‘One Health’: Investing in Animal Health to get the world back on track

Written by Karelle De Luca, Head of Research & Development. Originally published by Fair Planet.

There are just seven years to go until 2030. That means there are just seven years left to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its 169 targets. Yet, the world was starkly reminded in July by top United Nations officials ahead of the SDG Summit that it is “tremendously off track” to reach these Goals.

In fact, a mere 15 per cent of the SDGs are on track, while many are in reverse. 

Against the backdrop of a myriad of complex, interconnected global challenges such as climate change and global economic insecurity, reaching all 169 targets by 2030 is looking increasingly less probable – unless action and investment are accelerated.

Indeed, world leaders’ recent political declaration to spur commitment to rescue the SDGs is a welcome step in the right direction, as they call for more investment in climate action, clean energy, education, health and much more. However, there is one important sector that also needs investment and is often overlooked in the role it can play to ensure the world gets back on track to our shared sustainability goals: the animal health sector. 

The ‘One Health’ approach

Investing in animal health – and in particular livestock – has a multitude of benefits for animals, people and the environment. That’s ‘One Health’ – the notion that human, animal, and plant health are interdependent.

Livestock is a crucial source of income for smallholder farmers, with about 78 per cent of the world’s poorest relying on agricultural work to support their livelihoods and households. However, each year, tens of millions of livestock die due to diseases.

Livestock diseases represent around USD 358 billion in lost production each year – production that could otherwise support global food security and more resilient livelihoods for small-scale farmers, particularly at a time when the African continent faces compounded challenges from climate change and supply chain shocks. 

However, investment in animal health and welfare can help. Thanks to a concerted vaccination effort over a decade ago, for

example, which saw the development of an inexpensive vaccine, costing from $3 to $16 per hundred doses, rinderpest in livestock was completely eradicated. Its eradication allows the continent to avoid a loss of $920 million a year, with household income in Ethiopia estimated to have risen by $40 million.

Improving animal health through investment boosts productivity and supports more resilient livelihoods, all of which are considered indicators of the Global Goals.

Beyond boosting livelihoods, enhancing animal health not only keeps livestock themselves healthy but also protects humans by reducing the risk of diseases spreading between the two. Up to 75 per cent of new or emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic in origin – that is, transmitted from wild animals – the importance of better animal health cannot be understated, as livestock often act as the bridge between people and zoonoses from wild animals.

Africa alone has witnessed a 63 per cent increase in the number of zoonotic disease outbreaks in the last decade. 

Increased investment is needed to make the full suite of livestock health tools available to farmers, including vaccines and other measures, which in turn helps to lower the usage of antibiotics on farms. This also helps to minimise the risk of developing new resistant strains of bacteria, reducing the effectiveness of vital antimicrobial treatments in both human and veterinary medicine.

More effective vaccines and delivery mechanisms are particularly critical for small-scale farmers in the Global South. For instance, the development of multi-valent vaccines offer pragmatic and cost-effective disease control tools for smallholder farmers. To date, GALVmed-supported initiatives have sold an estimated over one billion livestock vaccines, therapeutics and other animal health products to smallholders in 15 countries across Africa and South Asia.

Healthier animals and improved livestock management practices can also help to reduce the sector’s environmental footprint – known as the third pillar of the One Health approach – bringing us one step closer to SDG 13 (Climate Action). Animals suffering from illness have a higher carbon footprint, while healthier animals are more productive and produce less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

For example, a reduction of disease levels in livestock of roughly 10 percentage points is associated with an 800 million tonne decrease in GHG emissions. This adds up to nearly as much as Nigeria and South Africa’s total emissions, combined. 

While better livestock health can ensure a higher quality of life for animals, it is also an investment with far-reaching returns: from improved food security, economic growth, better human health and a healthier planet. 

As such, there is therefore a greater need to ensure that farmers are better equipped with the tools needed to improve animal health, particularly in those regions where they have proven inaccessible or expensive. Investing in livestock health through a One Health approach is a key solution to ensuring the world’s sustainability agenda gets back on track.

Image credit: @GALVmed/Alternatives.