Dialing back on the drivers of global disease outbreaks: A look inside the ‘black box’

Pathogen flow at the wildlife–livestock–human interface


As published in PNAS 2013: 1208059110v1-201208059. Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change, by Delia Grace and others, May 2013.

By Michelle Geis

A new report on the ‘causes of causes’ of H7N9 and other diseases that are emerging in animals and jumping species—into people

The deadly H7N9 bird flu virus in China and the spread of a SARS-like coronavirus in the Middle East continue to make headlines. H7N9 has killed 35 people  in China and 20 have lost their lives to the novel coronavirus—which has spread from Saudi Arabia to the UK, France and Germany.

Two opinion editorials in the New York Times last week, The next contagion: Closer than you think and The next pandemic: Not if, but when, correctly warn us about the potential global spread of these killer diseases. They call for more awareness of the dangers of zoonotic (animal-to-people) diseases, faster identification of animal sources of the pathogens and better vaccines to protect us against them. All of those are indeed needed.

But like much of the mainstream press, neither article mentions the root cause of these emerging infectious diseases, that is, the conditions that make zoonoses likely to arise in the first place and then help turn them into lethal pandemics.

These ‘causes of causes‘ of zoonotic disease outbreaks and their spread are pinpointed in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Delia Grace, a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety specialist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, and other scientists argue in this paper that we’ll only become capable of preventing or stopping the next pandemic when we better understand the drivers of disease emergence.

Some of these disease triggers are well-documented, if not well publicized. We know that rising demand for more meat and dairy products in rapidly growing developing countries, where cities and slums are densely crowded with livestock as well as people, can be a culprit. We know that animals kept in stressful as well as crowded conditions can be culprits. And we know that our expanding agriculture is fragmenting habitats, stressing wildlife and bringing people into contact with animals carrying pathogens, and reducing biodiversity, all of which encourage wildlife diseases to jump species.

A table published in the peer-reviewed article (see below) shows what conditions led to Ebola, HIV, SARS, Nipah, avian flu, Japanese encephalitis and more. Acknowledging and investigating these factors can provide governments and global health officials with important clues as to the next probable outbreak.

13PNAS_Grace_Figure1 copy

Table published in PNAS 2013: 1208059110v1-201208059. Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change.

So, what is it that’s preventing us from anticipating and stopping the next global pandemic since we know the conditions likely to produce one? For one thing, as the paper discusses, the conditions that trigger diseases are changing more rapidly than the research that examines them.

Another challenge is that though an emerging disease event is reported somewhere in the world on average every four months, the likelihood of emergence in any given farm or farming system is low.

As Grace explains, ‘Taking action to slow the drivers of disease is good for humanity but not likely to have any observable benefits to the individual farmer. Hence, the society that benefits from less disease emergence must provide the incentives to dial back on the drivers.’

Finally, the world is increasingly farming on the margins, with most of the last few remaining near-pristine ecosystems now being invaded and destabilized. Just as inexorable is the move to rapidly growing cities of poor rural people, who are bringing their livestock with them. The resulting losses of biodiversity, and the rise of genetically improved, and thus similar, animal populations, also increases the risk of a pandemic emerging. Climate and environmental changes are generally making matters worse.

Grace says research must better examine the complex, context-specific, and interrelated nature of zoonotic pathogen emergence.

‘First’, she said, ‘we need to look inside the black box of the big trends driving disease emergence: urbanization, intensification, globalization, loss of habitat and biodiversity.

‘We also need to understand what causes matter most in different situations and which are amenable to mitigation.

‘And we need to develop ways of doing agriculture differently, ways that not only reduce disease emergence but also can be adopted at large scale.

‘Given that disease emergence is predictably unpredictable, much can be achieved by understanding, monitoring and managing pathogen dynamics before infectious agents emerge.’

Read the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change, by Bryony A Jones, Delia Grace, Richard Kock, Silvia Alonso, Jonathan Rushton, Mohammed Y Said, Declan McKeever, Florence Mutua, Jarrah Young, John McDermott and Dirk Udo Pfeiffer, PNAS 2013 : 1208059110v1-201208059.

Michelle Geis is a Washington DC-based science communications expert who works for Burness Communications.

Saving the plains: ILRI research team wins Sustainability Science Award for its pastoral research in Masailand

Kitengela rangeland in Kenya: Fencing

Research by ILRI is helping pastoralists in the Kitengela ecosystem better manage their land, animal and wildlife resources (photo: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

A paper by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) that shares experiences from a project that worked to help Kenyan pastoralists better manage their lands, livestock and wildlife resources has won the 2012 Sustainability Science Award.

The yearly award is given by the Ecological Society of America to the authors of a peer-reviewed paper published in the preceding five years that makes the greatest contribution to the emerging science of ecosystem and regional sustainability through the integration of ecological and social sciences.

The winning paper, ‘Evolution of models to support community and policy action with science: Balancing pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation in savannas of East Africa’, was published in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious American science journal. The paper shared experimental work in boundary-spanning research from the Reto-o-Reto (Maasai for ‘I help you, you help me’) project, which was implemented between 2003 and 2008 to help balance action in poverty alleviation and wildlife conservation in four pastoral ecosystems in East Africa, including the Kitengela pastoral ecosystem just south of Nairobi National Park.

Lessons from this project supported the development and adoption of a land-use master plan in Kitengela, which is now helping Maasai pastoralists better manage their land, animal and wildlife resources.

The announcement of this award comes at an appropriate time, just as an inception workshop takes place on ILRI’s Nairobi campus this week (Jun 5-7) for the eastern and southern Africa component of a CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Agriculture.

The following story, written by ILRI consultant Charlie Pye-Smith in 2010, shares experiences of pastoralists in Kitengela, their challenges and their hopes, as a result of this award-winning project.

Saving the plains

Talk to the Maasai who herd their cattle across the Athi-Kaputiei Plains to the south of Nairobi and they’ll tell you that the last (2009–2010) drought was one of the worst in living memory. ‘Many people lost almost all their livestock,’ says pastoralist William Kasio. ‘The vultures were so full they couldn’t eat any more. Even the lions had had enough.’

At the slaughterhouse in Kitengela, over 20,000 emaciated cattle were burned and buried during the drought, and the surrounding plains were littered with sun-bleached carcasses. But for the Maasai, droughts are nothing new, and indeed many believe there is an even graver threat to their survival as cattle herders. ‘Land sales, and the subdivision and fencing off of open land—that’s been the biggest problem we’ve faced in recent years,’ says Kasio, chairman of a marketing organization based at the slaughterhouse.

A generation ago, livestock and wildlife ranged freely across the plains. Today, their movements are hindered by fences, roads, quarries, cement works, flower farms and new buildings. If the development trends of the past decade continue, then the pastoral way of life, and the great wildlife migrations in and out of Nairobi National Park, could become little more than a memory. But now, thanks to a community-inspired planning exercise, there’s a good chance this won’t happen.

The Athi-Kaputiei land-use ‘master plan’, launched in 2011, provides the local council with the legislative teeth it needs to ensure that large expanses of land remain free of fencing, and that new developments are confined to specific areas. ‘We see the master plan as our survival strategy,’ says Stephen Kisemei, a member of Olkejuado County Council. ‘It means we can now plan for the future in a way we never could before.’

