By Bernard Muthaka

While livestock contribute about 40 per cent of the value of agriculture and forms a crucial part of household wealth, experts now say keeping animals is spreading disease and polluting the environment like never before.

They say that as smallholder agriculture intensifies – driven by increasing population, urbanisation and climate changes, livestock keeping is exhibiting its good and bad sides, impinging on the environment, poverty, food security and human health.

A recent study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) says that zoonotic diseases (those transmitted to people from animals) that have recently emerged from animals make up to one-quarter of the infectious disease burden in low-income countries. Animal diseases that threaten people’s health directly include food-borne illnesses such as diarrhoea.

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There are other animal diseases such as the bird flu, SARS and sleeping sickness, which spread from their livestock to human populations. With rising middle class in many countries, there is increasing demand for meat, milk and eggs, leading to more intensive cattle and poultry farming.

Now ILRI says that agriculture practised by poor farmers in poor countries has not been oriented to achieving health outcomes.

“A consensus is growing that a disconnection between agriculture, health and nutrition is at least partly responsible for the disease burden associated with food and farming,” ILRI Director General Dr Jimmy Smith said, at a media briefing last week. Smith said that unlike poor countries where human diseases that spread from animals are largely neglected, rich countries are investing heavily in global surveillance and risk reduction activities.

“The problem is that many countries lack the veterinary staff, surveillance and other tools required to control diseases that come with this expansion,” he said.

Poor farmers

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Ironically, poor livestock farmers most predisposed to animal-borne diseases, rarely consume the livestock themselves, a source of nutrition that only the rich can afford.  The poor are left to compete with their animals for plant-based food.

The production of these animal proteins is itself expensive. Current estimates indicate that while livestock supply about 13 per cent of energy to the world’s diet, they consume one-half the world’s production of grains to do so.

By consuming feedstuffs that people could consume directly, such as grains and legumes, animals reduce the total amount of food available, says ILRI.

This has serious implications on global food security, with experts anticipating that the world needs a 50 to 70 per cent increase in food productivity to feed an additional two billion people by the year 2050.

Already, about a billion people in the world go to bed hungry, with about double that number suffering from what is known as “hidden hunger,” which is living a diet that fails to meet one’s nutritional needs.

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 Animal foods

Among the well-to-do, overconsumption of animal foods is the problem.  In African urban areas, one in three people is overweight or obese, meaning they are at greater risk from non-communicable diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Dr Smith says the challenges related to livestock keeping are steadily becoming a matter of concern in urban areas, with figures indicating that more people are today living in cities than rural areas.

Keeping animals in close confinement in urban areas

Some people have brought with them the livestock keeping practice, where due to lack of space, the animals are kept in close confinement in densely populated areas.

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ILRI Director General Dr Jimmy Smith argues that the challenges related to livestock keeping are steadily becoming a matter of concern in urban areas.

 Food security

He says that while urban livestock keeping improves food security, nutrition and health from livestock products, there are also risks since unsanitary conditions and weak infrastructure mean that livestock can be a source of pollution and disease.

ILRI experts feel that Africa suffers from the burden of neglected zoonoses, which the developed world is no longer paying much attention to.

 Human sickness

This is despite the fact that the   human sicknesses and deaths caused by them is much higher than that caused by emerging diseases such as bird flu.

“For the first time we are in a position to track an epidemic in real time, across risk surfaces to follow, and perhaps even anticipate its progress. We intend to intensify efforts towards tracking disease pathogens as they move among farms, processors and markets in place such as Nairobi,” says Smith.

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Food security zoonotic diseases Livestock ILRI