What the pandemic taught us about the future of academic exchange

This blogpost is written by SLU students Emma Bergeling, Hanna Smidvik, Emil Planting Mollaoglu and Felicia Olsson. It was first published by SIANI.

As a result of the corona pandemic, the embedded practices of international travel in academia drastically changed. It suddenly became customary to replace business trips with digital alternatives whenever possible. Four students at SLU decided to study the implications. The results show a great untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel by conducting a larger share of academic activities digitally – without compromising the quality of research. 

In the turmoil that arose due to the travel restrictions put in place in March 2020, academics suddenly had to find solutions to continue their work in ways that did not include longer business trips. As students actively involved in discussions on universities’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we have for long been discussing the question of how academic business trips can be replaced by digital alternatives while maintaining the quality of work and research. 2020 presented an unexpected window of opportunity to seek an answer to that question and to gather academics’ experiences of the new reality without travels.

Academia in a burning climate crisis

The topic of GHG emissions from academia in general and academics’ air travel in particular has over the past decade been the focus of a growing number of publications in scientific journals and in mainstream media. This should be understood against a backdrop of factors such as i) the climate crisis itself,  ii) the notion of aviation as one of the fastest-growing sources of GHG emissions – characterised by a slow technological development unlikely to compensate for the estimated growth in demand, and iii) the recognition of academic researchers as among the highest emitters when it comes to international air travel, but also as potential leaders in a transition to a society within the planetary boundaries, if combining advocacy with changes in their own emission habits. This debate has resulted in various commitments, initiatives and responsibilities for higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world. With air travel being one of universities’ largest sources of GHG emissions, the need to critically scrutinise the norms and practices of academic travel is apparent. 

Prior to the pandemic, one could mainly speculate about the consequences of a drastic and large-scale reduction of travel in academia. University employees’ recently gained experiences of an increased use of digital solutions replacing longer business trips are therefore valuable in the search for new norms and practices of academic travel. In our study, we wanted to collect these experiences before they fell into oblivion. Through 25 semi-structured interviews and a survey with approximately 220 respondents, we sought to answer how employees at SLU experienced the cancellation of business trips and increased use of digital solutions. What trips worked well or not so well to replace? How was the quality of various academic activities (seminars, thesis defences, conferences, project meetings etc.) affected by being held digitally? 

Digital solutions replacing academic travel – what have we learnt? 

Our study shows that there is a great, untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel without compromising the general quality of the research and work. By adopting a more thought-through mix of digital and physical meetings, where a larger share of activities are conducted digitally, academia can reduce GHG emissions while keeping the quality as well as opening up for greater accessibility and participation.

A majority of the respondents were surprised by how well it had worked to replace longer business trips with digital alternatives, surprisingly well or beyond expectation were common formulations. An overwhelming majority (83%) of the survey respondents reported that their work in general had been mainly positively affected, equal parts positively and negatively affected, or not affected at all by the travel restrictions. 

Effects on work in general.

The academic activities that were experienced as most difficult to perform digitally were certain types of fieldwork and data collection, as well as activities that require spontaneous discussions and networking. We also found that meetings had become more efficient, but often at the expense of social interactions. On the other hand, well-structured meetings with a clear agenda between people that had previously met in person, as well as activities such as administrative meetings, project meetings and seminars, were perceived as most suited to perform digitally. These experiences were also mirrored in the survey respondents’ answers to what academic activities they thought could be held digitally – and to what extent – in the future. 

What type of activities the respondents believed could be replaced with digital solutions after the corona crisis and to what extent.

Furthermore, our results show how digital activities have enabled greater accessibility and equality within the academic community. Researchers that would not have had the time, resources or possibilities to travel to various meetings could now participate in digital events on more equal terms. On the other hand, lack of access to stable internet connection and issues of time differences made certain meetings less inclusive and/or equal. A key takeaway is therefore that digital events have the potential to be more inclusive than physical events but that it is important to actively consider equality and accessibility aspects in planning.

Another eye-opener following the increased use of digital solutions is how these were used to reach a wider audience with research and education. Instead of having farmers or beekeepers travel to SLU to listen to a seminar or to take part in a course, the material was recorded and made publicly available digitally. In a research project reference group consisting of farmers, more had been able to join the meetings now that they were held digitally, as opposed to before when the group had to travel to SLU for each meeting.

Our study also found that there seems to be a need to improve how we use digital solutions and start thinking beyond the mere translation of a physical event or meeting into a digital one. The informants had a lot of useful insights concerning this and we have summarised some of these insights in the figure below. 