The master plan is the culmination of years of research and discussion involving local communities, the council, central government and a range of organizations involved in conservation and animal husbandry. ‘It’s been a very democratic process,’ explains Ogeli Makui of the African Wildlife Foundation. ‘The council and the Department of Physical Planning drafted the master plan, but the Maasai landowners’ associations and other local groups were closely involved in all the discussions.’

Since 2004, teams of young Maasai have helped to draw up maps, which illustrate the scale of land sales and the loss of open rangeland. Managed by ILRI, the mapping program and the associated research showed just how rapidly life has changed on the plains over recent years, and provided much of the data used in the master plan.

At the end of the 19th century, the Athi-Kaputiei Plains were said to boast the most spectacular concentration of wildlife in East Africa. In those days, there were four times as many wild herbivores as there were cattle. Now the reverse is true, with the wildlife beating a steady retreat.

Between 1977 and 2002, the wildlife populations in the plains to the south of Nairobi National Park fell by over 70%. Particularly hard hit were migratory animals such as wildebeest, which traditionally graze in the national park during the dry season and move south in search of new pasture during the wet season. From nearly 40,000 migrating animals in the 1970s, wildebeest numbers have fallen to about 1000 today.

ILRI research suggests that two factors are to blame: poaching, and the loss of habitat and open space. The sub-division of land, frequently followed by the erection of fences, has also made it harder for the pastoralists to move their animals around in search of water and fresh pasture. Paradoxically, the Maasai are partly to blame, as they voted for the privatization of communal ranches in the 1980s. All of a sudden, many families realized they were sitting, within gazing distance of Nairobi, on valuable real estate. Land sales rapidly increased, new developments proliferated and the population of Kitengela almost trebled during the 1990s, from 5,500 to over 17,000.

‘When I was a child in the 1970s,’ recalls Ogeli Makui, as he sips tea outside a shopping mall in Kitengela, ‘there were just a few small stalls here, nothing else. I can remember one year when there were so many wildebeest migrating across this area, followed by packs of wild dogs, that my father told me to drive our sheep home to keep them safe.’ Nowadays, speeding lorries are the main danger.

Even before ILRI produced its first maps, conservationists realized something had to be done to keep the migratory routes open. A Wildlife Conservation Lease Programme, launched in 2000, encouraged pastoralists to keep their land open by paying them 300 shillings (USD4) per acre per year. By 2010, 275 families, owners of some 30,000 acres, had signed up to the latest lease scheme.

The lease scheme is helping to protect one of East Africa’s five great migratory routes, but it isn’t enough on its own to prevent further losses of wildlife, says Jan de Leeuw, head of ILRI’s pastoral livelihoods group. ‘The master plan will certainly help, and it’s a very important step towards improving the management of the plains, but it’s also imperative that we improve the financial situation of the pastoralists to a level where they become the champions of conservation,’ he says.

The better off the Maasai are, the more sympathetic they are likely to be to wildlife conservation, even if they occasionally lose livestock to lions and other predators. The Kitengela Conservation Programme, which is managed by the African Wildlife Foundation, is currently promoting various business enterprises, including community-based tourism, and ILRI is providing support for pastoralists to improve the marketing of their livestock. All this will help, says de Leeuw.

This is one of the few places in the world where you can see major wildlife populations, including 24 species of large mammals, grazing and hunting against the jagged backdrop of a populous city, often in the company of Maasai cattle. Little wonder, then, that there are conflicts between conservation and development, and sometimes between wildlife and the Maasai. Some of these conflicts will persist—the locals are deeply concerned, for example, about the building of a new town for Nairobi slum-dwellers—but the master plan provides the local council, for the first time, with the means to control development.

‘I’m very optimistic,’ says Councillor Kisemei. ‘I think the master plan will help us to secure the future for the Maasai and for the wildlife. And if we succeed, it will provide a model which could be used in other areas where wildlife and humans live close together.’

Pastoralists still vulnerable

Despite the successes of projects such as Reto-o-Reto in helping pastoral groups, governments and policymakers work together to better manage the resources in pastoral lands; pastoralists are still vulnerable to drought and changes in land use. Scientists from Colorado State University and ILRI have looked at how modelled scenarios relating to factors like access to forage, water and fuel tied to decisions made by pastoralists at household level. Stressors like drought remain a major threat to pastoral livelihoods and more so in areas where livestock compete with wildlife.

The research, carried out in Kenya’s Kajiado District, was published in a paper: ‘Using coupled simulation models to link pastoral decision making and ecosystem services.’ It evaluates pastoralist household wellbeing if access to reserve grazing is lost and the impact of compensation for those who lose access to grazing. The study showed that even though pastoralists that lose access to pasture are likely to experience large livestock losses, those in areas where livestock do not compete with wildlife have greater resilience to drought.

‘Maintaining access to reserve grazing lands is essential in helping pastoralists cope during severe drought,’ said Philip Thornton, a scientist with ILRI and one of the authors of the report. ‘We also found that compensating pastoralists for loss of access to reserve grazing lands increased their resilience.’

The above Kitengela story was written by ILRI consultant Charlie Pye-Smith.

For more on ILRI’s recent award, see: ILRI pastoral research team wins Sustainable Science Award, by Jane Gitau.

Download ‘Evolution of models to support community and policy action with science: Balancing pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation in savannas of East Africa’, by R S Reid, D Nkedianye, M Y Said, D Kaelo, M Neselle, O Makui, L Onetu, S Kiruswa, N Ole Kamuaroa, P Kristjanson, J Ogutu, S B BurnSilver, M J Golman, R B Boone, K A Galvin, N M Dickson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 3 Nov 2009.

Download ‘Using coupled simulation models to link pastoral decision making and ecosystem services’, by R B Boone, K A Galvin, S B BurnSilver, P K Thornton, D S Ojima, and J R Jawson, Ecology and Society 16(2): 6, 1 Jun 2011.

Read more about the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and more on ILRI’s news blogs (below) about the three-day planning workshop for this program, which ends today:

ILRI Clippings Blog: Foolhardy? Or just hardy? New program tackles climate change and livestock markets in the Horn, 7 Jun 2012.

ILRI Clippings Blog: Supporting dryland pastoralism with eco-conservancies, livestock insurance and livestock-based drought interventions, 5 Jun 2012.

ILRI Clippings Blog: CGIAR Drylands Research Program sets directions for East and Southern Africa, 4 Jun 2012.

People, Livestock and Environment at ILRI Blog: Taming Africa’s drylands to produce food, 5 Jun 2012.

People, Livestock and Environment at ILRI Blog: Collaboration in drylands research will achieve greater impact, 5 Jun 2012.



New PNAS-published study discloses the ‘hot spots’, ‘warm spots’ and ‘cold spots’ of global livestock disease risk

Mozambique, Garue, Lhate village

Small-scale livestock-dependent agriculture in developing countries makes up one of three trajectories of global disease risk; here, cattle belonging to a widowed farmer in Garue, Mozambique, are brought in for the night by a herdsboy (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

‘Current drivers and future directions of global livestock disease dynamics’ is a special feature published in the (online) 16 May 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the USA. The authors of the paper are Brian Perry, Delia Grace and Keith Sones.

Irish veterinary epidemiologist Delia Grace leads a team researching animal health and food safety for trade at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Nairobi, Kenya.

In the PNAS paper, the authors write: ‘The current era of globalization is seeing unprecedented movements of people, products, capital and information. Although this has obvious implications for economies and ecosystems, globalization also affects the health of people and animals. This paper reviews changing patterns of livestock disease over the last two decades, discusses the drivers of these patterns, and plots future trajectories of livestock disease risk in an effort to capitalize on our understanding of the recent past and provide a guide to the uncertain future.’

