Chronic and acute hunger are on the rise, admit both the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Bank. Proclaiming itself to be a global technical agency created to fight hunger and poverty, the FAO admits, “as we approach a world of 10 billion people, we face the fact that since 2015 the numbers of undernourished and malnourished people have been growing. While there is no silver bullet to fix this problem, there is little doubt that we will need to use innovative solutions to produce more food, ensure access to it, and improve nutrition.” Perhaps the irony is lost on the leadership of FAO in this self-indictment of the organisation’s inability to handle the core issues. It is also a pointer towards the failure of the global inter-governmental institutions to address this most basic of human sufferings: hunger. They attribute the trend to various factors such as political conflicts in certain regions, socio-economic conditions, natural hazards, climate change etc., although an introspection into their own performance by the FAO and other global institutions would also be in order to be followed by quick course correction. Covid-19 cannot be held singularly responsible though it has exacerbated the problem across all economies through reduced incomes and disrupted supply chains.
Year 2020, now 2021 in certain pockets of the world, witnessed the severest increase in food insecurity and adverse impact on vulnerable households in recent years. Global food prices registered an increase of approximately 20% during 2020. Despite a positive supply outlook for almost all major commodities, prices have been volatile due to a combination of factors including export restrictions. Rising demand for feed grains for livestock production in Asia too has contributed to this volatility. Given that global food supplies are comfortably poised, export restrictions are unfathomable and could hurt food security in importing countries.
Feeding ten billion people by the year 2050 will be quite a challenge against the background of these developments where agriculture-driven growth is at risk. The outcome may be increased food insecurity, particularly so in the developing economies. Climate change compounds the risk in food insecure regions by adversely affecting crop yields. It indeed is a tragic irony against this background that one third of the food is wasted or lost. So, it is a moot question how we will feed – and feed well – the burgeoning population amidst the aftermath of Covid-19 and the continuing challenge and threats posed by climate change. To begin with, it is important that we do not dismiss pandemics as acts of God but acknowledge them as an outcome of human behaviour and its manifestation in the course of search for progress and development.
Livestock sector, in such a scenario, could play a much wider and more significant role. Livestock contribute substantially to global food systems, providing valuable nutritional benefits, supporting livelihoods, and strengthening the resilience of families and communities to environmental and other shocks. Animal products provide more than 60% of dietary protein in developed countries, compared to only about 23% in developing countries. There is, therefore, substantial room for expansion of livestock production in the emerging economies. Animal products offer several advantages over crops. For example, meat, eggs and milk, not being season dependent, can be produced year-round, unlike cereals, fruit and vegetables etc; animals, particularly small ones, can be slaughtered as the need arises – for food or income; and both milk and meat can be preserved – milk, as powder, clarified butter, curd, cheese etc., and meat, by drying, curing, smoking, salting and an endless array of value added products. So, it is worth an effort to evaluate the post pandemic developments in the livestock sector, especially its increased contribution to the food basket.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed underlying risks, fragilities, and inequities in global food systems. In fact, in recent decades, most of the disease outbreaks have originated in animals, creating a need for strong engagement of livestock systems in “One Health” initiatives. Countering the destabilizing forces of pandemics and climate change through better mitigation and preparedness efforts can see livestock systems contribute to a sustainable future by becoming greener, safer, and more equitable. Impacts of the current pandemic on livestock systems have ranged from restricting access to animal feed, breeding material, labour, and veterinary services on the input side to such serious bottlenecks at processing plants as to cause disposal of stock under severe distress. Mass culling on farms, especially in poultry, as falling market prices far exceeded costs of production, is one such example. Irrational fears of contracting the virus from animals pushed the poultry sector to a critical point. The pandemic, on the other hand, has also revealed the resilience of traditional, indigenous and extensive livestock systems that were less dependent on non-local inputs and external supply chains. This makes a strong argument for investment in protecting and strengthening this livestock diversity, both in species and management practices. Besides reduced dependence upon a small number of large operators, this would result in distribution of risk associated with such adverse events. In practice, this may include a diverse integration to obviate the situation of over-reliance where a single entity controls all parts of the supply chain, from farm to processing to packaging and marketing.
