Wild food as a safety net: Food and nutrition security during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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This blogpost is written by Divya Gupta, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India; Suchita Shrestha, Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal and Harry Fischer, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

Andheri Village in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important part of the diet for rural populations around the world, primarily in developing countries. They are also an important safety net and contribute to resilience by enabling people to cope with food insecurity in times of rural distress. This has become particularly apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have conducted research on food security during the COVID-19 pandemic in the mid-Himalayan region of rural India and Nepal, where nationwide lockdowns were imposed starting last the week of March and continued for several months. The lockdown led to movement of all kinds being sharply constrained, which disrupted the food supply chain and created uncertainty in accessibility, availability and affordability of food. Working with local research assistants, we have been able to continue our data collection and conduct interviews (while following strict government guidelines) thereby providing an in-depth understanding of how the effects of the lockdown unfolded in the areas.

Wild mushrooms harvested by a household in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Subodh Kumar (Research Assistant)

Over the past few decades, a large proportion of the populations in our study sites have transitioned to cultivating cash crops. While these trends may have increased household incomes overall, they have led to reduced production of food for household’s own consumption and increased dependence on markets for both food and income. The lockdown constrained farmers’ ability to sell their harvest due to transport restrictions to the market, leaving many of them to face huge financial losses. This compromised the purchasing power of the people and increased their reliance on wild foods such as leaves, seeds, nuts, honey, fruits, mushrooms that they can collect from their communal resources, including forests, grasslands, and water bodies.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important coping strategy for households to deal with food shortages following the lockdown, especially for landless households and wageworkers who depend on off-farm employment. The lockdown has had a profound effect on the employment and income of such households. There were families that could not afford adequate food and reported consuming less food than before.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

A woman from a landless household with eight family members in a remote village in Nepal told us, “my husband is a construction worker, and he lost his job immediately after the lockdown was imposed. This constrained our ability to buy food to adequately feed our family. I was constantly stressed out about this and often resorted to foraging edible wild foods that I was able to find in our forests”. Another smallholder farmer in India shared, “we did not have enough food left in our reserve when the lockdown was imposed, unfortunately it was also a bad season for our crops as we lost most of our harvest to pest infestation. The wild foods that we were able to gather from our forest was a huge respite and we were extremely grateful for that”.  In addition, wild foods were also a convenient option as some households preferred foraging as opposed to spending money buying vegetables from the market, as an interviewee from a small-landholding household from our site in Rasnalu Village in Nepal shared.

“We occasionally collect vegetables growing in the wild. However, during the lockdown owing to the shortage in supply of fresh vegetables and a consequent rise in their price, we relied more on foraging”.

Wild foods in our sites were also perceived to be safe from contamination. Although not based on scientific fact, many households feared consuming produce bought from the market. “We were scared to buy vegetables from the market because we feared they might carry the infection, so we substituted vegetables with wild foods that we would find in our forests”, said a farmer in our study site in India. He further added:

“Once when I had got vegetables from the market, my mother panicked and immediately threw them away. Market bought vegetables were strictly banned in our household”.

In addition, cooking wild foods was also perceived as a way of continuing traditional recipes. For example, in our sites in Nepal, households procured greens such as stinging nettle, fiddlehead fern, and others that are used as an alternate to market-bought/ cultivated vegetables. “These foods are a part of our traditional recipes that we have been cooking for generations”, shared a female respondent.

Fiddlehead ferns. Source: Rakshya Timalsina (Research Assistant)

It is important to note that under normal circumstances, a lot of the households in our study areas use diverse food sources to fulfill the dietary needs of their family, including farms/kitchen gardens, markets, and communal land and water resources. We observed that at the time of the lockdown, wild foods were particularly important for households that lacked adequate income and/or did not have the option of a kitchen garden. Thus, wild foods have been an important component of the food basket for our sample population during the pandemic

Observation from our research highlights the importance of wild foods as carriers of important cultural values and also their roles in helping households cope with food insecurity in the context of shocks and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Often overlooked as a resilience strategy, wild foods are a vital resource that demands more attention in ensuring mechanisms for managing and safeguarding habitats for their long-term sustenance.

This research was supported by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) research project 2018-05875 and a FORMAS Urgent grant 2020-02781.

Antibiotics – a tragedy of the commons

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This article was written by Susanna Sternberg Lewerin, Professor in Epizootiology & Disease Control at the Department do Biomedical Sciences & Veterinary public Health, SLU.