While acknowledging the complexity of disease dynamics, the authors point to three main drivers of changing livestock disease dynamics: ecosystem change, ecosystem incursion, and movement of people and animals. Underlying these dynamics are the growing demand for livestock products (the Livestock Revolution) and increasing human population size.

The authors identify three trajectories of global disease dynamics:
‘(i) the worried well in developed countries (demanding less risk while broadening the circle of moral concern)
‘(ii) the intensifying and market-orientated systems of many developing countries, where highly complex disease patterns create hot spots for disease shifts
‘(iii) the neglected cold spots in poor countries, where rapid change in disease dynamics is less likely but smallholders and pastoralists continue to struggle with largely preventable and curable livestock diseases.’

On the topics of major trends in disease dynamics, the authors point out that ‘From a centuries-long and whole-world perspective, human wealth and health continue to improve, and animal health parallels this, showing an overall dramatic decline of infectious disease and shift to noncommunicable diseases. (This has been called the second epidemiological transition; the first epidemiological transition was 10,000 y ago, when human settlement led to a surge in zoonoses and crowd-related diseases.)’

However, the authors also say that ‘Although control and management of many endemic diseases in rich countries have improved, new diseases such as BSE and HPAI have emerged. Some consider that we face a third epidemiological transition of disastrous consequence in which globalization and ecological disruption drive disease emergence and reemergence; as occurred in the first epidemiological transition (associated with neolithic sedentarization and the domestication of livestock), the worst of the emerging diseases are likely to be zoonotic.’

The authors go on to consider ‘the drivers with greatest influence on livestock disease dynamics, namely increasing human population size and prosperity and the related demand-driven Livestock Revolution. . . . [W]e identify three overarching sets of animal diseases dynamics and associated control. Each system is facing different risks to livestock health, each has different determinants of disease status and capacity to respond, and each requires different approaches to resolve them.’

‘In the background,’ they say, ‘is the significant component of the world’s livestock enterprises in the hands of the very poor, for whom intensification is just not a realistic option and who are likely to be most vulnerable to disease resurgence. . . .

‘Although we call these [very poor livestock] systems cold spots for disease dynamics and emergence, they are inevitably hot spots for endemic diseases, periodic epidemics (such as Newcastle disease, which regularly wipes out village flocks), and neglected zoonoses, which significantly impact on human health. Because of the low densities of livestock, their remoteness, and the slow change in husbandry practices, these are probably not hot spots for emerging diseases. . . .

‘This review is prognostic rather than therapeutic, presenting implications for livestock disease in the 21st century. In an increasingly globalized world, deepening of the existing balkanization of livestock health status will create inevitable instability. The main challenges are (i) to speed the convergence of livestock health between the intensifying and intensified regions through improved coordination, communication, and harmonization and (ii ) to improve resilience of smallholder livestock systems, including the support of viable exits from livestock keeping.’

Read the whole paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Current drivers and future directions of global livestock disease dynamics, by Brian Perry, Delia Grace and Keith Sones, 16 May 2011.

Read an ILRI brief: Why animals matter to health and nutrition, February 2011.

Read another ILRI News Blog article related to this topic: Adapting agriculture to improve human health—New ILRI policy brief, 21 February 2011.

Read an ILRI news release: Livestock boom risks aggravating animal ‘plagues,’ poses growing threat to food security and health of the world’s poor, 2 February 2011.

Scientists identify livestock genes to unlock protection against one of Africa’s oldest animal plagues

Cow suffering from trypanosomosis

Cow suffering from trypanosomiasis (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

An international research team using a new combination of approaches has found two genes that may prove of vital importance to the lives and livelihoods of millions of farmers in a tsetse fly-plagued swathe of Africa the size of the United States. The team’s results were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research, aimed at finding the biological keys to protection from a single-celled trypanosome parasite that causes both African sleeping sickness in people and a wasting disease in cattle, brought together a range of high-tech tools and field observations to address a critical affliction of some of the world’s poorest people.

With increased surveillance and control, sleeping sickness infections in people have dropped ten-fold in the last 13 years, from an estimated 300,000 cases a year in 1998 to some 30,000 in 2009, with the disease eventually killing more than half of those infected. Although best known for causing human sleeping sickness, the trypanosome parasite’s most devastating blow to human welfare comes in an animal form, with sick, unproductive cattle costing mixed crop-livestock farmers and livestock herders huge losses and opportunities. The annual economic impact of ‘nagana,’ a common name in Africa for the form of the disease that affects cattle (officially known as African animal trypanosomiasis), has been estimated at US$4–5 billion.

In a vast tsetse belt across Africa, stretching from Senegal on the west coast to Tanzania on the east coast, and from Chad in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, the disease each year renders millions of cattle too weak to plow land or to haul loads, and too sickly to give milk or to breed, before finally killing off most of those infected. This means that in much of Africa, where tractors and commercial fertilizers are scarce and prohibitively expensive, cattle are largely unavailable for tilling and fertilizing croplands or for producing milk and meat for families. The tsetse fly and the disease it transmits are thus responsible for millions of farmers having to till their croplands by hand rather than by animal-drawn plow.

‘The two genes discovered in this research could provide a way for cattle breeders to identify the animals that are best at resisting disease when infected with trypanosome parasites, which are transmitted to animals and people by the bite of infected tsetse flies,’ said senior author Steve Kemp, a geneticist on joint appointment with the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the University of Liverpool.

This genetics of disease resistance research was led by scientists from ILRI in Africa and from the UK universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, and involved researchers from other institutions in Britain, Ireland and South Korea.

The researchers drew on the fact that while the humped cattle breeds characteristic of much of Africa are susceptible to disease-causing trypanosome parasites, a humpless West African breed, called the N’Dama, is not seriously affected by the disease. Having been domesticated in Africa some 8,000 or more years ago, this most ancient of African breeds has had time to evolve resistance to the parasites. This makes the N’Dama a valued animal in Africa’s endemic regions. On the other hand, N’Dama cattle tend to be smaller, to produce less milk, and to be less docile than their bigger, humped cousins.

African agriculturalists of all kinds would like to see the N’Dama’s inherent disease resistance transferred to these other more productive breeds, but this is difficult without precise knowledge of the genes responsible for disease resistance in the N’Dama. Finding these genes has been the ‘Holy Grail’ of a group of international livestock geneticists for more than two decades, but the genetic and other biological pathways that control bovine disease resistance are complex and have proven difficult to determine.

The PNAS paper is thus a landmark piece of research in this field. The international and inter-institutional team that made this breakthrough did so by combining a range of genetic approaches, which until now have largely been used separately.

‘This may be the first example of scientists bringing together different ways of getting to the bottom of the genetics of a very complex trait,’ said Kemp. ‘Combined, the data were like a Venn diagram overlaying different sets of evidence. It was the overlap that interested us.’

They used these genetic approaches to distinguish differences between the ‘trypano-tolerant’ (humpless) N’Dama, which come from West Africa, and ‘trypano-susceptible’ (humped) Boran cattle, which come from Kenya, in East Africa. The scientists first identified the broad regions of their genomes controlling their different responses to infection with trypanosome parasites, but this was insufficient to identify the specific genes controlling resistance to the disease. So the scientists began adding layers of information obtained from other approaches. They sequenced genes from these regions to look for differences in those sequences between the two breeds.

