IAEA Impact: How Nuclear Science Helps Botswana Control Animal Diseases, Ensure Food Safety and Maintain its Beef Exports

Cattle raising is not only the mainstay of the economy of rural Botswana; it is also part of the social fabric. The country’s 2 million people own 3 million cattle. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Lobatse, Botswana – In Botswana, cattle is a way of life. Owning and herding cattle and selling animals for quick cash when money is tight provide the livelihood for much of the rural population and represent an important supplementary income for city dwellers. When in 2008 the European Union (EU) tightened sanitary requirements on beef imports, Botswana’s second largest export industry came to the verge of losing its most important and lucrative market: it had neither the equipment nor the know-how to perform the tests required.

Since then, the use of nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques, introduced with support from the IAEA in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has enabled the country to put in place veterinary and food safety surveillance systems that meet EU requirements and have successfully passed inspections.

“It is very important that we can protect our export markets by demonstrating the absence of disease and food contamination thanks to the use of these modern techniques,” said Kekgonne Baipoledi, Deputy Permanent Secretary at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. “The economic situation of most farmers has improved as a result.”

Beef is the largest non-mineral export commodity of the country, accounting for 3.3% of total exports. In contrast to minerals such as diamond and nickel, the export performance of beef has a direct impact on the livelihood of a large segment of the population, many of whom are small-scale farmers. Botswana has 3 million cattle and 1.6 million goats for its 2 million people. A suspension of Botswana’s beef exports to the EU could hurt the country significantly. In 2011, Botswana suspended beef exports to the EU for a short period of six months at an estimated €48 million in lost revenues.FileBotswana Country Of Herds

The focus of successive IAEA technical cooperation projects has been to build local capacity in analysis covering an increasingly wider scope of diseases, veterinary drug residues and other contaminants. By the end of this year, the Botswana National Veterinary Laboratory (BNVL) will be able to carry out all of the required tests in-house, and sending samples for lengthy and costly testing in Europe will no longer be necessary, said Chandapiwa Marobela-Raborokgwe, head of BNVL. The lab can now perform tests for 13 different substances. This will reduce costs by over half and lower test turnaround time from around nine months to less than a month.

Securing a market where we can derive better prices for our products is of great importance. The capacity building we receive from the IAEA strengthens our ability and empowers us to deliver for our population.
Nonofo Molefhi, Minister of Infrastructure, Science and Technology, Botswana

From cattle to beef: the Botswana Meat Commission currently exports 40 % of its total beef production to the European Union. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Though the country is free from the most dangerous animal diseases, it continuously faces the threat of transboundary animal diseases re-entering from neighbouring countries. Foot and mouth disease is present in the north of the country and could spread to cattle herding areas in the south, which are free of the disease. Conventional disease diagnostic methods are not sensitive or fast enough to provide timely and reliable results, delaying detection and response to outbreaks, said Farayi Chigwada, the chief veterinarian in Mochudi, 40 kilometers north of the capital Gaborone. “By the time you got the results back, the animal has either died or recovered,” he said. In 1995, the authorities ordered the slaughter of 300 000 cattle to stop the spread of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP), a cattle lung disease that entered from Namibia.

Joseph Wakala is raising 200 cattle at the edge of the Kalahari desert in southern Botswana. Thanks to the veterinary surveillance and food inspection system now in place, the meat from his cattle will be sold at the lucrative European market. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

The IAEA, in partnership with FAO, supported BNVL in strengthening its diagnostic capacity by training its staff and introducing modern techniques such as nucleic acid amplification tests and isotopic methods that can detect pathogens in a very early stage of the disease (see Nuclear and nuclear-related techniques used for testing animal diseases and food contaminants). Through its technical cooperation projects, the IAEA supplied equipment and reagents to strengthen diagnostic and surveillance capacities.

In 2014, authorities managed to quickly stop a local outbreak of Newcastle disease thanks to the veterinary surveillance techniques put in place with the help of the IAEA. “A lot fewer chickens died thanks to rapid diagnosis and early detection,” Marobela-Raborokgwe said.    

BNVL has received recognition as a World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)’s reference lab for CBPP. “We have been able to move from zero capacity just a few years ago to becoming one of only four reference labs in the world,” Marobela-Raborokgwe said, adding that her colleagues are now assisting Angola, Namibia and Zambia in their eradication efforts. BNVL performs tests for neighbouring countries, while at the same time helps them to build capacity, assisting the region to meet its 2030 target date for complete CPBB eradication.

In the meantime, BNVL is receiving support from the IAEA and the FAO in extending testing capabilities to other diseases, including African swine fever and lumpy skin disease, which affects cattle across much of Africa. With the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, it is also working on opening up laboratories across the country, bringing diagnostic services closer to farmers, further reducing testing time.

Scientists of the Animal Diseases Laboratory of BNVL using a real time PCR machine donated by the IAEA earlier this year to check blood samples from cattle for transboundary animal diseases. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Food safety 

Controlling for food contaminants is equally important. Farmers use vaccines and veterinary drugs to control animal diseases. They also use pesticides to control weeds in fields whose crops are fed to livestock. Residues of the chemicals may remain in the meat and enter the human food chain – hence the importance of food safety surveillance.  The IAEA has helped BNVL develop its capacities to analyse residues from pesticides and veterinary drugs as well as other toxins by utilizing isotopic and nuclear-related techniques.

As a result of this capacity building and other control measures taken by the government, the country has managed to maintain its market position in the European Union, by far the most important export market for its beef. “Securing a market where we can derive better prices for our products is of great importance,” said Nonofo Molefhi, Minister of Infrastructure, Science and Technology. “The capacity building we receive from the IAEA strengthens our ability and empowers us to deliver for our population.”

Watch out for cattle! In a country where 80% of cattle graze freely, roaming the countryside, animal diseases can spread more easily. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

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This project, and how it can be further deployed or replicated elsewhere will be discussed at this year’s Scientific Forum on 28-29 September in Vienna,  which focuses on the contribution of nuclear science and technology towards the achievement of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

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