Antibiotics kill susceptible bacteria while those who have acquired traits to destroy the drug or protect themselves from it survive and multiply. Resistant bacteria can share their resistance genes with others. Illustration: SLU

Today is the Antibiotic Awareness Day. It is a day to be grateful for these important medicines, and to consider how to best preserve them for the future.

Antibiotics, drugs to combat bacteria, are useful tools in both veterinary and human medicine. They allow us to treat bacterial infections in animals and people, common diseases as well as those that occur due to immunosuppressive treatments such as cancer therapy or following transplant surgery. The problem is that all use of antibiotics kills the susceptible bacteria and leave the field open for those who have  become resistant to the antibiotic. In a successful treatment course, the few remaining (resistant) bacteria can be killed by the host’s immune system and the host, animal or person, is cured. On the other hand, if the majority of the disease-causing bacteria are resistant, the treatment will be ineffective.

To preserve antibiotics as medical tools, we must use them as little as possible, only when needed, in the correct dose so that enough of the drug reaches the body site where the bacteria are causing the disease, and only for the time needed, until the immune system has eliminated the disease-causing bacteria. This is not as easy as it sounds, it takes insight into what diseases cause problems in animals and people in different settings, how to prevent them and how to treat them effectively, with or without antibiotics.

In Sweden, disease prevention is a key feature of veterinary medicine. Good animal husbandry, good biosecurity, vaccination and other strategies to control and prevent disease has been and continues to be a major research focus. We also collaborate in EU projects where different practices, attitudes and societal systems present new challenges that can be addressed by learning from the Swedish experiences (successes as well as failures) and by new ideas and innovations.

In low-income countries, antibiotics are not restricted to prescription from a veterinarian or a doctor but can be bought over-the-counter in drug stores where the products can be of poor quality and the information about how to use them may be lacking or misleading.

Poor farmers sometimes use the volume intended for treatment of one animal to treat several animals (i.e. with a lower dose), rendering the treatment ineffective and paving the way for resistant bacteria without curing the disease. If no veterinarian is involved in determining the cause of the disease, antibiotics may be used to treat diseases that are not caused by bacteria, so that the treatment is a waste of money and, again, promotes the resistant bacteria.

We collaborate with researchers in low-income countries on how to prevent and control animal diseases. We also work on developing systems for monitoring of diseases and antibiotic use, to provide information about what diseases are common and which antibiotics are used effectively. This project also addresses ways to increase the interaction between veterinarians and farmers by video consultations, to facilitate farmers’ access to veterinary advice on disease treatments while improving profitability for both groups. 

It is important to recognise the need for different strategies in different settings, disease prevention and control rely on knowledge of the local situation and its context-specific challenges and opportunities. Still, the worries and hopes of farmers are similar in countries all over the world and serve as incentives for improvement of animal health and production. The long-term goals of our research focus on animal health and welfare, for a sustainable animal production with a sustainable use of antibiotics. We must all contribute to preserving antibiotics for the future. Don’t let it be nobody’s responsibility, it lies with everyone.

Why do we collaborate?

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The next chapter of SLU – Vietnam collaborations

Photo: Agnes Bondesson, SLU

Looking back

More than 35 years ago, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ (SLU) initiated contact with Vietnamese universities with support from Sida/SAREC. The early research capacity development programmes aimed to strengthen individual and institutional research capacity in Vietnamese priority areas. The programmes have been part of the development agenda to reduce poverty and contribute to the socio-economic development of Vietnam. Several departments and faculties at SLU have over the years been involved in the collaborations. Some of these projects have also involved Swedish MSc and PhD students who have been able to conduct fieldwork in Vietnam. Many programmes have been large long-term projects involving several universities and research institutes in Vietnam and resulting in a large number of Vietnamese MSc and PhD graduates.

SLU Global conducted a detailed evaluation report to increase learning from experiences and to feed into our present and future international collaborations. Focus of the evaluation was on initiatives within the sectors relevant to agriculture, rural development, and forestry. The time scope for the study was 1977-2018. Collaborations result in both long-listed research projects and education. Both key activities provided capacity development at institutional level/national level as well as individuals, and Vietnamese society.