The team at Edinburgh conducted gene expression analyses to investigate any differences in genetic activity in the tissues of the two cattle breeds after sets of animals of both breeds were experimentally infected with the parasites. Then, the ILRI group tested selected genes in the lab. Finally, they looked at the genetics of cattle populations from all over Africa.

Analyzing the vast datasets created in this research presented significant computational challenges. Andy Brass and his team in the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester managed to capture, integrate and analyze the highly complex set of biological data by using workflow software called ‘Taverna,’ which was developed as part of a UK e-Science initiative by Manchester computer scientist Carole Goble and her ‘myGrid’ team.

‘The Taverna workflows we developed are capable of analyzing huge amounts of biological data quickly and accurately,’ said Brass. ‘Taverna’s infrastructure enabled us to develop the systematic analysis pipelines we required and to rapidly evolve the analysis as new data came into the project. We’re sharing these workflows so they can be re-used by other researchers looking at different disease models. This breakthrough demonstrates the real-life benefits of computer science and how a problem costing many lives can be tackled using pioneering E-Science systems.’

To bolster the findings, population geneticists from ILRI and the University of Dublin examined bovine genetic sequences for clues about the history of the different breeds. Their evidence confirmed that the two genes identified by the ILRI-Liverpool-Manchester groups were likely to have evolved in response to the presence of trypanosome parasites.

‘We believe the reason the N’Dama do not fall sick when infected with trypanosome parasites is that these animals, unlike others, have evolved ways to control the infection without mounting a runaway immune response that ends up damaging them,’ said lead author Harry Noyes, of the University of Liverpool. ‘Many human infections trigger similarly self-destructive immune responses, and our observations may point to ways of reducing such damage in people as well as livestock.’

This paper, said Kemp, in addition to advancing our understanding of the cascade of genes that allow Africa’s N’Dama cattle to fight animal trypanosomiasis, reaffirms the importance of maintaining as many of Africa’s indigenous animal breeds (as well as plant/crop varieties) as possible. The N’Dama’s disease resistance to trypanosome parasites is an example of a genetic trait that, while not yet fully understood, is clearly of vital importance to the continent’s future food security. But the continued existence of the N’Dama, like that of other native ‘niche’ African livestock breeds, remains under threat.

With this new knowledge of the genes controlling resistance to trypanosomiasis in the N’Dama, breeders could screen African cattle to identify animals with relatively high levels of disease resistance and furthermore incorporate the genetic markers for disease resistance with markers for other important traits, such as high productivity and drought tolerance, for improved breeding programs generally.

If further research confirms the significance of these genes in disease resistance, a conventional breeding program could develop a small breeding herd of disease-resistant cattle in 10–15 years, which could then be used over the next several decades to populate Africa’s different regions with animals most suited to those regions. Using genetic engineering techniques to achieve the same disease-resistant breeding herd, an approach still in its early days, could perhaps be done in four or five years, Kemp said. Once again, it would be several decades before such disease-resistant animals could be made available to most smallholder farmers and herders on the continent.

‘So it’s time we got started,’ said Kemp.


See this news and related background material at ILRI’s online press room.

The International Livestock Research Institute (www.ilri.org) works with partners worldwide to help poor people keep their farm animals alive and productive, increase and sustain their livestock and farm productivity, and find profitable markets for their animal products. ILRI’s headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya; we have a principal campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and 13 offices in other regions of Africa and Asia. ILRI is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (www.cgiar.org), which works to reduce hunger, poverty, illness and environmental degradation in developing countries by generating and sharing relevant agricultural knowledge, technologies and policies. This research is focused on development, conducted by a Consortium (http://consortium.cgiar.org) of 15 CGIAR centres working with hundreds of partners worldwide, and supported by a multi-donor Fund (www.cgiarfund.org).

The University of Liverpool (www.liv.ac.uk) is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organizations valued at more than £110 million annually.

The University of Manchester (www.manchester.ac.uk), also a member of the Russell Group, is the largest single-site university in the UK. It has 22 academic schools and hundreds of specialist research groups undertaking pioneering multi-disciplinary teaching and research of worldwide significance. According to the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the University of Manchester is now one of the country’s major research universities, rated third in the UK in terms of ‘research power’. The university has an annual income of £684 million and attracted £253 million in external research funding in 2007/08.

Greener pastures and better breeds could reduce carbon ‘hoofprint’

Baoshan Community Dairy Feeding Centre

Cows at the Boashan Community Dairy Feeding Centre, in Yunnan Province, China (photo credit: ILRI / Mann).

A new study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) finds reductions in greenhouse gasses could be worth a billion dollars to poor livestock farmers if they could sell saved carbon on international markets.

Greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock operations in tropical countries—a major contributor to climate change—could be cut significantly by changing diets and breeds and improving degraded lands, according to a new study published today in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And as an added bonus, scientists found the small changes in production practices could provide a big payoff by providing poor farmers with up to US$1.3 billion annually in payments for carbon offsets.

'These technologically straightforward steps in livestock management could have a meaningful effect on greenhouse gas build-up, while simultaneously generating income for poor farmers,' said Philip Thornton, of ILRI, who co-authored the paper with ILRI’s Mario Herrero.  

Livestock enterprises contribute about 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, largely through deforestation to make room for livestock grazing and feed crops, the methane ruminant animals give off, and the nitrous oxide emitted by manure. Many worry these greenhouse gas emissions could grow due to increased livestock production to meet surging demand for meat and milk in developing countries.

Thornton and Herrero believe there are options readily available to prevent up to 417 million tons of carbon dioxide expected to be produced by livestock in tropical countries by 2030—a sum representing a savings of about 7% of all livestock-related global greenhouse gas emissions.

'Of course,' says Thornton, 'if we also manage to bring down consumption of meat and milk in rich countries, the amount of carbon saved will be even greater.' The difference between livestock production in rich and poor countries is a big concern to Thornton. 'We conducted this study to try to disentangle some of the complexities surrounding livestock systems, particularly those in developing countries. Livestock systems are not all the same, and there are large differences in their carbon footprint, their importance for the poor, and their mitigation potential.'

Most reductions of livestock-produced greenhouse gases would have to come from the more than half a billion livestock keepers in tropical countries. But the study finds that these struggling farmers could be motivated to adopt more climate-friendly practices.

'It would be a useful incentive if these farmers were allowed to sell the reductions they achieve as credits on global carbon markets,' Thornton said. 'We found that at US$20 per ton—which is what carbon was trading for last week on the European Climate Exchange—poor livestock keepers in tropical countries could generate about US$1.3 billion each year in carbon revenues.' Although carbon payments would not amount to a lot more income for each individual farmer (such payments might represent an increase in individual income of up to 15%), such payments should provide a tipping point for many smallholders considering intensifying their livestock production.

According to the ILRI study, livestock-related greenhouse gas reductions could be quickly achieved in tropical countries by modifying production practices, such as switching to more nutritious pasture grasses, supplementing diets with even small amounts of crop residues or grains, restoring degraded grazing lands, planting trees that both trap carbon and produce leaves that cows can eat, and adopting more productive breeds.

'We wanted to consider the impact in tropical countries because they are at the epicentre of a livestock revolution,' said Herrero. 'We expect consumption of milk and meat to roughly double in the developing world by 2050, which means it’s critical to adopt sustainable approaches now that contain and reduce the negative effects of livestock production, while allowing countries to realize the benefits, such as better nutrition and higher incomes for livestock-producing households.'

