Livestock Experts Tackle Disease Outbreaks and Biodiversity Loss

By Daniel Kandy

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization is developing a new initiative to improve the global response to animal disease outbreaks such, mad cow disease, avian influenza, and foot-and-mouth disease. The so-called “One Health” initiative aims to implement effective prevention and containment strategies and manage risks. Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, stated that “We are expecting the costs to human, animal and plant health of these pathogens, and their overall economic costs, to rise substantially over the next decades.”

Investments are needed in genetics that allow livestock keepers to boost productivity with their African animals, says ILRI's General Director, Carlos Seré. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The FAO’s strategy is being developed in collaboration with the UN World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health, and will be implemented as five-year initiative when donor funding is secured. The strategy includes “the enhancement of disease early warning and detection systems; strengthening of capacity for surveillance and response; identification and assessment of disease causes in food animal production and natural resource management.”

The expansion of agricultural and urban land, the changes in our environment, increasing global trade, alongside increased demand and production for milk, meat, and eggs has experts and officials worried about the increasing incidence of animal disease outbreaks and the chance of transmission of those diseases from domestic to wild animals, as well as across species. The expansion of urban areas also poses a threat in terms of animal disease, as certain wild species of animals and scavenging animals such as dogs are thriving in urban environments, posing new threats to human health.

The outbreak of disease pandemics has had massive economic effects for developed nations. The government and private sector in the United Kingdom, for example, is estimated to have spent between $25 and $30 billion dealing with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Likewise, developing countries face a huge risk in terms of food security and income, as high impact trans-boundary animal diseases can wipe out the livestock that many rural communities depend on. Experts from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) told researchers at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso from July 19th to the 24th, that indigenous species of livestock bred over thousands of years are at risk of becoming extinct. These animals have developed disease resistance and tolerance to locate climate conditions, but are now being bred with livestock from abroad, creating short-term benefits, such as improved meat and milk production and greater draft power. But experts worry that important genetic traits are being lost during this crossbreeding process.

The breeds include humpless shorthorn and longhorn cattle of West and Central Africa, and although usually not as productive as European and Asian breeds in terms of meat or milk output, they are resistant to disease such as trypanosomosis and can withstand harsh climates. The Kuri cattle of southern Chad and northeastern Nigeria are also at risk. The large bulbous-horned Kuri are excellent swimmers, having evolved in the Lake Chad region, and are ideally suited to wet conditions in very hot climates.

The conservation of the cattle breed’s genome s is being pursued through “landscape genomics.” The genomes of different livestock varieties from many regions are sequenced and the genetic signatures associated with how well adapted they are to characteristics of their environment, such as heat or the prevalence of a disease.

Carlos Seré, ILRI’s Director General, says “What marginalized livestock-keeping communities need are investments in genetics and genomics that allow them to boost productivity with their African animals, which are best suited to their environments.” Landscape genomics helps researchers pursue this goal.

Steve Kemp, who heads ILRI’s genetics and genomics team, called for a new approach to measuring the characteristics of livestock genetic resources, pointing out that current assessments of livestock value focus on things like the value of meat, milk, eggs and wool, but not characteristics that are important to livestock keepers in Africa and other developing regions, such as “the ability of an animal to pull a plough, provide fertilizer, serve as a walking bank or savings account, and act as an effective form of insurance against crop loss.”

For more information on livestock and the meat industry, check out Happier Meals by Danielle Nierenberg.

Daniel Kandy is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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