Looking forward into future

1 October 2020, SLU global opened up a new chapter of collaborations by inviting SLU and Vietnamese researchers to an online workshop aiming to be a discussion forum for researchers, teachers and others to explore opportunities and interest in future collaborations based on past experiences between SLU and Vietnam. The purpose with this workshop was to create new possible networks and exchange knowledge between researchers, teachers and others at SLU and in Vietnam. More than 55 researchers were participating in small group discussions to potential future collaborations and what tools we need to make the collaborations possible. Tools, as we recognised from our experiences were not only required research competent, but also administrative supports from the universities. SLU and Uppsala University has joint representative office in Hanoi, providing supportive services connecting researchers and students, including alumni, between the two countries. Moreover, the workshop also made visible financial opportunities from Vietnam, Sweden and the EU.

A small but important step to the future is to allow researchers/teachers between the two countries to discuss their common interests as well as challenges. During the workshop, researchers were divided into 8 groups according to research interests. Common topics discussed during this workshop are varies including, land transformation, climate change, transformation from rice to horticulture, small scale forestry, pest control, agri-business, remote sensing in forest research, payment for forest environmental forestry scheme (PES), animal health, agroforestry etc. Moreover, the workshop group discussions continued to discuss the Joint teacher student exchanges and the access to new online courses. One concrete example is the course on bioinformatics, which is being developed to be given fully digitally by SLU. Voicing from the discussion, researchers from both countries would like to see the expansion of the collaboration beyond Sweden-Vietnam, but South East Asia as target region.

One of the main challenges to continue the engagement is the limitation of funding, considering Vietnam is no longer a priority for international development. Researchers can overcome this challenge by searching new financial opportunities, such as EU and the private sector, as well as focusing on early career development for researchers from low and low-middle income countries. Decreasing of financial support does not stop the ‘Will to Collaborate’. With Covid-19 in the background, online communication channels and platforms will continue to increase, which benefits a long term conversation between researchers and teachers between the two countries.

This blog post was written by Alin Kadfak, Communications Coordinator, SIANI

International collaborations – the key to tackle climate change?

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Vietnam seminar
Moderator Annika Åhnberg and evaluator Solveig Freudenthal. Photo: Emelie Olsson

“The reason we evaluate, is to learn.” With these words, SLU’s Vice-Chancellor Maria Knutson Wedel opened up the seminar about SLU’s long collaborations with Vietnam. The importance of international partnerships to tackle the current global challenges was highlighted and there was a joint emphasis from many researchers that it is time to look at the future.

Collaborations between SLU and universities in Vietnam were initiated more than 35 years ago and have had several positive outcomes. During these years, many programmes funded by Sida/SAREC took place, aimed to strengthen individual and institutional research capacity in Vietnamese priority areas. This summer, the report, which evaluates the collaborations between SLU and Vietnam, was completed. The evaluation was in focus at the seminar Tuesday 22 September. The seminar, hosted by SLU, was moderated by Annika Åhnberg, Honorary Doctor at SLU and former Swedish Minister of Agriculture.

SLU’s Vice-Chancellor Maria Knutson Wedel at the seminar. Photo: Emelie Olsson

SLU’s Vice-Chancellor Maria Knutson Wedel opened the seminar by thanking everyone involved and highlighted the importance of long collaborations. State Secretary to the minister for rural affairs, Per Callenberg, sent his greeting to the seminar participants via a recorded video and Vietnam’s ambassador to Sweden, H.E. Phan Dang Duong, welcomed everyone. This was followed by a presentation of the evaluation by Dr. Solveig Freudenthal, the independent consultant that performed the evaluation. 

The main findings of the report were very positive, according to Dr. Freudenthal. Much of the research results generated from the collaborations have been used practically in rural areas in Vietnam and benefitted agriculture, forest production and rural development. All 54 Vietnamese interviewed for the report live and work in Vietnam today. Many came back to Vietnam after their studies and are still at the same university where they started their careers. Numerous have attained senior positions at their faculties. The collaborations between SLU and the Vietnamese universities have also enabled many MSc and PhD students from Sweden to do fieldwork in Vietnam and Vietnamese students to do parts of their degrees at SLU.

All panelists were participating in Zoom. Photo: Emelie Olsson

After Dr. Freudenthal’s presentation, a panel consisting of Sweden’s ambassador to Vietnam H.E. Ann Måwe, Vice-Rector of Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, Le Dinh Phung, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Hoang Huong Giang, Associate Professor at SLU, Sofia Boqvist, and Head of Research Cooperation Unit at Sida, Anna-Maria Oltorp, discussed the importance of agricultural and environmental sciences and international collaborations in tackling the current global challenges.

