Monthly Archives: May 2020

Controlling health threats that could spark future pandemics

Written by: Kristina Osbjer, Researcher at the Department of Clinical Sciences, SLU and Technical Specialist for Animal Health, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Bat samling
Bat sampling. Photo: Kristina Osbjer

Although the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic came as a surprise to some, the seeds of a Coronavirus pandemic, the weak signals, have been present for more than a decade. As governments and the civil society across the globe are struggling with containing COVID-19 and limit the impact, the research community can play an important role in formulating research to heed warnings and prevent devastating impacts of the next pandemic.

The COVID-19 origin is unknown, but we do know that Corona viruses are circulating in animals, in particular bats, and that some of these Corona viruses have an ability to transmit to humans. Most emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) and almost all recent pandemics originate from animals, most commonly wildlife, and the emergence is often involving close interactions between wildlife, livestock, and people with an elevated risk detected in forested tropical regions experiencing land-use changes and where wildlife biodiversity is high.

Asia – a hotspot for EIDs

South, Southeast Asia and China are recognised as hotspots for EIDs. The region is undergoing fast economic development, resulting in societal and environmental changes. Parallel with a growing population and rising incomes, the demand for higher-value and quality food such as meat is rapidly increasing. A preference for fresh meat from animals butchered at the counter together with limited access to chilling facilities lead to meat being commonly purchased in ‘wet markets’ where live animals are sold and slaughtered on site. In the case of avian influenza and SARS, viral spread to people from poultry and wildlife, respectively, was traced back to wet markets. Wet markets are also suspected to have played a key role in the initial spillover of Corona virus to humans, resulting in COVID-19. High animal density, limited hygiene and biosecurity practices in these wet markets are contributing to dissemination of viruses. Efforts have been made to change, and in some countries to ban wet markets—especially where many species, including wildlife are mixed. A temporary ban in wildlife trade was recently imposed in China as a result of COVID-19, however, enforcement of such bans remains difficult. The strong consumer demand for fresh meat and a range of social, economic and cultural factors contribute to sustain the markets.

Wet market in Asia. Photo: Kristina Osbjer

The rising demand for meat is spurring expansions in industrial-scale animal farming

More than half of the world’s pork and poultry is produced in Asia. In 2018, China alone had around half of the global pig herd and accounted for half of the global pork consumption. The rising demand for meat is spurring expansions in industrial-scale animal farming resulting in challenges in preventing and confining diseases. Low profit margins and weak animal welfare requirements commonly result in poor farm biosecurity and animal health management which in turn lead to an increased use of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance, largely driven by the antibiotic consumption, is considered a growing global health threat and it is estimated that the livestock industry in China alone, will use up to 30% of the global antibiotic production by 2030.

The fast pig expansion has also resulted in the emergence of new diseases. In 2018 African Swine Fever (ASF) hit China as the first country ever in Asia, spreading rapidly to nearby countries leading to a loss of a quarter of the world’s pig population by the end of 2019. The ASF infect only wild and domestic pigs, but the high death rates and enforced massive culling to prevent further disease spread has led to huge economic losses and pork prices soaring to record highs. The extent of the impact of ASF on the global live animal and meat trade was unpredicted, and the disease has put a high pressure on Governments and a shift in animal movements. The lack of pork and higher pork prices have encouraged Asian consumers to substitute towards alternative protein sources, which most likely have changed the meat sourcing and supply in wet markets, including wildlife.  

Poultry sampling. Photo: Domingo Caro

A stronger multi-sectoral approach for disease prevention and control

The ASF spread to Asia and the global emergence of COVID-19 are reminders of how vulnerable our interconnected world is to global impact of diseases in humans and animals and highlight the need for broader systems thinking in the fight against EIDs. A single sector approach, neglecting the human-animal-environment interface and the socio-economic and cultural bearings of diseases will cause future failures in controlling health threats that could spark future pandemics. A stronger One Health approach in which multiple sectors work together to enhance health security and better public health outcomes needs to be fully adopted. Early evidence indicates that the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 are being disproportionately borne by poor people. The biggest impact will be seen in low and middle income countries. It is of global concern to strengthen capacities in low and middle income countries to prevent, detect and control infectious diseases at the source, with an emphasis on early identification of, and response to, health threats in animals before they cause serious public health, economic, and development concerns. Here, the research community can play an important role in raising local research capacities and generate science to enable evidence-based policies and decision making to prevent future pandemics and safeguard public health and livelihoods.