The pandemic has underscored the value of science-based standards for food safety and quality in order to facilitate safe and efficient trade. The importance of global food trade and its contribution to food security requires robust systems that appropriately protect human, animal, and environmental health while facilitating trade. This is particularly relevant in the context of an outbreak when adherence to expert recommendations such as hygiene and sanitation practices, distancing, quarantining, and self-isolation is needed to maintain safe and efficient food supply chains. Observance of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) international standards for food safety is a sine qua non to ensuring strong food safety and quality parameters of food systems.
We also face the challenge of the disproportionate impact of both zoonoses and climate change on communities with the least resilience to health and economic shocks. Income disparity between rural smallholder livestock farmers and large-scale livestock producers is growing. The small primary producer is often subjected to unfairly low prices for primary livestock food products. On top of systemic inequalities, many smallholder farmers have been distanced from markets. It is an opportunity to correct these imbalances by reducing economic disparities in livestock systems through an equitable and inclusive development, in letter and spirit. Future food security would owe a lot to the smallholder livestock farmer getting easy, affordable and quality access to technology, inputs, and above all processing facilities and markets.
Livestock systems have inherent resilience against variable and changing climates, many having evolved specifically to cope with climatic variability. Mixed crop and livestock systems are the backbone of agriculture in most rural settings, particularly the developing world. They provide food security and a regular cash flow, thus livelihood options for hundreds of millions of people. Strengthening resilience in livestock systems by reversing land degradation, protecting water resources, and better integration with crop systems would result in enhanced contribution of livestock to the food basket besides ensuring safety of the food products. There needs to be a clear policy bias towards nurturing, protecting, and utilizing genetic diversity across all livestock systems to maximize their adaptive resilience and potential. We could also take advantage of the inherent mobility of livestock to adapt to climate and resource variability by facilitating relocation, where required, to areas with more favourable climatic conditions. Further, improving access to shade, water, feed, and creation of favourable controlled conditions would protect the livestock systems to protect against unfavourable climatic environments.
A special report of UN Environment Programme considers that “seven human-mediated factors [are] most likely driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases: 1) increasing human demand for animal protein; 2) unsustainable agricultural intensification; 3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; 4) unsustainable utilization of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change, and extractive industries; 5) increased travel and transportation; 6) changes in food supply; and 7) climate change”. Future policies and strategies for livestock development must factor in strong elements of a) One Health approach from local to global levels, including ecosystem restoration, biodiversity conservation, and the health of people, livestock and the environment; b) animal health and welfare in all livestock systems through stronger infection prevention and control measures to reduce the risk of pathogen emergence and spread; c) research and surveillance at the human-animal-environment interface, connected to early warning systems for zoonotic and other health threats such as antimicrobial resistance; d) prudent use of antimicrobials in all livestock; e) reduction in exposure of people and livestock to potential pathogen sources including wildlife; f) hygiene, sanitation, and operating procedures at livestock and food markets to reduce the spread of pathogens. The list is illustrative and not exhaustive.
Pathogens do not respect geographical or political or any other borders, be they natural or artificial. Therefore, at the global level each one of us is only as protected as the most vulnerable of our fellow humans. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for governments, policy makers, and the international community to use the momentum created by the disruptive nature of this crisis to rethink and reinvent how we are feeding the world. It should not simply be a matter of managing risks but acknowledging and addressing the subtle and complex interrelations between diseases, climate change, and other factors such as habitat destruction, land-use change, dietary imbalances, and the welfare of people and animals. Boosting profitability through more effective livestock production practices will also help to reduce the burden of disease outbreaks and encourage innovations to make livestock production more resilient and sustainable.
Let us probe beneath the symptoms and address the root cause of our woes. Key to human health, food and nutritional security, and protection of livelihoods is an effective management of livestock systems recognising their close and intricate relationship with the environment. After all, three fourths of pathogens affecting humans are zoonotic. And above all, our dependence upon livestock for our daily dietary essentials would continue to spiral upwards.
(The author is former Secretary, Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Government of India)