COVID-19: More than a pandemic

June 29, 2022

Today’s headlines are dominated by diseases such as COVID-19, African Swine Fever and Avian Influenza. These pandemics have exposed the vulnerability of the modern food production chain and the huge implications for animal welfare and food security[1]. Some experts believe that outbreaks of new (and old) diseases will occur more often in the future and will have a huge impact on the food production system. It is important to better understand the impact and to identify options to make the global food system more resilient.

Factors favouring emerging diseases

There are several factors that favour emerging diseases. The growth of the human population continues to be exponential. Over the last 100 years, the global population has more than quadrupled. By the end of this century, almost 11 billion people will inhabit our world.

With the growing population, the demand for food is also rising[2]. In the last 50 years, the food crop production has increased by 300 %. With developing human prosperity, meat consumption rises as nutritional habits change towards meat, fish, and dairy products. As a consequence, meat production has quadrupled, and the world produces more than 320 million tonnes of meat each year.

The rapidly growing demand for food has a massive impact on the environment, leading to significant habitat loss and fragmentation and an overexploitation of natural resources. Thus, humans have a huge impact on the environment. Three quarters of the worlds terrestrial and 66 % of the marine environment have been significantly altered by humans. More than one third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 % of the freshwater resources are used for crop and livestock production[2]. According to the latest “State of Forest” report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture is the main cause of deforestation[3]. The extensive use of environment is decreasing biodiversity due to monocultures and species extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has identified 35,765 species across all taxonomic groups to be threatened with extinction in 2020.  

Decreasing biodiversity is also an issue in agricultural production itself. Global intensive livestock farming focuses on high productive livestock breeds and crops, which makes animals vulnerable to diseases due to decreasing genetic variability and frequent trade movements. The loss of habitats and biodiversity increases the risk of emerging and potentially zoonotic diseases as the interface between wildlife, livestock and humans becomes more extensive. In the last 30 years, 70 % of new emerging disease are of zoonotic origin[4].


A potential risk for food security

The factors favouring emerging diseases combined with climate change create a breeding ground for new diseases with potential consequences for human and animal health[5]. Furthermore, (re)emerging diseases can also put food security at a considerable risk. History has already shown this to be the case. For example, rinderpest destroyed almost all cattle herds in Great Britain in the 19th century, and the potato blight caused a mass starvation in Europe in 1845. These crises also highlight the vulnerabilities to the food chain caused by the combination of close trading connections, monocultures, and intensive animal production.

Fortunately, we have come a long way in the last century. Rinderpest is eradicated, and new potato breeds are no longer susceptible to potato blight. We have a developed a functional animal and public health system together with increased biosecurity and implemented rapid response strategies to control and eradicate diseases in many countries. Surveillance systems globally are helping to detect outbreaks early. Nevertheless, the more specialized a system is, the more fragile it potentially becomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the limitations and highlighted how fragile our intensive, high-through put livestock production systems are. While the pandemic has placed enormous pressure and, in some cases, temporarily overwhelmed public health systems, the pandemic also indirectly had a negative impact on the food and animal health sectors. For example, the rapid spread of COVID-19 between workers in some slaughterhouses due to the proximity of the workers to each other had a tremendous impact on the operability of those slaughterhouses. Many processing plants had to shut down due to major outbreaks, which put particular pressure on the pig and poultry industries in the United States and Great Britain. Reduced pig processing capacity in slaughterhouses means not only reduced products in the supermarket, but also thousands of pigs per day are not slaughtered. This results to overcrowding on the farms, with some producers having to cull animals under less than optimal welfare conditions. This caused frustration among farm owners, workers, and the public due to the implications for animal welfare and food waste. The disposal of the carcasses poses potential biosecurity risks and adverse effects on the environment[6]. Unfortunately, it is likely that the meat packing and animal production industries will again be affected by the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.

All these potential risks to food security demonstrate that providing food and resources to a growing world population in a sustainable and healthy way is one of the biggest challenges for us today and for the coming generation. How can we move towards a sustainable future, capable of feeding the world? Although there are innovative developments that are heading in the right direction, much more is needed.

Changes and chances for sustainable agriculture

Adapting human and animal diets, adopting sustainable agricultural practices such as organic farming, enhancing biosecurity measures, and enhancing genetic variability in animal breeds and crops are some of the approaches being used to strengthen food security and to reduce the risks of future pandemics.

Human diet trends have a huge impact on the environment, but they can also be influenced by individual action. In the first half of the 19th century and before, meat was consumed only sporadically. Diets were focused on seasonal fruits and vegetables. The modern western diet preferences have since focused on meat and dairy products. These preferences developed over time to a kind of a standard for wealth, also in developing countries.

However, the times when being able to eat meat was truly seen as symbol for wealth are long gone in most western countries. So, it’s time to set a new standard! Alternative proteins such as lentils, beans, oats etc. have been known for a long time and were once common meal ingredients. Reverting to a diet that contains more alternative proteins, vegetables and fruits will have a tremendous impact on our use of land, water and other resources and will establish healthy, sustainable diet habits. To make a more sustainable, healthy diet attractive, we need to educate the public through marketing campaigns, support through nutrition education at school, which would create new global diet standard for wealth.  