Covid-19 lessons: Wildlife as our ally, not our enemy

Written by Joris P. G. M. Cromsigt, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies, SLU.

Zebra
Photo: Joris Cromsigt, SLU.

The origin of the covid-19 pandemic, like previous major zoonotic disease outbreaks such as Ebola and HIV, has been linked to wildlife and the consumption of wild meat. Although the exact source of covid-19 still is a matter of debate, the repeated emphasis on wildlife as the original source is putting wildlife and the consumption of wild meat in a bad spot. Others, however, have emphasised that the problem is not the eating of wild meat per se. The problem lies in unsafe handling and processing of wild meat as well as in large-scale international trade and wildlife markets that keep wild species under crowded conditions and sell and slaughter wild meat on site. If wild meat is prepared locally immediately after the hunt following normal sanitary standards, the risk of zoonotic disease is negligible. Sweden and its moose harvesting culture are an excellent example of this. The problem also lies in the massive degradation of wildlife habitat, increasing the contact between wildlife and humans and in the management of the livestock-wildlife interface, since zoonoses frequently first jump from wildlife to livestock and then to humans. What I miss in the current debate, however, is the bigger picture. The fact that humans have been destroying wildlife and the ecosystems they live in for over 10,000 years. Below, I argue that this destruction lies at the root of many of our sustainability challenges, including increased zoonotic disease risk, and that solutions for these challenges lie in the large-scale restoration of wildlife and their habitats.

Restoring wildlife to fight zoonotic diseases

Many studies have highlighted that restoration of mammal diversity reduces disease risk, because predators and competing species prevent disease-carrying species to reach high densities and because in diverse communities species vary in susceptibility to infection by a pathogen. A recent meta-analysis by colleagues at my department at SLU confirmed that across the world increasing animal diversity reduces disease risk. Similarly, colleagues showed how predators, such as fox and stone marten in the Netherlands and Tengmalm’s owls in northern Sweden, reduce zoonotic disease risk. Using the owls as an example, they highlight that wildlife may even act as an effective early warning system of future zoonotic disease outbreaks. A recent paper goes even further by linking the Late Quaternary large mammal extinctions to the emergence of > 100 zoonotic disease outbreaks of the last 60 years.  The authors suggest that the concept of herd immunity goes beyond human-human interaction and that reduced interaction between human and non-human animals during the last 10,000 years reduced our resistance to emerging zoonotic diseases. This thought-provoking hypothesis remains to be tested, but what these examples really tell us is that we should not treat wildlife as the cause of the pandemic, but rather as part of the solution to fight it. Restoring wildlife communities and their habitats may be a very effective strategy to reduce zoonotic disease risk.

Photo: Graham Kerley

Rewilding as a nature-based solution for global sustainability challenges

I would like to zoom out even further by emphasizing that the current pandemic is not “just” a zoonotic disease problem but also a symptom of the global sustainability crisis. Solutions should thus focus more broadly on restoring planetary sustainability. Recent work suggests that the restoration of wildlife and their habitats can be a major part of these solutions. In the Megafauna & Sustainability unit we study how large mammals can be part of a nature-based solution for several of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, in the programme Wilder Rangelands, a collaboration with Nelson Mandela University and Utrecht University, we look at the climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits of restoring native wild herbivore communities in African rangeland systems. In another example, we look at the effects of urban rewilding and greener cities on wildlife and people living in these cities.

Our work echoes others that highlights rewilding, i.e., the restoration of wildlife communities and their habitats, as a major natural solution. Rewilding increases the carbon sequestering capacity of ecosystems worldwide, from elephants and other mammals in our tropical rainforests, to wild grazers in the world’s grasslands, and the great whales in our oceans. Closer to home, reindeer help slow-down warming of the tundra in northern Scandinavia by limiting woody encroachment, and increasing surface albedo. Rewilding may also be a sustainable, long-term, solution for managing the risks of wildfires that are increasingly ravaging large parts of the world and even help mitigate the global phosphorus crisis through restoring global nutrient recycling. I could give many more examples.