Herrero and Thornton said that changing diets and breeds could increase the amount of milk and meat produced by individual animals, thus reducing emissions because farmers would require fewer animals. For example, in Latin America, they note that switching cows from natural grasslands to pastures sown with a more nutritious grass called Brachiaria can increase daily milk production and weight gain by up to three-fold. This increase, they said, means fewer animals are needed to satisfy demand. In addition, Brachiaria also absorbs, or 'sequesters,' more carbon than degraded natural grasslands.

'Even if only about 30% of livestock owners in the region switch from natural grass to Brachiaria, which is what we consider a plausible adoption rate, that alone could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 30 million tons per year,' Thornton said.

Herrero and Thornton also said that, for a given level of demand, fewer animals would be needed if more farmers supplemented grazing with feed consisting of crop residues (often called 'stover'), such as the leaves and stalks of sorghum or maize plants, or with grains. In addition, they note there is the potential to boost production per animal by crossbreeding local with genetically improved breeds, the latter of which can provide more milk and meat than traditional breeds while emitting less methane per kilo of meat or milk produced.

Planting trees that have agricultural and feed uses, a practice known as 'agroforestry,' has the benefit of reducing feed costs for animals, while the trees themselves absorb carbon. Herrero and Thornton found that of the 33 million tons of carbon dioxide that could be reduced through wider use of agroforestry in livestock operations, almost two-thirds of it—72%—would come from the 'carbon sequestration' effects of the trees.

Carols Seré, ILRI’s Director General, said Thornton and Herrero’s work usefully steers the discussion of livestock’s contribution to climate change from blunt criticism of the impact of farm animals to meaningful efforts to address the environmental consequences of their increased production.

'There is a tendency today to simply demonize livestock as a cause of climate change without considering their importance, particularly for poor farmers in the developing world,' Seré said.

'Most of the farmers we work with have a relatively small environmental footprint,' he added, 'and they are intensely dependent on their animals for food, for income, and even as "engines" to plough their fields and transport their crops. What these farmers need are technological options and economic incentives that help them intensify their production in sustainable ways. Carbon payments would be a welcome additional incentive inducing such changes in smallholder livestock production.'

Key messages from the publication
(1) The impact of any given livestock intervention on mitigating total greenhouse gas emissions will be small.
To make a difference, we will need to implement many interventions and do so simultaneously. Mitigating the impacts of livestock systems on climate change will require taking a series of small incremental steps and implementing a wide range of different mitigation strategies to reduce carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

(2) We should aim for fewer, better fed, farm and herd animals.
Apart from strategies to sequester greater amounts of carbon, all strategies for mitigating greenhouse gases appear to require the intensification of animal diets and a reduction in animal numbers to produce the same volume of meat and milk.

(3) Ways to mitigate greenhouse gases in tropical livestock systems are technologically straightforward.
Apart from strategies to sequester carbon, all strategies for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions tested could be implemented at farm level with the appropriate economic and other incentives for resource-poor farmers.

(4) GHG mitigation strategies can be pro-poor.
Paying small-scale livestock farmers and herders for practices that help sequester carbon (under REDD or similar incentive schemes), although not trivial in management terms, would help smallholders generate greater and more diversified incomes.

(5) Mitigation strategies can also support strategies to help smallholders adapt to climate change.
Some interventions aiming to reduce greenhouse gases will also serve to help people cope with more unpredictable and extreme weather.

(6) All strategies will need to include appropriate incentives for smallholders.
A major incentive for small-scale livestock producers to change their production practices will be the increasing demand for livestock products in developing countries. But many smallholders will also need other economic incentives and more user-friendly technologies in order to make even straightforward changes in their production practices. 

Read the whole paper at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: The potential for reduced methane and carbon dioxide emissions from livestock and pasture management in the tropics, 6 September 2010.

New paper quantifies the global role of livestock as a nutrient source for the first time

Mario Herrero, systems analyst at the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is co-author of a paper to be published today in the prestigious US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper quantifies the role of livestock as a nutrient source globally for the first time. The paper, ‘A high-resolution assessment on global nitrogen flows in cropland’, reports results of an investigation of the sources of nitrogen for crop production globally. ‘We quantified the role of manure in different continents and in different agricultural production systems,’ says Herrero. ‘We found large differences in manure levels. In large parts of Africa and South Asia, which have the greatest numbers of poor people in the world, most of whom make a living by farming, manure can represent 35-40% of the nitrogen needed for growing crops, making it a major source of needed nutrients in these regions,’ Herrero. Elsewhere, he explained, where farmers have ready access to chemical fertilizers, manure plays a less important role in crop production. The paper shows that livestock manure is as important a nutrient contributor as (and in some regions, is even more important than) the stalks, leaves and other wastes of crops after harvesting, which are often fed back into soils to help enrich them for the next cropping season. But those crop residues are becoming increasingly scarce due to their competitive uses. And one of the biggest competitive uses is as animal feed. Many farmers are loath to put their crop residues back into their soils because they need them to feed their animals. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, crop wastes represent between 40 and 60% of all the feed for the cattle, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals raised. ‘Crop residues are a hugely important resource,’ says Herrero. ‘And needing to keep these resources to feed their animals stops many farmers from adopting conservation agriculture, which requires putting the residues back into the ground.’ Of course, the animals consuming crop residues deposit their manure on the ground. This analysis by Hererro and colleagues suggests that, globally speaking, livestock manure and crop residues make similar levels of contributions to nutrient levels. ‘In developing countries,’ he says, ‘the best solution is often for a farmer to feed her crop residues to her ruminant animals and then fertilize her soils with the manure they produce.’ That’s because these farm animals provide poor farmers with many other essentials as well, including highly nourishing animal-source foods for the household, much-needed year-round cash incomes, and draught power, transport and other inputs for successful cropping. ‘The bad news,’ says Herrero, ‘is that the amount of manure we have in Africa and South Asia is not nearly enough to increase levels of crop production. And to feed the world’s growing human populations, we’re going to have to increase the amount of nutrients we’re providing the soils in these regions.’

Making research matter: Seven ways to link knowledge to action

Influential PNAS chooses ILRI and partner research on 'linking knowledge with action' for its latest issue (31 March 2009).

Making research matter Institutionalization of systems approaches and scaling out of project results arguably remain our greatest challenges in more successfully linking knowledge with action resulting in sustainable poverty reduction.

Is that true? A new paper published by Patti Kristjanson and colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, thinks it is and argues for seven principles that might help us institutionalize and scale out what works best.

Researchers have traditionally focused on research outputs–articles, methods, technologies, trainings–rather than research outcomes. But it is by jointly defining with project partners the desired outcomes of a project–including changed behaviors, policies, and practices–that links between knowledge and action can be discerned and strengthened.

A group of 19 ILRI and partner researchers have analyzed a broad range of projects using a framework that discloses some helpful lessons. The synthesis of results published in PNAS is entitled ‘Linking International Agricultural Research Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development’.

Patti Kristjanson, lead author of the paper, says, ‘This article describes ideas, principles and approaches I wish I had been exposed to when I began leading research teams tackling agricultural development and poverty issues across Africa 20 years ago’.