Six hacks for successfull digital meetings.

Lastly, most informants lacked experiences of networking in digital events as this part had been neglected when events were digitised and they stressed a need for new and inventive ways of networking digitally, moving forward.

New ways forward for academia post-corona

The participants clearly did not want to continue travelling to the extent they had before the pandemic. However, no one wanted to completely move from physical meetings to only digital solutions. It is time we find a golden middle way. Many expressed that they had begun to think in new ways about what makes it important to meet in person and what makes a business trip necessary or not.

“I’m sure you can reduce the amount of physical meetings quite considerably, and that the [physical] meetings you do have you can spend some more quality and preparations at them so they are well motivated and so that you get the most out of them. ‘Which are the good conditions and perks of meeting in person?’ And then make sure to optimise them.” – Professor

Although the pandemic has closed countless doors, it should in some respects be seen as a window of opportunity to make new decisions and do things in new ways. An opportunity to address and rethink what is actually possible in terms of reducing academia’s GHG emissions.

“There are surely plenty of ways to do this that we have never tried, that might be better than what we are doing right now.”Professor

Interesting questions remain: what will university managements as well as researchers make of this opening, what insights and new learnings will they bring with them into the future? Which new practices will stay on to become embedded within the culture of academia in a post-corona context?  We argue that the answers to these questions should lead to emission reductions in line with climate science. That decisions about what business trips actually are necessary are based on thorough evaluations of experiences from this pandemic, and that digital solutions are used strategically to replace longer business trips. The urgent climate crisis, combined with this unexpected window of opportunity, makes it crystal clear that the time for academia to change embedded practices, rapidly reduce emissions and take on a leadership role is now. Our study has shown that all of this can be done without compromising the quality of research. So what are we waiting for?

Antibiotics – a tragedy of the commons

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.

For the love of the spud in spite of its beauty spots

This article was written by Erik Alexandersson, Researcher at the Department of Plant Protection Biology, SLU

Small holder farmers together with Lerato Matsaunyane at ARC in Randfontein. Photo: Flip Steyn.

Today, 26 October, is the offical potato day here in Sweden and a good opportunity to look closer at this quite nutritional crop. The potato is grown and eaten all over the world and production is on the rise in many low income countries – primarily in Africa. The versatility and adaptability of this beloved spud is the key to it´s wide spread. However, diseases and drought due to changed climate present threats to yields in the future.

Potatoes have long been essential for Western cuisine. They are loved in many forms. Why not boiled together with meat and sauce, as fries accompanying that novel non-meat burger or simply as crisps, which can be seen as the centrepiece of cosy television time with the family. Worldwide potato is today the third most consumed crop.

The potato retains its popularity in spite the rise of the fast-boiling pasta and popularity of low-carb diets. Consumption in the industrialised world have been stable the last 20 years even if it now and again ends up in the dietary cold box.

In low-income countries, potato production is still on the rise though. In 2008, the total production even passed that of the industrialised world. Not the least in sub-Saharan Africa where incidence of malnutrition are among the highest in the world, and sadly more than 15% of the total population still lacks sufficient food.

In fact, its cropping area and production have increased more than those of any other food crop in Africa (1). Today, it is maybe foremost an important cash crop for small-scale farmers, but since the areal and demand are rising we can predict that it will have a greater importance to future food security in the region.

Potato has a fantastic ability to adapt and yield in different climate conditions. Originating from the Andes the potato is grown on all continents except Antarctica. Its ability to produce well in so many different environments is an important part of its success. Still many diseases affects the production. In temperate regions late blight is considered as one of the most dreaded plant diseases. Extensive research has gone into combating late blight and today we have both conventional bred and genetically modified potatoes carrying additional resistance genes with high level of resistance as well as efficient pesticides.

Potato trials in Roodeplaat. Photo: Flip Steyn

However, in an African perspective, other diseases such as early blight, which thrives in warmer climates and insect pests that destroy harvested tubers can cause larger problems. The underlying mechanisms of several other diseases than late blight are less studied and lesser known. Unfortunately, efficient resistance factors are unknown and remain to be discovered for use in breeding programmes. For early blight, there is also an increased problem with pesticide resistance.

For the small-scale farmers it is not easy to afford to protect their potato crop or take the right measures. One powerful way to convert research into practice are field demonstrations for farmers, advisers and policy makers, something we tried out with our colleagues Lerato Matsaunyane at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa and Tewodros Mulugeta at Kotebe Metropolitan University in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, for the farmers in Southern Africa, unpredictable rains have caused big problems for agriculture. In this context, potato will have a challenge as it is sensitive to drought, also to shorter micro-droughts and clearer focus on research on drought tolerant varieties is needed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have a very large impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for a future drought tolerant potato is evident.

