On the need for expanding sustainability frameworks and veterinary vision in developing countries

Divine bovine, painting by Karen Bezuidenhout.

A new science paper argues for broadening traditional approaches to livestock sustainability and veterinary vision in developing countries. Two of the three livestock science authors—Brian Perry and Tim Robinson—have formerly worked at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) while the third—Delia Grace—co-leads ILRI’s Animal and Human Health program.

The following statements are excerpted from their paper.

‘This paper explores sustainability with reference to livestock systems, reviews the threats to, and opportunities for, sustainability, and introduces the concept of including One Health as a supplement to the traditional three sustainability pillars of economics, society and environment when addressing livestock. Three case studies, drawn from recent experiences of the authors, provide concrete illustrations of concepts discussed using a novel analytical framework that includes sustainability and health trajectory thinking.

‘. . . In agriculture, sustainability frameworks usually have three components, or pillars, namely enhance environmental quality, sustain the economic viability of agriculture and enhance the quality of life for society. These are also adumbrated in the most recent expression of sustainability, manifest in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched in January 2016, which aims to end poverty, protect the planet  and ensure peace and prosperity for all (UN, 2016). . . .

[S]ome argue that these attempts to square the circle are unachievable and that sustainable intensification in the livestock sector is a contradiction in terms (Garnett et al., 2013); genuine sustainability can best be achieved through drastic reduction in livestock product consumption, and major shifts in the type of livestock products consumed (less muscle, more offal), along with limiting livestock production to pasture and byproducts: in effect, sustainable de-intensification (Röös et al., 2016; Swain, 2016).

‘While the environmental impacts of livestock are prominent in the cited frameworks, the negative health externalities, with impacts comparable in magnitude have been under-examined.

Many sustainability scientists might be surprised to hear the likely future impact of pandemics on the global economy, combining both the mortality cost and the losses in income was in the same range as that of climate change—although at the lower end of the possible scale (Fan et al., 2016). . . .

‘Negative implications, or threats to health sustainability, encompass the emerging, neglected and noncommunicable diseases. While most novel human diseases emerge from wildlife, the majority of high impact novel diseases involve livestock, and the economic losses from six major outbreaks of highly fatal zoonoses between 1997 and 2009 amounted to at least US$ 80 billion (World Bank, 2012). However, the health burden of the neglected endemic zoonoses is likely to be orders of magnitude greater than that of novel diseases, and many of these neglected zoonoses are also associated with livestock (Grace et al., 2017).

Livestock products are the food category most implicated as a cause of foodborne disease (Grace, 2015) and the health burden of foodborne disease has been recently shown to be comparable with that of the so-called ‘big three’ diseases that dominate development health spending (malaria, HIV-AIDs and tuberculosis) (Havelaar et al., 2015).

But again, this burden is likely to be dwarfed by the rising tide of non-communicable illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, which are also associated with livestock consumption. The intensive livestock sector is a major consumer of antimicrobials and likely a significant contributor to antimicrobial resistance in people (Robinson et al., 2016). One report suggests that by 2050 antimicrobial resistance will be killing more people than cancer (O’Neill, 2014) if we carry on as we are. . . .

The overall burden of animal disease is not accurately quantified, but there is little doubt that it is both enormous and largely borne by LMICs.

‘In Africa, diseases along with predation and drought cause the preventable deaths of one in four young ruminants and one in 10 adult ruminants each year (Grace et al., 2012). Even higher losses are seen in poultry. The global cost of livestock disease has been estimated in billions of dollars (Grace, 2014). As such, interventions that improve animal health would have two key contributions to health sustainability: first, they would decrease major negative externalities especially zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance and emerging diseases; second, they would greatly improve the efficiency of production and hence reduce the negative environmental impacts. Livestock are living entities, considered by many to have moral valence. Livestock disease not only has huge impacts on human health and economies but also is a major cause of poor animal welfare, and improving animal welfare would also generate substantial benefits to social sustainability. . . .

‘(Perry et al., 2013) proposed three global livestock disease and system trajectories, each of which face different risks to livestock health, each has different determinants of disease status and capacity to respond, and each requires different approaches to resolve them. The authors termed these trajectories the “worried well”, “hot spots” and “cold spots”.

The ‘worried well’ described the increasingly industrialised livestock systems of the western world, the ‘hot spots’ describes the progressively intensifying and increasingly market-orientated (but high risk) systems in many LMICs, and the ‘cold spots’ describes the traditional livestock-dependent smallholder and pastoralist systems in many LMICs. . . .

‘The quest for sustainability of these systems, especially from the perspective of human and animal health, is apparently elusive and difficult to reconcile with the massive anticipated growth in demand for livestock products, mainly in LMICs, and as well as the aspirations of poor livestock keepers for better lives. Nonetheless, a relatively uncontroversial proposition is that improving the health of livestock can contribute to many environmental, economic, social and health aspects of sustainability. But in the context of diverse livestock systems, improving the health and wellbeing of livestock may take many different paths, including, perhaps, dramatic reductions in the numbers of animals kept and significant changes in the ways their health needs are addressed.

Choice of the most appropriate options is challenged by the very different values of different animal health stakeholders, who we may broadly categorise as: the disease exterminators, the production enhancers, and the sustainable development advocates.

‘. . . A sustainability perspective challenges us to develop a new vision for veterinarians and other health providers in LMICs.

In the context of many millions of underserved livestock keepers, veterinarians must be problem solvers for animal health and welfare, able to work with a diversity of stakeholders and in diverse livestock systems.

‘The international veterinary profession needs to embrace and support this broader vision of veterinary education and mission. In conclusion, sustainability science offers important insights to analyse and improve livestock systems, and adding a One Health lens or perspective is strongly recommended to address unique challenges and opportunities.’

Read the whole paper in the science journal Animal: Review: Animal health and sustainable global livestock systems, by Brian Perry (formerly of ILRI), Tim Robinson (formerly of ILRI) and Delia Grace (ILRI program leader), published 10 Apr 2018.