It is high time we recognise the connection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment
Alarming news has emerged from pig farms in China of the discovery of a new strain of influenza virus with pandemic potential. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the worst is yet to come as far as the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and COVID-19 are concerned. We are just in no position to deal with yet another pandemic.
The news about this new influenza virus is hot on the heels of another epidemic which has been spreading more silently than COVID-19. African Swine Fever (ASF), which affects only swine, has resulted in the culling of millions of pigs in China and Vietnam since 2018.
The disease has also spread to Europe. ASF entered India in Feb 2020 via Arunachal Pradesh and had killed an estimated 17,000 pigs in Assam by May 2020. The disease spreads through ticks, food products and human handlers. There is no vaccine available as yet for this disease.
A question that has been emerging is “why is southeast Asia a hotspot for emerging zoonotic diseases?”. According to the authors of a paper on emerging infectious diseases in southeast Asia, factors include rapid population growth and movement, urbanisation, changes in food production, agriculture and land use, water and sanitation.
In the last 30 years, meat consumption in south Asia, southeast Asia and east Asia combined, increased to over 125 million tonnes from about 36 million tonnes. The consequences of this rapid change in livestock systems have been complex.
There has been a rapid transition to industrial systems to meet the regional demand. In China alone, animal feed imports have increased 49 times to feed these industrial units. Consequently, it has resulted in the further marginalisation of small holder farmers, increased risk of emerging zoonotic diseases and the pollution of land, soil and water.
According to the international organisation, GRAIN, these changes in livestock systems have largely benefitted big corporations and conglomerates and destroyed small-holders and farmers.
How does this affect livestock in India and what are the lessons to be learnt? For one, as seen from the COVID-19, ASF and past epidemics, there is little one can do to stop viruses, contagions and epidemics from entering the country or from spreading rapidly.
COVID-19 came in through “human” international travellers. ASF possibly came in via the river Brahmaputra. Farmers panicked and threw carcasses in the river, which went on to infect more animals downstream.
Fortunately, India has been slow to industrialise, except in the poultry sector and needless to say, the sector has witnessed its own challenges with avian flu. The epidemic in 2005 forced our government authorities to cull thousands of birds. Not just industrial poultry but several backyard birds also had to be culled.
India’s livestock wealth lies in the thousands of diverse farms dispersed across the country. Each region has its indigenous breeds specifically suited to the local environment. Each region farms in a different way — small holder, commercial, pastoral.
Even within farming systems, there is enormous diversity. If you take pastoralism as an example, sheep rearing in Ladakh is different from sheep rearing in Kutch and equally different from sheep rearing in Tamil Nadu.
By not turning industrial, we are able to limit our imports unlike China, which imports both, livestock feed as well as livestock and meat. By not concentrating livestock systems in one area, we are able to stall to some extent, massive disease outbreaks. We also reduce the risk of large-scale environmental pollution.
Unfortunately, for years now, we have branded our livestock and livestock systems as inefficient, backward, unscientific, environmentally damaging. We have neglected our backyard systems. Yet, these very systems and the livestock within, have sustained communities in the country for centuries by providing livestock-based foods, energy, fuel, fibre, manure as well as providing employment to millions.
India’s small holder farmers and pastoralists manage to raise their livestock with low external inputs and very little other support. The outputs, even if small on a per capita basis, add up to a sizeable amount for the country as whole.
Despite this, there has been a systematic dismantling of these systems of production, not only hampering the conservation of rare genetic resources, but also entire socio-cultural and socio-ecological connections.
For example, there has been a concentrated push by the government to switch to high milk yielding introduced breeds of livestock, that are dependent on high external inputs such as regular antibiotic use, supplementary feed, and high maintenance. This, coupled with the loss of commons for grazing, has resulted in the dying out of several indigenous breeds.
The investments in maintaining and strengthening our traditional animal production systems have been low. Our annual animal husbandry budget was a mere 0.04 per cent of the total budget, although it has risen significantly in the past few years.
The livestock sector doesn’t need investments in money alone. It needs investment in the millions of small holder farmers and pastoralists, by recognising them, valuing them, understanding their needs and concerns and building their capacities as well as their resilience.
Nomadic pastoralists in the country and their animals are often excluded from the census and are not included in schemes or programmes of the government, whether it be vaccination drives for animals and humans or other outreach programmes.
Policies need to be rewritten to support local breeds, not merely in cattle, but in other species too. Investments are needed in public health. We need to build the capacities of our professionals and para-professionals with continuous skill development programmes to enable them to understand the rapidly changing landscape of livestock and society.
‘One health’ as a concept and an approach where people from different disciplines work together to improve public health may be one of the solutions for supporting and helping the livestock sector at this critical stage. It is high time we recognise the connection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment.
Nitya Sambamurti Ghotge is a veterinarian and Founder Director of ANTHRA (www.anthra.org), an organisation working on livestock development
Abi T Vanak is a Clinical and Public Health Fellow, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance Program & Convenor of the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE
Views expressed are the authors’ own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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