Luckily, the International Potato Center and other research institutes are doing multifaceted research to provide a disease free and drought tolerant potato suitable for different needs in African agriculture.

But, today is the official potato day here in Sweden, so let us just for a moment look away from these beauty spots of this loved spud. Did you for example know that the nutritional value of potato is not that bad! Tubers harbours fibre and important nutrients such as vitamin C, tocopherols and carotenoids! And with the right cultivar under the right conditions it can be one of the most high-yielding crops! With a production of 15, 40 or even 60 tonnes per hectare it can for sure feed many hungry stomachs.

References

(1) Ortiz, O., & Mares, V. (2017). The historical, social, and economic importance of the potato crop. In The Potato Genome (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham

Why do we collaborate?

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?

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?

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

Smallholder farmers in Kenya know how to meet climate challenges, but lack the means to do it

This article was written and first published by SIANI in collaboration with PhD Ylva Nyberg, Department of Crop Production Ecology, SLU. The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

A more diversified farming system spread the risks better and has higher delivery of ecosystem services even if it needs more knowledge and labour. Photo: Ylva Nyberg.

Many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are caught up in a negative spiral. Often farming on one hectare of land, they struggle to make ends meet and, in most cases, they cannot afford enough farm inputs, which leads to declining soil fertility of their farms, resulting in low yields. Many farmers have to look for casual jobs to get by. Poverty pushes them to reduce the number of meals they eat, so they also lack the energy to farm.

Climate change with its changing rain patterns, droughts and floods doesn’t make the life of smallholder farmers easier. Contrary to the popular belief, recent research by Ylva Nyberg, highlights that smallholder farmers are well aware of the climatic challenges and know how to adapt and cope. However, they would be reluctant to adopt sustainable agricultural practices due to the lack of access to credit, land, knowledge and labour.

Nyberg carried out her field work on smallholder farms across a gradient of landscapes in Kenya, from Kisumu by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia in the western highlands. She summarized her findings in her PhD dissertation which she defended at the Department of Crop Production Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. 

Initially, Nyberg embarked on her journey to gain a better understanding of how small farms can increase yields without damaging nature. She used a variety of research methods, such as group and individual interviews, tree density measurement, soil sample analysis and randomized control trials. During the group interviews, Nyberg explored whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and if they had planned to adapt to changing rainfall patterns. She quickly learnt that smallholders were well aware of climatic changes and also knew many adaptation and coping strategies, though men happened to be better informed than women

Then Nyberg spoke with farmers individually to find out how they applied their knowledge of adaptation measures. The results varied in accordance with access to social capital. Men tended to have higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networking, and they also were able to use more adaptation measures than women, especially those who lack education. Farmers with regular access to agricultural advisory services used more adaptation measures, especially those measures that they perceived most effective.

During these interviews many farmers also mentioned that having trees and livestock makes them less vulnerable, providing insurances or savings. Therefore, Nyberg has also considered these parameters in her work. It appears that higher tree density increased the workload on farms, but the income that came from these farms was higher too. In addition, trees were important to all farmers by providing shade for recreation. High livestock density showed signs of higher soil nitrogen turnover, even though collecting and using the manure can be challenging. Low tree and low livestock density were often an indicator of high dependency on off-farm revenues.

Agroforestry was one of the practices found to positively affect maize yields as well as being perceived effective among farmers. However, agroforestry is also labour-intensive. Photo by Ylva Nyberg

Lastly, Nyberg compared farms that took part in Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project over four years with those farms that weren’t engaged in carbon farming. She found that maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and to growing more trees on the farm, the so-called agroforestry. Farmers working with the Carbon Project used more sustainable management practices, had higher yields and better food self-sufficiency as well as more savings than farmers who weren’t involved in the project.

However, the farmers who participated in the Carbon Project had higher yields to begin with and the difference in yield between the two groups of farms were similar in the first and the fourth year. Thereby, the increases in yield cannot be explained by the project only, unless the neighbouring farms outside the project had actually learnt methods and started practising them as well.

Smallholders have great potential to improve their production in a sustainable way, but they lack sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural land management practices.

Nyberg suggests that policy should address the farming and food production system as a whole, increasing inclusivity, particularly in regards to women with poor education. Agricultural advisors should also promote packages of simple but effective measures, encourage diversified farming systems where feasible and focus on the limiting factors, such as access to credit, knowledge and labour. This way, farmers will have the means to practice sustainable agriculture. Only then smallholder farmers will be able to build sustainable livelihood, supply ecosystem services and be climate action agents.

