Reducing Environmental Impact by Improving Animal Health

If you have not yet seen the recent Health for Animals report “Animal Health and Sustainability” produced by Oxford Analytica, I thoroughly recommend it.

People often assume that the production systems that they are most familiar with are the norm and that therefore global figures that are quoted around animal production and the role of livestock in food systems somehow reflect those systems. There is no typical livestock system though – there are systems that evolve in different places influenced by many different factors. Climate, soils, land type, cropping systems, human population density and cultural norms, legislation, distance from market, infrastructure, and endemic diseases all have their impacts on the food that is produced from a given piece of land. Within those differences, some are fixed, but many are variable and could change. Sometimes there are negative feedbacks that keep a system in place until a tipping point is reached that results in positive feedback leading to change.

Animal health and welfare is the cornerstone of any production system. Failure to ensure good animal health will result in direct stock losses as well as poor performance whether that be in terms of growth or reproductive rate. The knock-on effects of poor health are that feed is being wasted and a larger herd or flock is required to produce the same amount of food as would be the case if the animals were in good health. This is all pretty vague until we start adding up the losses and quantifying them in terms of opportunity costs, whether in food supply, livelihoods, or losses to the economy; this is where the above-mentioned report comes in. “A 60% global vaccination rate for beef cattle correlates to a productivity rise of more than 50%.”

That is a stark figure to those for whom vaccination against prevalent diseases is simply part of the annual routine. We know why we vaccinate, but do we all realize just how devastating not vaccinating might be? A global productivity rise of more than 50% from a vaccination rate of 60% means there are a lot of cattle owners out there who do not vaccinate and their productivity is extremely low. I have seen this first-hand in many lower-income countries of both Africa and Asia what this looks like. For those in high-income countries, this may be assumed to be part of the overall problem of development; poor people have poor animals. Yet, while running a veterinary program in Afghanistan that provided training for para-veterinarians and distributed vaccines throughout the country, I also saw the immediate benefits to livestock keepers who had access to vaccines and veterinary medicines. Being on hand also meant that we could provide support to communities where outbreaks of zoonoses such as Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever occurred. For countries like Afghanistan, where the amount of land that can grow human edible crops is limited, healthy animals really do mean healthy people. There are many such countries in both Asia and Africa and those two continents are home to two-thirds of large ruminants but produce less than a third of the related animal source foods.

There is huge potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of livestock keepers and the diets of many of the world’s poor if we address animal health. There are challenges, both financial and technical in doing so. But in a world where the sustainability of all food production is under scrutiny, let us not leave the poorest behind. The dividend extends to all of us since to quote once again from the Health for Animals report: “A fall in disease levels of 10 percentage points is associated with an 800 million tonne decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

I have said it many times, but we can produce more food from fewer livestock and feed more people while decreasing the footprint of food, but it requires a willingness to engage with real issues rather than ideologies. Far too much of the food systems debate is about what rich people should eat rather than how to make all systems better. If there is one area of food systems truly worthy of investment it is animal health in those countries where crop-producing land is scarce, and livestock are central to livelihoods.