Published on Investing in Health

Beyond nutrition, investing in livestock can also deliver on health

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Scenes from Al Nnuhoud Livestock Market, North Kordofan where livestock is brought
and traded from places nearby.
Photo: Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank

When the United Nations negotiators recently met in New York to track progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGSs), a number of side events to the High-Level Political Forum were organized to emphasize the crucial role of agriculture. I attended a couple of these events and took the opportunity to illustrate why investments in livestock will pay dividends for sustainable development, and more particularly for health. 

Intuitively, we understand that SDG2 – the goal to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, is strongly connected to SDG3 – the goal to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages. Having sustained access to sufficient nutritious food is essential for people to build or maintain good health; conversely, one needs to be in good health to make the best of the food she -or he- can access.
Simply put, animal-sourced foods, milk, meat and eggs are important sources of nutrition and health. They provide a broad spectrum of nutrients, energy and protein. Today, livestock supply about 26 % of the proteins and 13 % of the calories in human diets. Animal-sourced foods are rich in micronutrients (such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, calcium, iron and zinc), which are critical in maintaining the health of women in age of bearing a child, and also in the physical and cognitive development of children; two groups with limited food intake capacity relative to their needs. So, livestock can be a vector to deliver on nutrition, connecting strongly with SDGs 2 and 3.
Of course, nutrition and malnutrition are also a matter of excess. Increasingly, developing countries suffer from adverse health effects linked to overweight and obesity, associated with excessive consumption of food, including animal-sourced foods. However, at their current low levels of consumption by the rural poor, even small increases in animal-sourced foods intake provide nutritional benefits that outweigh acute or chronic disease risks associated with the high consumption of animal-sourced foods in high-income countries or high-income households in developing countries.
As we increase livestock production and productivity, leading to higher availability of animal-sourced foods, we need to make sure this translates into improved nutritional status. It is not always straightforward. For example, in Ethiopia, which has the largest livestock population in Africa, nutrition paradoxically remains a challenge for many households, with approximately 44% of children under-5 years being stunted. Ensuring efficient and functional food markets is one of the keys to overcome this challenge, by increasing the welfare levels of producers and consumers simultaneously. Improvements in livestock production, including food markets, are among several underlying factors that could contribute to higher socio-economic status. This should also promote a more diverse diet. Interventions to ensure that improved diets benefit target groups of young children and pregnant women are also important.
The connection between livestock and public health goes far beyond nutrition, however.
It is estimated that two thirds of infectious diseases in humans have their origin in animals. Brucellosis, rabies, or Rift Valley fever are among well-known infectious diseases having their sources in animals, be it livestock or wildlife. Globally, 13 of these zoonotic infections are responsible together for the deaths of 2.2 million people and 2.4 million illnesses each year; the vast majority occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Also, children and women, who frequently have the task of taking care of household livestock, are at greater risk of exposure. Livestock that are well taken care of and in good health are also less likely to introduce pathogens to humans through contaminated milk, eggs and meat. So, maintaining animal health and welfare is a major factor in reducing the burden of infectious diseases in human populations, preventing outbreaks and controlling epidemics, which present a major obstacle to our development efforts. This is why animal health, food safety and One Health are of paramount importance for our 2030 Agenda.
The global demand for livestock products is set to increase by 70% in the next 30 years and nearly all that growth will occur in developing countries. The increasing demand for animal-sourced food and the associated expansion of livestock production systems are likely to raise the risk of emerging infectious diseases at the human animal interface; because of increasing livestock numbers, accelerating animal turnover, confinement of large numbers of animals in small spaces, as well as habitat fragmentation and encroachment with wildlife.
Another possible consequence of this increasing demand is an expected increase of the quantities of antimicrobials used in livestock production. According to a recent World Bank report on antimicrobial resistance, the global consumption of antibiotics in agriculture could increase by 67% by 2030, and consumption of antibiotics amongst the five major emerging national economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) could even increase by 99% in that same period. If unchecked, all of this will potentially contribute to the rising trends in antimicrobial resistance of human infections across the globe.
Today more than ever, at a time when the Bank is responding to increasing demand from countries for investments in livestock, and in line with the Bank’s commitment to assist countries in improving their resilience and preparedness to major outbreaks of infectious diseases, we need to seize the opportunity to use livestock as a vehicle to deliver on health.


Franck Berthe

Senior Livestock Specialist

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