Check out Ylva Nybergs PhD thesis here.

Deagrarianisation: From South Africa to Europe

This blog post was originally posted on SIANI:s website by researcher Klara Fisher, SLU.

Photo: Klara Fischer, SLU

In recent years, rural people have increasingly abandoned agriculture. This trend, often referred to as deagrarianisation in academic debate, occurs in both smallholder contexts and industrial farming. However, the abandonment of farming has the clearest negative effects on rural food security and livelihoods in the smallholder farms of the Global South.

On May 5, 2020 SIANI and the South Africa Sweden University Forum (SASUF) co-hosted a webinar about deagrarianisation where experienced researchers from Europe and South Africa presented, discussed and compared agricultural trends in South Africa with those of Sweden, Hungary and Ukraine. The webinar attracted an audience of 100 people and generated lively discussions between participants and presenters.

Today, farmers across the world experience increased competition, high costs of inputs and low price at farm gates. In the face of the increasing pressure on agriculture, farmers react differently. Large commercial farmers often see upscaling as the only viable option for remaining competitive.

As a result, South Africa’s large commercial farms as well as European farms are becoming fewer and larger, when more competitive farms purchase or lease the land of less competitive neighbours.

Cecilia Waldenström describes here how this general trend has played out in three regions in Sweden. In the south of the country with the best agricultural lands there was a clear trend of upscaling and increased mechanisation. In more marginal areas with lower quality agricultural land and longer distances to markets farmers employed strategies of low input -low output production, similar to what is seen in many smallholder contexts in the Global South. Cecilia also pointed out the lack of availability of agricultural education and advisory services in marginal regions, a trend seen equally in the Global South.

Brian Kuns and Ildikó Aztalos Morell presented research from two post-communist contexts in Eastern Europe. Under the soviet authoritarian regime, land was commonly allocated in large field areas outside of the villages, while most households also had a plot in the village for subsistence. There are clear similarities between this land allocation and the top-down instituted reorganisation of fields into communal areas outside villages and the homelands during apartheid in South Africa.

In Hungary and Ukraine the landscape creates by the soviet authoritarian regime has facilitated elite capture and large-scale investments. In the Ukraine smallholders today lease out their plots for small sums of money to food processing oligarchs and foreign investors and this has led Ukraine to host some of the largest commercial farming operations in the world.

In South Africa such investments are rare, and instead, there is widespread abandonment of fields in communal areas as described in some detail during the webinar by ProfessorSheona Shackleton.

Most of smallholders in South Africa as well as in Ukraine, testify that it is difficult to work on the communal fields individually. These areas are far away from their house and it takes time to get there, so it is difficult to tend to the field. Lack of capital is also a major barrier for investing in machinery, fencing and inputs.

While Ukrainian farmers make a profit from their farms by leasing the land to a large landowner, it is important to remember that today’s industrial farms employ very few people, which has been contributing to joblessness and rural poverty.

David Neves and Flora Hajdu described the increasing importance of the South African welfare system, with child grants and pensions, for reducing vulnerability and food insecurity in the face of deagrarianisation and increasing joblessness.

Several of the presenters pointed out how the general trend of deagrarianisation does not mean that farming is no longer important for rural people. Also, there are countertendencies to the general trend. In Sweden and across Europe, contestations of the industrialisation and upscaling of farming are emerging in slow food movements, local farmers’ markets and efforts to preserve traditional crop varieties, where farmers capitalise on other values than quantity and price.

Paul Hebinck provided examples where South African smallholders had decided to continue to farm their fields, or re-open them, and how they take pride in maintaining their agricultural lifestyles, local varieties of seed and livestock.

The presenters also noted that both in South Africa and Ukraine many people have homegardens, growing their food, even when they abandon field farming. Thus, abandonment of distant fields isn’t the same as the abandonment of farming.

Flora Hajdu also described how the small money from welfare payments could be important for being able to reinvest in intensifying household gardening and the local sale of vegetables.

Despite the general trend of deagrarianisation, the seminar showed that it does not equal to abandoning of agriculture – farming will remain an important livelihood strategy for those living in rural areas and with access to land, although it will not always be managed in the same way as in the past.


This post is written by Klara Fischer, researcher at SLU. Her research concerns how smallholders’ adopt and adapt new technologies and practices, the relationship between smallholders’ practices and agricultural policy and advice and broader societal discourses on agriculture development and natural resource management.

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.