The researchers applied an innovation framework to sustainable livestock development research projects in Africa and Asia. The focus of these projects included pastoral systems, poverty and ecosystems services mapping, market access by the poor, fodder and natural resource management, and livestock parasite drug resistance. The framework arose from a series of propositions advanced at  a workshop organized by the Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability of the US National Academies, led by Bill Clark who directs Harvard University’s Sustainability Science Program.  

So what helps to close gaps between knowledge and action? What helps take research knowledge beyond the realm of ‘knowledge for knowledge sake’ and convert it to changes in behaviour, practices, policies, institutions and uptake of new technologies?

“The framework is important because it is pragmatic and results oriented. In applying this framework we found that strategies key to closing gaps between knowledge and action include: combining different kinds of knowledge, learning and bridging approaches, strong and diverse partnerships that level the playing field, and building capacity to innovate and communicate” said Bill Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In examining what approaches, processes, tools and methods helped this very diverse range of project teams be successful in linking knowledge with action, the researchers found that 7 broad principles apply.

 How to ensure success or failure of getting your research into use

  1. Problem definition.
    DO: Define the problem to be solved in a collaborative and user-driven manner.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Separate yourselves (scientists who produce knowledge) from the decision-makers who use it.
  2. Program management.
    DO: Adopt a project orientation and organization and appoint dynamic leaders accountable for achieving user-driven goals.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Let your ‘study of the problem’ displace ‘creation of solutions’.
  3. Boundary spanning.
    DO: Use ‘boundary-spanning’ organizations, individuals and actions to help bridge gaps between research and research-user communities, construct informal arenas that foster producer-user dialogues, develop joint ‘rules of engagement’ and define products jointly.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Allow dominance by groups committed to the status quo.
  4. Systems integration.
    DO: Recognize that scientific research is just one ‘piece of the puzzle’ and apply systems-oriented strategies.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Don’t engage partners best positioned to help transform knowledge into useful strategies, policies, interventions or technologies.
  5. Learning orientation.
    DO: Design your project as much for learning as for knowing and to be frankly experimental, expect and embrace failures to learn from them throughout the project’s life.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Punish or fail to fund or reward risk-taking managers
  6. Continuity with flexibility.
    DO: Strengthen links between organizations and individuals operating locally, building strong networks and innovation/response capacity.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Leave development of communication strategies and products to the communication experts to do and development of research products for the researchers to do.
  7. Manage asymmetries of power.
    DO:  Level the playing field by generating hybrid, co-created knowledge.
    HOW TO FAIL?: Don’t deal with the often large (and largely hidden) asymmetries of power felt by stakeholders.

Boundary spanning
Boundary-spanning work takes place between two or more groups that work to different standards and objectives (e.g. basic scientists evaluated by peers versus action people who are validated by political processes). Boundary objects are joint creations at the interface of communities (e.g. models, maps, assessments, contracts, posters). Even more important than ‘boundary-spanning organizations’ are boundary-spanning individuals and efforts. Having said that, individuals work within institutional frameworks, and these need to be supportive of such work (or at the very least, not block it). We need to better understand what kinds of institutional change, if any, encourage or accelerate boundary work. As boundary-spanning activities, behaviors and approaches can be learned, developing courses and training materials in this area may profit research for development. These are environments where partners come together to solve problems and create joint outputs and reach agreement as to new rules of engagement that encourage and support creativity and innovation.

Tools and processes for boundary spanning. Examples of tools and processes that can help span boundaries efficiently and effectively via collaborative efforts include: outcome mapping (<http://www.outcomemapping.ca>), participatory impact pathway analysis (Douthwaite et al, 2003), farmer impact assessment workshops (Kristjanson et al, 2002), challenge dialogue process (<http://www.innovationexpedition.com>), policy evaluation framework (Cohan et al, 1994), adaptive management (www.adaptivemanagement.net), policy-focused assessment process (Schegara and Furrow 2001), joint fact-finding (<http://www.beyondintractability.org/>), value of information approach (Yokota and Thompson, 2004), institutional histories (<http://www.ciat.cgiar.org/riiweb/>), negotiation support (van Noordwijk et al, 2001), and appreciative inquiry (<http://www.cgiar-ilac.org>). ILRI’s community facilitator-researcher approach is another useful model (Nkedianye et al, 2008).

Systems integration
One way to produce both international public goods (those with significance across borders) and local poverty impacts is for research projects to engage local partners in multiple strategically selected sites to ensure the knowledge generated can be extrapolated more broadly. Does mission-oriented research always require a systems approach (e.g. involving public- and private-sectors, non-governmental organizations, community members, scientists, and policymakers)? All our case studies suggest the answer is yes.

There is certainly a role in sustainability science for both traditional, curiosity-driven research as well as for context-specific problem solving-so long as both are conducted within a larger framework that ensures rigor and usefulness. Many scientists fear that their adopting a systems approach will reduce their comparative advantage (e.g., in-depth knowledge of a disciplinary field) and lead to their spending all their time on partnership building and other processes. This risk is real. Our case studies all point to the need to use rigorous processes, ‘tried and tested’ tools, and world-class expertise in facilitating stakeholder engagement, building teams, and establishing ways to measure and communicate impacts and outcomes.

Learning orientation
All organizations interested in transforming themselves (or their self-perceptions) from knowledge producers to knowledge learners face challenges in doing so. Management must support a learning culture and provide incentives for adopting learning approaches, as it has at ILRI, where research performance criteria now include collaborative partnerships and communication outputs beyond scientific journal articles. But ILRI and other institutions ambitious to transform themselves into learning cultures need to go further in supporting and rewarding failures (as often encouraged in private sector research). Initiatives are needed to fund collaborative teams experimenting with different learning approaches to find those that help them link knowledge with action. A cultural and institutional environment that discourages risk taking and finds failures generally unacceptable adds considerably to the challenge of taking a learning-based approach. Convening the right team and committing to co-learning and co-producing ‘hybrid’ knowledge (e.g. a combination of indigenous and scientific knowledge) for action at the beginning of the project is absolutely critical to success. ILRI’s  pastoral project is a good example of how institutional ‘protection’ is needed to truly encourage innovative and risk-taking behavior; ILRI management and large external financial support effectively provided a safe space in the sense that the team was protected from external criticism concerning a livestock institute working on wildlife conservation issues.

The issue of improving incentives and rewards for individuals that are successful ‘boundary spanners’ arose in all the case studies. A critical challenge to institutionalizing boundary spanning functions within an organization is to do so while maintaining flexibility to adjust and organize according to constantly changing needs for specific information products. Many institutions are not eager to invest in boundary functions (e.g. workshops, forums, reports) that are perceived to be not a core part of their mission, nor do government or private funders want to invest in the creation of freestanding boundary organizations. We also saw ‘informal communities’ of actors who play no explicit role in the system-often making one-on-one connections between explicit actors who otherwise might not meet-creating key relationships. Because of their ‘stealth’ nature, these are very difficult to identify, yet can be important for successful boundary-spanning, and the links from knowledge to action, to occur.

We believe that projects aiming to improve livelihoods in sustainable ways will increase their likelihood of being successful if they incorporate most if not all of these seven propositions. The working paper explores some of the tools, processes, approaches and strategies that can help research teams apply these principles.

The good news is that these ILRI-partner results indicate that boundary-spanning work is most effective when it is regularized yet flexible and when it enlists the support of informal communities of actors. More research is needed on what kinds of institutional change are likely to encourage and accelerate boundary work, what kind of incentives are needed to encourage individuals to pursue such work, and what kinds of courses and training materials will build capacity in this area.