How covid-19 threatens global wildlife conservation

Despite these examples, we still do not take wildlife restoration serious enough. For many high-level decision makers it remains a “nice to have” that is low on the priority ladder. In fact, the global response to the current pandemic forms a huge threat to global wildlife conservation. The emphasis on wildlife as the origin of covid-19 risks further alienating humans from wildlife, degrading support for its conservation. More urgently, the current pandemic highlights the weakness of a conservation model that depends on income from ecotourism and philanthropy and times of economic prosperity. This model is currently rapidly collapsing due to short- and mid-term travel bans and longer-term effects on economies. Already, in many societies communities are going hungry and increasingly depend on “bushmeat” to survive the crisis. We face a serious risk of conservation entering the dark ages, further marginalising wildlife into increasingly small corners of the world. Ironically, this will likely further increase the risk of future zoonotic pandemics.

The urgency of embracing wildlife as a natural solution to our sustainability challenges

Now is the time to come with a new model to conserve and, especially, restore wildlife. We can no longer accept conservation and wildlife restoration in the margin, for the show or as an indulgence. We need a model that sees the restoration of wildlife and their habitats as a serious natural solution to heal our planet and thus ourselves. Initiatives, such as the EU’s green deal, provide a shimmer of hope but are not enough. We need a serious global “Marshall Plan” for wildlife restoration. Accepting wildlife as a natural solution asks for massive, wide-scale restoration beyond our protected areas and beyond the introduction of certain flagship species. Such rewilding should not be confused with a wilderness without humans but restore a natural world that humans can actively benefit from. Natural solutions are SLU’s core business and it is our responsibility to now speak out and step up. We are in the hot seat in terms of finding more sustainable, nature-based, solutions. The alternative, of course, is driving all remaining wildlife species, and their associated zoonotic diseases, to extinction. I do not want my children to inherit such a world. Solutions towards the current, and future, pandemics do not lie in further alienating us from wildlife. Solutions do not lie in treating wildlife as our enemy, but in embracing it as our ally.

COVID-19 and Food Security

Written by: Assem Abouhatab, Sofia Boqvist, Sara Gräslund, Ylva Hillbur and Rodomiro Ortiz
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

Farming close to Mbeya, southeastern Tanzanian highlands.
Photo: Rodomiro Ortiz, SLU

Reflections on Sweden’s Global Contribution to Agenda 2030

During a short time span, COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the globe, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The underlying causes of the pandemic are linked to the virus crossing the species barrier from animals (likely wildlife) to humans, with subsequent spread within the human population. While the links between livestock and human health are well established and increasingly acknowledged, there is great potential in developing the One Health approach further. In 2019, the UN biodiversity panel established that emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, domestic animals, plants or people can be exacerbated by human activities such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation.

The outbreak has so far hit Europe, East Asia and North America the most and there is fear that the infection will spread uncontrolled in Africa with severe consequences for poor peoples’ health and food security. The World Food Program recently alerted the UN Security Council that the pandemic could push another 130 million people into hunger this year. Poor people are particularly vulnerable for infections like COVID-19 as they often live in areas with poor sanitary conditions, have restricted access to health care and lack economic safety nets.

While the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to both a global health emergency and is unfolding a global economic crisis, it could also result in food insecurity, particularly when food supply chains are disrupted. Preliminary reports show that the pandemic has indeed disrupted global agricultural supply chains; slowed down global agricultural trade; and obstructed transportation, logistics and distribution channels as borders have been shut. In this regard, about 16 countries have issued food export restrictions or bans to ensure national stock and avoid food price inflation. The spread of the pandemic has further disrupted many activities along the agri-food supply chains and posed significant challenges to the food systems, especially in low-income countries where employment, livelihoods, food and nutritional outcomes, and many other essential services are derived from agriculture. As an example, the number of people at risk of food security may rise to 50 million  in West Africa – a region in which 35% of the economy depends on agriculture.

