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High-level roundtable reviews 45 years of livestock research and its future multi-functional and problem-solving role in sustainable development

ILRI News

‘Livestock production is a major component of the global food and agriculture system and has great potential to deliver a triple win of increased productivity, reduced emissions and carbon sequestration’, said Jonathan Wadsworth, agriculture specialist at the World Bank and principal advisor to the chair of the CGIAR System Council, at a high-level roundtable on the impact of livestock research on sustainable development that took place on 06 October 2021.

The roundtable discussion focused on the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)’s so-called Impact Book, which Wadsworth called an ‘honest and detailed examination of 46 years’ worth of research efforts’, one which provides valuable lessons on which to base future actions. 

This 700-page, highly referenced, volume, officially titled The Impact of the International Livestock Research Institute, provides the first evidence-based global estimates of the many scientific, economic, policy and capacity development impacts of livestock research in and for developing countries. 

Recurrent themes of the roundtable were the need to sustainably address food security and nutrition through livestock, increased awareness of livestock as an adaptation and resilience strategy to address the climate crisis, the growing centrality of the One Health approach, and the need to promote regionally appropriate approaches to livestock development.

‘The book doesn’t shy away from addressing failures and mistakes’, Wadsworth said, ‘and it helps us to understand the contradiction between research with strong scientific impact yet only weak development impact.' 

Former deputy director of ILRI John McIntire said that the strength of the new volume lies in how it can help guide future research. ‘What we’ve done is updated the existing studies, the studies that panned out with real impact, and brought them up to date with a more extensive literature review based on work that has evolved since the first half of the two institutions [ILRI's two predecessor organizations, the International Livestock Center for Africa and the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases] and then carried out in the second half in the existence of ILRI’, he said.

Jimmy Smith, director general of ILRI, discussed the book’s role as a reference point. ‘It will allow us to look at the future, not reinvent the wheel, but build on the research accomplishments of the past.’ He spoke of ILRI’s growth over the years, which now hosts campuses in South and Southeast Asian countries in addition to Africa. ‘The book is a compilation to facilitate access to the findings and therefore is an effort to get these findings into wider use’.

This 700-page book examines the decades-long history of livestock research and policy analysis.

‘The book is most relevant for defining the kinds of priorities for the future based on what has and what has not worked in the past’, said McIntire, lead editor of the book.

Wadsworth noted that requests for World Bank support for livestock have increased almost five-fold over the past decade. With increasing affluence, changing diets and population growth, livestock is one of the fastest-growing sectors in middle- and low-income countries. 

He looked back to the beginning of ILRI’s predecessor organization in Kenya, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), which was founded to address two animal disease priorities: East Coast fever and trypanosomiasis. Today, he noted, there are 17 priority and interacting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is also one major new factor: climate change. 

‘Quite simply, if we don’t urgently get a grip on climate change, many other priorities will quickly become redundant’, he said.

ILRI board chair Elsa Murano elaborated on the book’s analysis, pointing out how ‘it is also about the system-wide approach that CGIAR represents’.  She emphasized the importance of investments by the donor community in agricultural research and development for making differences long-term. ‘In a recent study on the impact of the 60-billion-dollar investment that donors have made in the CGIAR over the past 50 years, it has returned a 10-fold benefit. Ten-to-one,’ she reiterated. 

Highlighting the impact of the $1.8 billion investment in CG livestock research—most of which went to ILRI and its predecessor organizations—as a measure of accountability to donors is one byproduct of the book, said Jimmy Smith. As for the future of livestock research, he also stressed the importance of continuing to address controversies surrounding the livestock sector, like climate change. ‘Some of the controversies are driven by misleading information and sometimes false information and broad generalizations’, he said, while acknowledging that in the context of climate change, livestock is a contributor. Through rangelands management, and an increase of ruminant productivity, high-emission intensities of livestock products can yet be reduced.

The first roundtable panel considered the changing currents and overall impact of livestock research over the years. Delia Grace, who co-edited the book, described an overall shift in ILRI’s approach to food security.

 ‘We’ve moved off the farm and down towards the plate’, she explained, with greater emphasis on nutrition. Many people consume livestock, while fewer people are farmers. She attributed the shift to a growing recognition of the impacts of nutrition issues, stunting, and the potential for animal-source foods to meet global challenges like child malnutrition. 

According to Michael Peters of CIAT-Biodiversity Alliance, research on forage and feeds has also made its mark. Though a recent priority, he said that the topic has been well integrated into livestock under CGIAR research, and the result is evident in east Africa, where foragers have experienced a four-fold increase in seed sales over the last two years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Climate change, which played a marginal role in the first few decades of ILRI, has become a main focus of the organization’s research as well. The other major shift has been the development of the 'One Health' approach. 

Grace recalled the beginning of her career with ILRI examining specific diseases affecting productivity instead of the broader impacts of those diseases on human health, societies, economies and trade.  ‘Now everybody’s thinking about One Health’, she said. ‘We will never cure the planet, cure people, cure animals unless we join hand in hand—human health, animal health and ecosystem health.'

ILRI’s research has had a noticeable impact on development, noted Fikru Regassa, of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, during the second panel session. Ethiopia’s livestock master plan, which ILRI contributed to, reconciled livestock development with the global community’s carbon emission concerns by prioritizing the productivity of animals over their quantity. ILRI also helped the government address food shortage concerns and assisted in drafting numerous policy issues.

Another major development in livestock research has been realizing that cross-sectoral partnerships are crucial in making sure the research has an on-the-ground impact. The director general of the African Union Nwankpa Nick stressed the importance of partnerships between academia, regulatory agencies and the private sector, using East Coast fever as an example. He recalled hesitation from the private sector in vaccine production investments and subsequent failed attempts to produce one. It was not until the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested in facilities and equipment, he explained, that the partnerships were able to ‘put the system to work again’. 

The roundtable concluded with a look at the future of livestock research for development. Jessica Fanzo, of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, called for maintaining equity at the forefront of future research, policies and considerations. A less meat-heavy diet will be required in regions like Europe and North America, but livestock consumption in Africa will need to increase to meet the nutritional needs of its most vulnerable people. Fanzo suggested pushing high-income countries to lower their meat consumption through a wide range of hard and soft policies. 

But she warned that there was no one-size-fits-all answer to livestock issues. ‘The question is really about equity and how do we make policy recommendations based on localized, contextualized, public health needs and less about global aggregation and uniformity’, she said. 

A second launch of the ILRI impact book will be held on Wednesday, 3 Nov 2021. Register here to attend via Zoom. 

To download the book click here

Citation: McIntire, J. and Grace, D. (eds). 2020. The Impact of the International Livestock Research Institute. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI and Wallingford, UK: CABI.

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