The contribution of livestock to human and animal health was among the several topics discussed at a high-profile conference organized by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 6-7 November 2014. The theme of the conference was Livestock-based options for sustainable food and nutritional security, economic well-being and healthy lives.

The conference was the culmination of a series of events organized this year to mark 40 years of livestock research by ILRI and its predecessors, the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) and the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA).

Discussions under the sub-theme of ‘livestock and healthy lives’ began on the morning of the first day of the conference with a featured talk by Lorne Babiuk, vice president for research at the University of Alberta on how healthy animals can improve the health, welfare and economy of people.

Lorne Babiuk, vice-president for research at the University of Alberta

Lorne Babiuk presents a featured talk titled Healthy animals equals healthy, productive people at the ILRI@40 conference held on 6-7 November 2014 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

In his presentation, Babiuk noted that smallholder farmers dominate livestock production in many developing countries and globally, one billion poor people depend on livestock for their livelihoods.

However, despite the potential of smallholder livestock production to contribute to meeting the growing demand for animal protein in the developing world, the livestock sector is beset by several challenges such as emerging diseases and limited natural resources for raising livestock.

Zoonotic diseases, in particular, have impacts on international trade, food prices and human health.

Babiuk then discussed three biotechnology options that can be used to improve livestock production: vaccines, breeding and selection of disease-resistant animals, and marker-assisted management to produce better quality carcasses.

“Vaccination, in my opinion, has been one of the most cost-effective approaches for the management of infectious diseases,” he said.

“In fact, it’s been stated that vaccination has saved more lives than all other therapeutic interventions in the world.”

He also gave examples of how genetics can be used to improve productivity through classical breeding and selection and use of genomic tools.

Babiuk summed up his presentation by stating that increasing food security will become more critical as the world population increases and that “healthy animals equals healthy people equals healthy environment equals stable economic environments”.


Continuing with the underlying theme of Babiuk’s talk, a roundtable discussion was held in the afternoon to examine the relationship between livestock, nutrition and health.

John McDermott, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, moderated the discussion. The panellists were Walter Masiga, the World Organisation for Animal Health sub-regional representative for eastern Africa; Juliana Rwelamira, managing director of Sasakawa Africa Association and Vish Nene, director of ILRI’s livestock vaccines initiative.

Vish Nene, Juliana Rwelamira and Walter Masiga, panelists at ILRI@40 roundtable discussion on livestock and healthy lives

Left to Right: Vish Nene (ILRI), Juliana Rwelamira (Sasakawa Africa Association) and Walter Masiga (World Organisation for Animal Health) take part in a roundtable discussion on livestock and healthy lives at the ILRI@40 Addis Ababa conference (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

McDermott began with an overview of the controversial and somewhat counterintuitive role of livestock in nutrition.

He noted that while animal-source foods are important sources of nutrition for poor people in low-income countries, there is underconsumption of livestock products by the poor on account of the high price of meat, milk and eggs relative to that of cereals.

On the other hand, overconsumption of livestock products in high-and middle-income countries has led to an increase in cases of obesity and related non-communicable diseases, a trend that is starting to emerge in low-income countries as well.

McDermott also noted that while meat, milk and eggs are good sources of vital nutrients, there are considerable health risks associated with livestock and livestock products.

“The most nutritious foods are also the most risky. You’re not going to get very sick eating rice as compared to eating spoiled milk or meat,” he said.

Intensification of agriculture to increase the supply of livestock is also associated with environmental contamination and increase of microbial populations, he added, noting that three-quarters of emerging diseases are zoonotic.

The roundtable discussion sought to link the economic development agenda of the livestock sector with issues related to health and nutrition.

Among the topics discussed were the One Health approach for more effective control of emerging diseases; vaccines and diagnostics; value chain development to reduce postharvest food losses and improve food safety and nutritional quality; risk-based approaches to food safety in informal markets and strengthening of national control systems to prevent misuse of antibiotics in treatment of animals.

The outcomes of the discussions on livestock and health on the first day of the conference fed into a parallel session on the second day. The aim of the session was to look into the future to identify the key priority areas for research on livestock and health in the next 40 years.

About 20 participants, mostly veterinary practitioners, took part in the parallel session on livestock and healthy lives which began with three scene-setting PowerPoint presentations and one poster presentation by scientists from ILRI’s Food Safety and Zoonoses program:

Following the presentations, the participants split into three groups for an in-depth discussion of the identified priority areas for research on livestock and health in the next 40 years. The discussions were based on their individual experiences, the content of the three presentations and current global trends in animal and human health.

They identified the following three priority areas for research on livestock and health:

  • emerging infectious diseases;
  • vaccines and diagnostics; and
  • antimicrobial residues and resistance.

Research on emerging infectious diseases needs to focus on increased understanding of the drivers of disease, for example, agricultural intensification, climate change, new farming systems, irrigation and increased mobility of animals and people. Research activities could include mapping, modelling and analysis of vectors; vector control through the use of ‘green’ insecticides; biological control of vectors and adoption of the Ecohealth approach to disease prevention and control.

Research on vaccines should be aimed at developing safe, single-dose, affordable ‘combination’ vaccines that are easy to deliver and target multiple pathogens. Rapid diagnostics that can be used along the food chain and are linked into large databases for surveillance can provide early warning systems for quick detection and reporting of potential health hazards and timely intervention.

Research on antibiotic residues and resistance needs to ensure prudent use of antimicrobials for treatment of farm animals to avoid residues in animal-source food products. The transfer of antibiotic resistance from animals to milk, meat and eggs was also identified as an important research area.

Dieter Schillinger

Dieter Schillinger leads a group discussion on antimicrobial residues and resistance as a priority area for research on livestock and healthy lives (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

The group summed up the vision of ILRI’s livestock-for-health research in the next 40 years as follows:

ILRI research has contributed to appropriate health management systems leading to healthy animals, people and ecosystems and increase animal-source food and income for all’.