We already see a trend towards reduced meat consumption in Europe[7],[8] and a predicted global increase of plant-based alternatives with high growth rates in the coming years[9]. That does not mean we also need to stop eating meat completely, but rather more consciously.

There is not only potential for sustainability improvements in human diets, but also in the animal feed sector. More than one third of all global crops produced are used as animal feed, and often these crops need to be imported, which causes additional greenhouse gas emissions. As an alternative to protein-rich crops, insect proteins could be used. Although it is still a niche market, it has great growth potential[10]. Another alternative protein is single-cell protein or microbial proteins, which can be harvested from edible unicellular microorganisms such as yeast, bacteria, fungi and algae that grow on a carbon source, which is otherwise not accessible by human diet.

Advancements in technology and research are unlocking new potential for novel proteins to revolutionize the animal feed industry, especially in aquaculture[11].  Beside alternative proteins sources to simply replace current ones, research investigations on feed and feed additives to improve sustainability are also ongoing, such as into feeds that reduce methane emission in cattle. A recent study from Switzerland showed that adding a specific alga to cattle feed can be used as an alternative to soy-proteins and reduces greenhouse emissions from cows[12].

Agriculture productions is becoming increasing sustainable globally. Organic production means less pesticide use, fewer CO² emissions and ideally less antimicrobial usage. Land for organic agriculture increased globally by 1.6 % (1.1 million hectares) between 2018 and 2019 and has increased more than 6-fold since 1999, interestingly led by Oceania. In total, 72.3 million hectares of agricultural land were used for organic production in 2019. The global organic market reached over 106 billion euros and is estimated to increase further[13]. There is room for improvement, as the extent of organic production is yet not comparable to conventional farming and the certification basis for is confusing.

Nevertheless, the issue of sustainable agriculture has reached the policy making process. The European Commission unveiled the new growth strategy, aiming to be the first climate-neutral continent by becoming a modern, resource efficient economy. The Farm to Fork strategy published in April 2020 is part of the European Green Deal and includes a target of increasing the total of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming to at least 25 % by 2030[14].

Disease control is an important factor when it comes to sustainably produced food! It is well known that healthy animals have a better feed-to-weight conversion rate. Healthy animals don’t need as much energy to fight off disease. There are several strategies to manage diseases, but they all have one element in common: prevention is better than treatment. This is especially true when it comes to control strategies for diseases where culling of animals is the common practice, like for Avian Influenza. Biosecurity and good farm management are key elements to prevent an outbreak, but also alternative strategies to culling like vaccination need to be considered. Culling herds is linked to huge economic losses, as a high proportion of healthy animals are also often culled. This approach is not only a waste of valuable resources, but also raises ethical issues. Preventive vaccination strategies might be a more adequate approach as already requested by the livestock industry[15]. Further investment in research towards marker-vaccinations and an adaptation of animal health laws are needed. These challenges and needs not only apply to Avian influenza but also to many other diseases, like African Swine Fever.

Biosecurity measures play a crucial role to prevent the entry and spread of diseases among farms. Biosecurity measures are often associated with costly investments which not every farmer or country can afford. Socioeconomic aspects of disease management recommendations are often not sufficiently considered. Nevertheless, through continuous education and situation-adapted biosecurity measures, a lot for disease management can be achieved. Further investment in education and training are essential to prevent and control diseases.

Preserving or even increasing genetic variability in animal breeds and crops could help to avoid a vulnerable genetic bottleneck and can offer valuable solutions for current and future challenges. Loss of genetic variability can have a devastating effect, e.g., the loss of genetic variability in potatoes and the spread of the 1845 potato blight caused a great famine in Europe. We see tremendous losses of biodiversity, which allows diseases to spread faster especially among agricultural animals. About 1,458 agricultural animal breeds are threatened with extinction, representing 17 % of all livestock breeds, which is probably an underestimate, due to a lack of accurate data.

An increasing number of countries and livestock breeders around the world have recognized the value of genetic diversity in livestock, and so gene banks have been established. One example of the successful revival of an endangered livestock breed is the Hungarian Mangalica pig, also known as the woolly pig. By the late 1980s, there were only 200 left, as other breeds of pigs that provided more meat with less fat had displaced the woolly pig. But thanks to the efforts of several breeders, their numbers are now increasing again[16].

There are many other approaches to enhancing sustainable agriculture, and thus supporting food security globally. Prevention of habitat loss and restoration of natural habitats, less dense animal production systems, enhancement of early warning systems, and production of more locally produced food are other ways to promote sustainable agriculture. With forward-thinking approaches to food production, a better world for humans and animals may be created. We at SAFOSO believe that innovative, inclusive, and holistic solutions and education, which takes respective industry contexts into account, are the key for a sustainable agricultural future!


















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