

Achieving an official disease-free status nationwide should be the final goal for countries. However, given the difficulty of reaching such an objective, there are some undeniable benefits to establish and maintaining a subpopulation with a specific health status within a national territory, not only for disease prevention and control but also for the purposes of international trade.

FMD offered the first-ever opportunity for WOAH to set up a list of countries to be officially recognised as free of the disease, either in their entirety or in defined zones. Having implemented zoning since 1994, Namibia was one of the first countries to be granted an FMD free zone without vaccination status in 1997. Moreover, Namibia has been able to successfully secure and maintain the FMD free zone since this official recognition by WOAH, despite the outbreaks that have continued to unfold in the rest of the country.

The benefits of WOAH Standards for international trade

Dr Anja Boshoff-De Witt works at the national Meat Board, a regulating body that facilitates the export of livestock, meat and processed meat products in Namibia. She believes that translating animal health standards into real-world action can help build transformative solutions that will improve livelihoods and alleviate poverty.

The implementation of WOAH International Standards in Namibia has been providing a much-needed support to the economic growth. Namibia is export-oriented, which makes it essential for the country to comply with these recommendations.

Dr Anja Boshoff-De Witt, Manager Meat Standards at Meat Board of Namibia

WOAH Standards constitute a common language to achieve understanding and trust between countries. Their implementation along the production and supply chain is essential to develop national assurance systems minimising the potential risks associated with traded commodities posed to human or animal life or health in importing countries.

As a concrete example, demonstrating FMD-freedom based on International Standards and the official recognition of its status by the Organisation has facilitated the negotiations of Namibia with trading partners that are interested in livestock and meat, also enhancing a relationship of mutual trust. By implementing these Standards, Namibia has made rapid strides towards better animal health and safe livestock trade. Namibia’s beef exports have expanded to the European Union, Norway, People’s Republic of China, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Livestock producers settled in the FMD-free zone have also seen new perspectives arise: the possibility to access the international market and thus to obtain higher prices for their livestock is a great incentive to enhance the livelihood of their families.

Livestock from the ‘FMD Infected and Protection zones’ may not move to the FMD free zone in Namibia. Livestock products may be moved from these zones to the free zone if prepared/processed in accordance with WOAH Standards. This includes the implementation of commodity-based trade for the movement of fresh beef. 

Today, Namibia is well on its way to positioning itself in the global meat marketplace. The country ranks 29th and 35th of the top beef exporting countries for fresh and frozen beef respectively, and it supplies 1.4% of global sheep and goat exports. It was also the first in the African continent to tap into the lucrative US market, after it sent 25 tonnes of beef to Philadelphia in early 2020.

Looking forward, Namibia is set to further use the standards to improve animal health and facilitate safe international trade. A major goal is to enhance the animal health situation in areas still at-risk of FMD – either addressing the problem posed by its porous border or establishing more zones that can gain freedom from FMD.  

In 2015, Namibia experienced one of its worst FMD outbreaks in the protection zone, which took nearly a year and $13 million to eradicate. WOAH Standards on zoning have helped address the outbreak and get the country back on its feet. The event offers both a lesson and a cautionary tale: animal health standards help address animal health challenges, unlocking economic potential and access to trade thereby securing a better future for everyone. Adapting them to national legislations and investing in their implementation hold key to a country’s boosted health situation and trade status.