“There is so much we have in common”, one of them mentioned, connecting it to climate change, and calling future collaborations “necessary”. Another statement made was that research is important in society, but research that is being implemented in society is even better. This is necessary to face the global challenges and work towards Agenda 2030.

One of the effects of supporting several universities and institutions in Vietnam is the strong research and social networks that have been developed between these institutions. The long-term personalised networks of the Swedish and Vietnamese participants have also resulted in strong research relations, according to Dr. Freudenthal, which could continue (given that funding is available), not as capacity development programmes but as joint research projects between equal partners.

An open discussion with all participants, where important and valuable comments and reflections came up, ended the seminar. A key lesson from Dr. Freudenthal’s evaluation is that exposure to international research and networks is crucial to develop conducive research environments. This also became evident during the seminar. Several participants showed an interest in future research collaborations between Sweden and Vietnam, which left much to discuss at the more in-depth workshop 1 October.  

Why are people still dying of rabies?

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This article was written by Johanna Lindahl, researcher at the Department of Clinical Sciences; Division of Reproduction, SLUThe findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

Stray dogs. Photo: Javad Esmaeili, pixabay

Imagine that you have two children. Both children are bitten by a dog that seems to have rabies, but you cannot know and now the dog has been killed. If the dog really had rabies, then the children will get it. If the children get a vaccination in time, they will not die. But the hospital is far away, the vaccine costs money and you can only afford to do this for one child, and maybe you will not make it on time. That money you would need for food for the family, and the rest of the family will suffer if you travel with one child. Maybe the dog did not really have rabies. Maybe the child that you chose to save will anyway not make it in time. What shall you do?

Rabies is a disease with 100% case fatality, but it is also a fully vaccine-preventable disease. So why are people still dying?

Globally, canine rabies is still one of the zoonotic diseases (diseases spreading to humans from animals) responsible for most human deaths (1). The vast majority of the 59 000 human deaths worldwide (2) are the result of bites from rabid dogs, with most deaths occurring in Asia (3–5). Children are most affected, probably because they are more easily bitten by dogs. In many countries, the number of cases is probably underestimated since there is no official rabies monitoring system. Since dogs are the main reservoir and source of infection for humans, vaccination of dogs is recognised as the most cost-effective and permanent solution to rabies prevention (6,7).

Numerous recent programmes have facilitated rabies control in low-resource settings, however these costly programmes have not yet achieved sufficient and sustainable vaccination coverage of 70%, which is required to eliminate canine rabies (8–10). Expansion of rabies elimination programmes in low-resource countries has been constrained by many factors:

  1. It is difficult to buy and transport the vaccines for injections, since they have to be kept cold all the time. Many countries have difficulties maintaining a cold chain, or reaching remote populations with vehicles.
  2. Many dogs are free roaming or aggressive and therefore difficult to catch and vaccinate.
  3. The dogs are often not living for very long, and therefore it is necessary to vaccinate all dogs in an area regularly to make sure that at least 70% of them are protected.
  4. Even when vaccinated, some dogs are in too poor condition for them to create enough antibodies to be protected. This can be because of malnutrition, or because of other infections, for example with parasites.

Even though vaccination of dogs is relatively expensive, the costs of human post-exposure vaccination, meaning vaccination that occurs after a person is bitten but before disease has started, is even larger. If given in good time, post-exposure vaccination will stop the disease from developing, but in many countries, there are not so many places where the vaccines are administered, and the victim has to pay for it themselves. As an example, in Cambodia people bitten by dogs can get the vaccine for free, but there are only three places in the whole country that provides this. Thus, most people that are potentially exposed to this horrible disease never gets vaccinated and may die undiagnosed in their home. Once a person develops the disease, there is nothing a hospital can do except to try to ease the symptoms. In many low and middle-income countries there is no provision for this, and the victim would be sent home to die.