Cohan D, Stafford RK, Scheraga JD, Herrod S (1994) The Global Climate Policy Evaluation Framework. Air and Waste Management Association: Pittsburg, PA. <

Douthwaite B, Kuby T, van de Fliert E, Schulz S (2003) Impact Pathway Evaluation: An approach for achieving and attributing impact in complex systems. Agricultural Systems 78: 243-265.

Kristjanson P et al. (2008) Linking international agricultural research knowledge with action for sustainable poverty alleviation: What works? Joint Center for International Development and International Livestock Research Institute Working Paper, CID Faculty Working Paper 08-173 (Cambridge: Harvard University CID and ILRI) <

Kristjanson P, Place F, Franzel S, Thornton P (2002) Assessing research impact on poverty: The importance of farmers’ perspectives. Agricultural Systems 72:73-92.

Nkedianye D et al. (2008) Linking knowledge with action and alleviating poverty sustainably using researcher-community-facilitators to span boundaries: Lessons from the Maasai in East Africa. Joint Center for International Development and International Livestock Research Institute Working Paper, CID Faculty Working Paper 08-174 (Cambridge: Harvard University CID and ILRI). <
http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidwp/ >

Schegara J D, Furlow J (2001) From Assessment to Policy: Lessons Learned from the U.S. National Assessment. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 7(5):1227-1246.

van Noordwijk M, Tomich T, Verbist B (2001) Negotiation support models for integrated natural resource management in tropical forest margins. Conservation Ecology 5(2):21.  <

Yokota F, Thompson K (2004) Value of information literature analysis: A review of applications in health risk management. Medical Decision Making, Vol.24, No.3:187-298.

The geography of poverty in Kenya

Prestigious PNAS chooses ILRI and partner research on the ‘geography of poverty in Kenya’ for its cover article that leads a special feature on world poverty (23 Oct 2007) highlighting innovative work of exceptional significance.

Cover image of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Vol. 104. No 43. Copyright (2007) National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. Reprinted with permission.

This joint research investigates the link between poverty incidence and geographical conditions within rural areas in Kenya.

The article, ‘Spatial determinants of poverty in rural Kenya’, is one of a series of research articles in PNAS’s Poverty and Hunger Special Feature focusing on poverty and sustainability science in developing countries. The ILRI paper analyses how geography determines welfare levels in rural Kenya and demonstrates why strategies targeting provincial level poverty reduction are needed to achieve broadscale development.

PNAS Poverty and Hunger Special Feature

African exceptionalism dominates development needs today
‘When we began to put together this special feature on poverty and sustainability science, we sought significant science-based research and perspectives on poverty worldwide. However, the six articles that have emerged from a lengthy solicitation, preparation, and review process, with one exception, all focus on sub-Saharan Africa.’

‘(This) serves to provide the latest evidence for an African exceptionalism that dominates the development needs of today.’

‘Briefly stated, all developing country regions have shown marked improvement in key indicators of poverty, health, economy, and food, except for sub-Saharan Africa.’

‘Understanding African exceptionalism and contributing to its reduction is one of the grand challenges of sustainability science.’

— R.W. Kates and P. Dasgupta, African poverty: A grand challenge for sustainability science

Geographical determinants of poverty in Kenya
ILRI’s research article ‘Spatial determinants of poverty in rural Kenya’ finds that poverty varies significantly and spatially within provinces, with some geographical variables important for reducing poverty in certain areas and not in others. This finding suggests that pro-poor policies need to be targeted to provincial levels rather than designed for blanket application across the country as a whole.

The latter fail to address the specific causes of poverty in different geographical areas. This analysis explores links among empirical data on poverty prevalence, inequality and population density. It uses widely different types of data from many sources, including socio-economic and environmental data, and identifies many geographical factors that influence poverty within provinces.

The authors found that distance/travel time to public resources as well as soil type, land elevation, type of land use, and demographic variables were key in explaining spatial patterns of poverty.

Having identified important poverty determinants, the researchers, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Kenya’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), World Resources Institute (WRI) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), then generated simulations to predict how changes in the levels of the various determinants would reduce or increase poverty.

ILRI scientist and lead author of the study, Paul Okwi, says:

‘Our policy simulations explored the impacts of various interventions on poverty at various locations.’

‘The results indicate that improved access to roads and improved soil fertility would significantly reduce poverty.’

‘While building roads is a long-term undertaking, improvements in soil could be made relatively quickly, with big impacts on alleviating rural poverty.’

‘Our analysis also shows that communities living in Kenya’s rangelands are likely to have the poorest access to roads and services and the poorest infrastructure in the country’ says Okwi.

Applications in and beyond Kenya
‘Developing better local-level understanding of poverty determinants, together with knowledge about how household level factors and broader national policies affect household welfare, will help policymakers and development practitioners help the poor better their livelihoods and welfare.’

‘It’s clear that combating poverty will require responses targeted to individual areas, rather than blanket responses’ says ILRI agricultural economist and co-author of the paper, Patti Kristjanson.

‘A similar study is already being conducted in Uganda and will soon be done in Tanzania. Results of the Kenya and Uganda studies are being analysed by policymakers revising the poverty reduction programs of those countries.’

Pastoral areas in greatest need
While this analysis helps explain some of the geographic determinants of poverty, there is a need to incorporate information from other data sources such as livestock and agricultural censuses, to refine the analysis.

ILRI’s Kristjanson says:

‘It’s clear, for example, that the design and implementation of effective policies to alleviate poverty among poor livestock keepers needs to be revisited.’

‘There is critical need to focus on the causes of poverty in this region’s vast pastoral areas.’

‘Policies that help build markets, health clinics and roads are critical in these areas’, says Kristjanson.

What is ‘sustainability science’?

A new scientific approach to development is emerging in think tanks in North America and elsewhere. It goes by the somewhat awkward name of ‘sustainability science’ and ambitiously aims to bring together understanding in several widely different scientific disciplines to get research used for sustainable development of poor communities and countries.

A central problem in agricultural research for development is how to scale up successes to make a bigger difference for the poor. Sustainability science aims to provide new approaches for doing just that.

A leading group in this area is located at the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard’s Center for International Development. This group is led by William C Clark and Nancy Dickson, whose studies show that several centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), including ILRI, have long been at the forefront of applying ‘research into use’ approaches.

We recommend ILRI readers look through the several articles in the Poverty and Hunger Special Feature of the USA’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (23 October 2007), which exemplify new publications in this emerging multidisciplinary area.

ILRI and Harvard are preparing a paper documenting ILRI’s experience with this integrated scientific approach to development, which will be will be published as an ILRI Innovation Works discussion paper and posted on this website in future.

For more information see Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program website

Further information

Okwi, P.O., Ndeng’e, G., Kristjanson, P., Arunga, M., Notenbaert, A., Omolo, A. Henninger, N., Benson, D., Kariuki, P. and Owuor, J. (2007). Poverty and Hunger Special Feature: Spatial determinants of poverty in rural Kenya. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Vol. 104. No 43. pp 16769-16774.

The article, Spatial determinants of poverty in rural Kenya, is a publication of a project jointly implemented by Kenya’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and ILRI, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Link to the article on the PNAS website: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/104/43/16769

The authors & their affiliations
Paul O. Okwia, Godfrey Ndeng’eb, Patti Kristjansona, Mike Arungaa, An Notenbaerta, Abisalom Omoloa, Norbert Henningerc, Todd Bensond, Patrick Kariukia, and John Owuora
a. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), P.O. Box 30709, Nairobi 00100, Kenya;
b. Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), P.O. Box 30266, Nairobi 00100, Kenya;
c. World Resources Institute (WRI), Washington, DC 20002; and
d. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC 20006

ILRI vaccine advances published in February 2006 PNAS journal

Public-private partnership makes major step towards improving livestock health and reducing poverty.

