Study of future of global food cites ways to advance and sustain livestock development


ILRI systems analyst Philip Thornton, participating in a media panel at the COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen, December 2009 (photo by ILRI / P Kristjanson).

Publication this week of 21 papers in a special open-access edition of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, part of a UK government Foresight study on the future of the global food industry, is causing a bit of a stir. The mass media are focusing on the wilder predictions, such as the possibility that we may be growing meat artificially, in vats, to feed the 9 billion-plus people expected to be alive at mid-century.

But more importantly, this major academic assessment of future global food supplies, led by John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist, argues that although big, the challenge of increasing global food supplies by as much as 70% in the next 40 years is not insurmountable and many of the papers are optimistic.

What is needed in addition to novel approaches to increasing food production, they say, are better uses of an array of low-tech to high-tech solutions, some already available, others needing refinement or a rethink for meeting the needs of the world's vast army of smallholder farmers.

As the Guardian article reports: 'Other papers suggest a radical rethink of global food production is needed to reduce its dependence on oil. Up to 70% of the energy needed to grow and supply food at present is fossil-fuel based which in turn contributes to climate change.

'"The need for action is urgent given the time required for investment in research to deliver new technologies to those that need them and for political and social change to take place," says the paper by Beddington.

'"Major advances can be achieved with the concerted application of current technologies and the importance of investing in research sooner rather than later to enable the food system to cope with challenges in the coming decades," says the paper led by the population biologist Charles Godfray of Oxford University.'

Regarding novel ideas on the horizon, in an interview with the Guardian, Philip Thornton, a scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Nairobi, and an author of one of the papers, said conventional animal breeding may be insufficient to meet the anticipated doubling of demand for dairy and meat products in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and to do so in sustainable ways. Thornton described two 'wild cards' that could transform global meat and milk production: 'One is artificial meat, which is made in a giant vat, and the other is nanotechnology, which is expected to become more important as a vehicle for delivering medication to livestock.'

But Thornton cautions against holding out hope for any one technology to solve our looming global food insecurity. He says we need to invest now in options across the whole gamut of agricultural development. Livestock development in poor countries, he says, 'will increasingly be affected by competition for natural resources, particularly land and water, as well as competition between food and feed, and by the need to operate in a carbon-constrained economy.' To help the world's 600 million small-scale farmers and herders increase their production and do so more efficiently, he says, will require continuing advances in the three pillars of livestock development–breeding, nutrition, and animal health.

The final Foresight report will be published later this year in advance of the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Read more at: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biology, Livestock production: recent trends, future prospects, by Philip Thornton.

The Guardian: Artificial meat? Food for thought by 2050, 16 August 2010

How livestock diseases and their control impact poor people

This themed issue of Philosophical Transactions B, provides an overview of some of the issues relating to infectious diseases of livestock.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the world is faced with a changing landscape of infectious diseases that affect man and animals. Most livestock pathogens that emerge and re-emerge are capable of being transmitted to man and an increasing number are distributed by insect vectors. Globalisation defines the world of pathogens and the recent emergence and spread of swine flu provides a topical illustration of the threats presented by zoonotic viruses that can be moved rapidly around the world by the occupants of our ‘global village’. Whilst distribution via air transport represents an extreme, the transmission of pathogens by insect vectors is increasingly linked to the effects climate change and new vector-borne diseases, such as bluetongue, are now occurring for the first time in Northern Europe.

However, old and persistent diseases remain in most parts of the world must be dealt with. Some, such as foot and mouth disease, present significant ongoing restrictions to national and international trade and may have devastating financial impacts when they are introduced in to FMD-free areas.

The future looks to be much, much more of the same. The scientific community will need to be fleet-of-foot to deal with some unexpected disease threats and the world of zoonotic infections will drive the animal and human disease research specialists to work closer together.

A ‘One Medicine’ way of working will be increasingly necessary to optimise control of disease at the livestock-man interface and all major livestock diseases will need to be considered for their potential to interrupt or damage the pipeline of food supplies – especially if effective control is lost.

This special issue includes articles by ILRI scientists Brian Perry and Delia Grace and another by  Solenne Costard et al. They describe the impacts of livestock diseases and their control on growth and development processes that are ‘pro-poor’.

Taking a value-chain approach that includes keepers, users and eaters of livestock, they identify diseases that are road blocks on ‘three livestock pathways out of poverty’. They discuss livestock impacts on poverty reduction and review attempts to prioritize the livestock diseases relevant to the poor. They note that a high impact of a disease does not guarantee high benefits from its control and recommend taking other factors into consideration, including technical feasibility and political desirability.

They conclude their paper by considering how we might better understand and exploit the roles of livestock and improved animal health by posing three speculative questions on the impact of livestock diseases and their control on global poverty:
(1) How can understanding livestock and poverty links help disease control?
(2) If global poverty reduction were the aim of a livestock disease control program, how would that program differ from our current model?
(3) How much of the impact of livestock diseases on poverty is due to disease control policies rather than the diseases themselves?