The immediate threats posed by COVID-19 to agricultural supply chains include the disruption of rural labor markets, which may impede farming and food processing activities. Some food supply chains in low-income countries are facing challenges related to growers –particularly smallholders– accessing inputs for their farming, being in their fields for planting, cultivating and harvesting their crops or breeding and feeding their livestock, managing animal and plant health in their farming systems, and actively participating in the output markets to sell their produce. In addition, farm labor shortages may result from mobility restrictions, while urban food processing may be put on hold due to delays on getting raw materials. In terms of consumption, the closures of restaurants and reduced visits to grocery and food markets decrease demand for fresh food and livestock products, affecting producers and suppliers. Food demand in low income countries is closely linked to income, and the loss of income-earning opportunities could affect consumption. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the pandemic may cause 140 million (of which 2/3 are from Africa and remaining 1/3  from South Asia) to fall into extreme poverty in 2020.

Grazing livestock, West Pokot, Kenya. Photo: Eva Wredle, SLU

Food supply chains may be further troubled when considering that many nations depend on trading among each other staples, animal feed, fertilisers, machinery or pesticides. Hence, in order to guarantee affordable access to safe food for meeting the demand of their populations, it is crucial that international trade continues. Another global recession may further reduce the demand for rural output and labour. The announced economic stimulus packages by many nations should therefore provide means for stimulating the recovery of the rural economy in low-income countries to build an agriculture that should be increasingly resilient to shocks such as pandemics. In this way, they will also show their commitment to Zero Hunger and meeting the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 2, aiming to warrant that everyone everywhere is able to eat enough good-quality food to ensure a healthy life. Such an objective needs to improve sustainably the agricultural productivity and increase the profits of smallholder farmers by allowing them to fairly access land, technology and both input and output markets.

Sweden has a strong commitment to Agenda 2030 and to supporting low-income countries as demonstrated by its international development cooperation, government strategies and research agendas.  In the current crisis, we must keep the momentum towards the Sustainable Development Goals and move into the post-pandemic era with an ambition to increase resilience of communities and sustainability of the food systems by:

  • Reinforcing international partnerships. International collaboration focusing on exchange of knowledge and ideas and mutual capacity development is crucial for a sustainable development across the globe. International collaboration and national development go hand in hand.
  • Increasing resilience and sustainability of the food systems. Climate change has profound impacts on the food systems. Increasing farmers’ resilience to climate change will reduce their vulnerability also to pandemics and other shocks. As described by the UN climate panel, there are great opportunities for response options that provide co-benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as food and nutrition security.
  • Implementing One Health approach in practice. In order to fight health issues at the human-animal-environment interface a multidisciplinary and holistic approach is needed. Increasing collaboration between sectors is crucial, with integration of human health, animal health and conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems, to prevent future pandemics and other health threats.
  • Enhancing the understanding of the effects of the pandemic on food security. Pandemics will happen again. So, we need to learn and adapt to be more resilient next time. It is important for all countries, including Sweden, to minimise the impacts of pandemics on domestic food chains and markets, e.g. the potential impact through disruptions to the global agricultural supply chains and agri-food trade.

International research cooperation will boost the productive and resilient capacity of low-income countries’ agriculture, particularly if embracing a holistic, transdisciplinary and enlarged One Health strategy; i.e., integrating human, animal, plant, soil and environmental health following an innovative approach for research in development under a changing climate. The outputs of such an approach will contribute to a fair remaking of the social contract that may emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic. To increase food and nutrition security for all, it is therefore crucial to keep the momentum towards Agenda 2030.


SLU contributes to Agenda 2030 through our mission to develop knowledge and capacity for sustainable management and use of the biological resources. To contribute to food security and Zero Hunger, we are for example currently partnering in Sida’s long-term bilateral research capacity programs through training of researchers in fields of relevance to food security in Bolivia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. AgriFoSe2030 is another Sida financed program where SLU jointly with Stockholm Environment Institute, Lund University and the University of Gothenburg supports actors in Africa and Asia to develop capacities to translate food security science into policy for impact. SLU furthermore works with the African Union and the EU Commission to map and capture knowledge from past and ongoing initiatives for food and nutrition security in Africa in the Leap4FNSSA program to improve efforts in the future. Explore more of SLU’s global partnerships and programmes at www.slu.se/slu-global