The devastating effects of East Coast fever on the livelihoods of small-scale farmers may one day be a thing of the past as a team of international scientists moves closer towards the development of a vaccine.

“East Coast fever is an intractable problem that ravages cattle of the poor in Africa. The good news is that this can be solved by high-tech science and technological innovations, achievable through strategic partnerships’’. Evans Taracha – ILRI East Coast Fever Vaccine Project Leader

Every year, East Coast fever destroys the small farmer’s dream of escaping poverty in Africa. Killing more than a million cattle and costing some $200 million annually, this tick-borne disease rages across a dozen countries in eastern and central Africa. Now, an international team of scientists has taken the first major step toward a vaccine to prevent East Coast fever. Their work, published in the February 13-17 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows how genomics can generate pivotal new vaccines.

In the study, scientists from five institutions, including the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), identify five vaccine targets, or candidate proteins that could form the basis for an East Coast fever subunit vaccine. Based on combined bioinformatics analyses and lab tests, these proteins appear to provide a protective immune response to the disease. “This initiative took just three years, after many years of scientists trying other methods,” remarks Vishvanath Nene, former ILRI staff member, a study author and molecular biologist at TIGR. “It’s a huge jump forward.”

To make the jump, researchers used the genome sequence of the parasite responsible for East Coast fever. A tick-borne parasite, Theileria parva, causes the disease. When ticks infected with T. parva bite cattle, they transmit the parasite, launching the disease that typically kills cattle within a month. In July, 2005, TIGR led a research team that published T. parva’s genome sequence, representing roughly 4,000 genes, in Science.

In the current study, Nene, along with Malcolm Gardner and Claire Fraser-Liggett, also of TIGR, relied on known biology to search T. parva’s genome for potential vaccine proteins. First, scientists know that immunity to the parasite, and thus East Coast fever, emerges from immune system cells known as killer T cells. Second, they know that T. parva is an intracellular pathogen–it infects and secretes proteins inside cattle white blood cells, which become malignant. The white blood cell then unwittingly passes small fragments of the secreted parasitic proteins associated with a certain type if its own proteins along to its cell surface. And this is where a vaccine could come in: A vaccine made of the T. parva proteins found on the surface of host cells should trigger an immune response in cattle. Vaccinated cattle would then be protected from the parasite.

To find potential vaccine antigens, the TIGR researchers scanned T. parva’s entire genome for genes that make secreted proteins. In particular, they searched for genes that make a “secretion signal,” a telltale peptide sequence found at the start of secreted proteins. Sure enough, the scientists found some 400 T. parva genes containing the secretion signal. This set of genes provided a starting pool of candidate proteins. Based on further tests, the study’s research team, led by ILRI of Nairobi, Kenya, cloned 55 candidate antigen genes and screened those genes for response by killer T cells taken from cattle immune to East Coast fever. To complement TIGR’s gene selection strategy, ILRI also incorporated a random screen of T. parva DNA for vaccine candidates.

In total, the team found five candidate vaccine antigens. In lab tests, these antigens triggered a response from cattle immune killer T cells. Going a further step further, the scientists inoculated cattle with these antigens and then gave the cattle a potentially lethal dose of T. parva. When compared with control animals, vaccinated cattle showed significantly stronger immune response to the parasite.

“This study is a true milestone,” says Fraser-Liggett, president of TIGR. “It’s one of the first to take advantage of genomic technologies and build a test vaccine using immune killer T cells as a screening reagent.” In addition to TIGR and ILRI, the research team included scientists from: the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Brussels; the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics in Oxford; Sanofi Pasteur in Toronto; the University of Edinburgh; and Merial SAS, an international animal health company. ILRI and Merial have partnered to develop a vaccine against East Coast fever.

By using genomics to understand and fight T. parva, scientists may make advances against related parasites that cause malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases in which killer T cells also play a role in immunity. What’s more, because T. parva launches a cancer-like illness inside the white blood cells of cattle, it may provide a model system for understanding the mechanics of cancer biology.

But for Nene, who was born in Kenya and worked at ILRI for 15 years before coming to TIGR in 2001, the march against East Coast fever is significant reward, itself. “This disease takes an enormous toll on the local society and economy of rural areas across eastern and central Africa, including Maasai and other pastoral communities,” he says. In particular, East Coast fever kills cattle kept by families trying to rise out of poverty. If researchers are successful, Nene notes, the entire region will have new reason to hope for a better life. Evans Taracha, ILRI project leader, also highlights the importance of strategic research partnerships to overcome this and similar diseases.

TIGR’s portion of the PNAS study was funded independently by TIGR and by sub-contract from the Animal Health Program of the United Kingdom Department for International Development, with previous contributions from J. Craig Venter and the ILRI for the T. parva genome project.

ILRI scientist Simon Graham wins international ‘Promising Young Scientist’ award

Young scientist receives prestigious award at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)'s annual general meeting.

Simon Graham Award

Simon receives his awardSimon Graham, a veterinary immunologist at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), was bestowed the ‘Promising Young Scientist Award’ by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) on 7 December 2005 by Ian Johnson, CGIAR Chairman and World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development. This prestigious award was presented at the annual general meeting of the CGIAR, held in Marrakech, Morocco.

The award went to 33-year-old Graham for his research leading to the development of a sensitive and robust system for screening molecules that cause East Coast fever (ECF), a fatal disease of cattle in sub-Saharan Africa. Graham’s research, based at ILRI’s Nairobi laboratories, may also contribute to ongoing efforts to control tropical theileriosis, a cattle disease which puts 250 million cattle around the world at risk.

Simon Graham Dec 2005 During his first post-doctoral position at the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, Edinburgh, UK, in 1998, he developed an improved rapid screening and production of vaccines against the protozoan parasite Theileria annulata, which is responsible for tropical theileriosis.

In 2000, Graham joined a large multidisciplinary research team at ILRI whose goal is to develop a ‘subunit’ Simon At Workvaccine against the related protozoan parasite Theileria parva. (Subunit vaccines are based on molecular bits of parasites rather than whole parasites.) T. parva causes East Coast fever (ECF), which costs 11 countries of eastern, central and southern Africa US$300 million a year. ECF puts 28 million cattle at risk and annually kills 1 million animals, 90 percent of which are kept by poor dairy farmers and herders. There is a high demand from poor livestock owners for a cheap, effective, safe and easy-to-deliver subunit vaccine against this devastating disease of cattle.

Simon Graham and his ILRI team are working in collaboration with several centres of excellence, including the veterinary pharmaceutical giant Merial and a leading human vaccine research group at the University of Oxford, UK, to evaluate the ability of these molecules to protect cattle against ECF. Initial results are encouraging—there appears to be a significant association between an animal’s induction of killer T-cell responses and its levels of protection against development of disease. Graham’s results have within a short space of time had a major impact in moving the research close to its ultimate goal of producing a vaccine that will sustainably control not only ECF but also tropical theileriosis. The vaccine candidates identified by Graham have been filed with the US Patent & Trademark Office and the research is now being prepared for publication in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).