Even if the reality is grim in many parts of the world, dog-transmitted rabies could be eradicated if enough dogs would be vaccinated, either by injections or by vaccine-baited food. So why has it not happened? The answer to this may lay in the lack of collaboration between human and veterinary sectors. This can be illustrated in this example from Europe: A person is bitten by a cat, imported from another country and not vaccinated. The veterinary authority agrees that it may be rabies, and the cat has to be autopsied to make the diagnosis. However, they judge it not urgent enough to pay for express transport and do the autopsy the same day, instead the animal will be autopsied the next Monday, after the weekend. However, the health sector, who has gotten the bitten patient, judge that they cannot take the chance, and initiate the post-exposure treatment, which not only has a high cost, but also some suffering for the patient. The savings done by the veterinary authority was minimal compared to the costs incurred by the hospital, resulting in higher costs for the government, which in the end funds both.

Vaccination costs for eradication of rabies in the dog population would be carried by the veterinary sector, and the savings would benefit the human health sector. This points to the need of a One Health approach with increasing collaboration between both sectors, for improved health for all. We can stop rabies, but we need to think outside our siloes and boxes and work together.

In our new project “Man’s best friend: A crossborder transdisciplinary One Health approach to rabies control in dogs in Southeast Asia”, led by the Zoonosis Science Centre at Uppsala University, we look at both dog population dynamics, antibody coverage, as well as the knowledge of people choosing to vaccinate their dogs to understand how we can improve the situation. This is done together with institutes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Lao. We aim to apply for more funds to also investigate alternatives with oral vaccination in the future, which hopefully can save more lives.

References

1.             Fooks AR, Banyard AC, Horton DL, Johnson N, McElhinney LM, Jackson AC. Current status of rabies and prospects for elimination. Lancet [Internet]. 2014 Oct 11 [cited 2018 Apr 3];384(9951):1389–99. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673613627075

2.             OIE. Report of the meeting of the OIE biological standards commission [Internet]. Paris; 2017. Available from: http://www.oie.int/fileadmin/Home/eng/Internationa_Standard_Setting/docs/pdf/BSC/A_BSC_Sept2017.pdf

3.             Taylor L, Nel L. Global epidemiology of canine rabies: past, present, and future prospects. Vet Med Res Reports [Internet]. 2015 Nov [cited 2017 Mar 7];Volume 6:361. Available from: https://www.dovepress.com/global-epidemiology-of-canine-rabies-past-present-and-future-prospects-peer-reviewed-article-VMRR

4.             Shwiff S, Hampson K, Anderson A. Potential economic benefits of eliminating canine rabies. Antiviral Res [Internet]. 2013 May 1 [cited 2017 Mar 24];98(2):352–6. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0166354213000582

5.             Cleaveland S, Lankester F, Townsend S. Rabies control and elimination: a test case for One Health. Veterinary [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2017 Mar 25]; Available from: http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/175/8/188.short

6.             Wallace RM, Undurraga EA, Blanton JD, Cleaton J, Franka R. Elimination of Dog-Mediated Human Rabies Deaths by 2030: Needs Assessment and Alternatives for Progress Based on Dog Vaccination. Front Vet Sci [Internet]. 2017 Feb 10 [cited 2018 Apr 3];4:9. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fvets.2017.00009/full

7.             Zinsstag J, Lechenne M, Laager M, Mindekem R, Naïssengar S, Oussiguéré A, et al. Vaccination of dogs in an African city interrupts rabies transmission and reduces human exposure. Sci Transl Med [Internet]. 2017 Dec 20 [cited 2018 Apr 7];9(421):eaaf6984. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29263230

8.             Elser JL, Hatch BG, Taylor LH, Nel LH, Shwiff SA. Towards canine rabies elimination: Economic comparisons of three project sites. Transbound Emerg Dis [Internet]. 2018 Feb 1 [cited 2018 Apr 3];65(1):135–45. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/tbed.12637

9.             Kayali U, Mindekem R, Yémadji N, Vounatsou P, Kaninga Y, Ndoutamia AG, et al. Coverage of pilot parenteral vaccination campaign against canine rabies in N’Djaména, Chad. Bull World Health Organ [Internet]. 2003 [cited 2018 Apr 3];81:739–44. Available from: https://www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?pid=S0042-96862003001000009&script=sci_arttext&tlng=

10.          Anyiam F, Lechenne M, Mindekem R, Oussigéré A, Naissengar S, Alfaroukh IO, et al. Cost-estimate and proposal for a development impact bond for canine rabies elimination by mass vaccination in Chad. Acta Trop [Internet]. 2017 Nov 1 [cited 2018 Apr 3];175:112–20. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001706X16305101