How to Stop Food Systems from Feeding Pandemics: Embrace One Health

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The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and most disruptive in a wave of infectious disease outbreaks since 1980 for which zoonotic pathogens, a term used for diseases that jump from animals to humans, are responsible. HIV/AIDS and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic also have their origins in animal hosts. The forces fueling this rise in zoonitic threats are only intensifying. That means more pandemics may already be in the zoonotic pipeline.

The drivers involve, among other things, a proliferation of human activities in once undisturbed habitats, rising production of livestock and an increase in the trade of wildlife products. A closely related threat involves the rise of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) – drug-resistant diseases fueled by the misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in human medicine and agricultural production. Reduced effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics we’ve relied on for decades could lead to 10 million deaths annually by 2050. In addition, the number of illnesses and deaths caused by unsafe food – primarily perishable products such as animal-source foods – are comparable to those from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. But efforts to prevent them receive far less investment.

The growing problems created by interactions between humans, animals and the environment demonstrate how our health is tightly bound to that of other species and the ecosystems that support them. That’s why today, there is a growing call to embrace what is known as One Health to recognize that a threat in one area is a potential threat to all. One Health initiatives bring together medical, veterinary, agriculture, environmental and socio-economic experts to protect people and the planet. One Health programs are particularly focused on challenges across the food system that are increasing human health risks from zoonotic and drug-resistant diseases.

Food as the problem, food as the solution  

Today there is an impressive mosaic of coalitions emerging around the world committed to developing more sustainable, equitable food systems that give everyone access to healthy, diverse diets—diets that include a better balance of grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and livestock products. A One Health emphasis is essential to achieving these goals—and a One Health focus has been part of the UN Food Systems Summit. That’s because the way food is now produced, transported, processed, sold and consumed presents multiple entry points for disease.

Food-related risks are especially high in developing countries due to a number of factors. These include population and income growth leading to surging demand for food in general, and particularly food from livestock. This demand is escalating food safety pressures on both informal markets and the long supply chains now being developed to connect farmers with fast-growing urban centers.

CGIAR seizes the moment with a One Health Initiative

With its extensive experience working in the food systems of the developing world, CGIAR is a natural locus for leading a global One Health Initiative focused on food system risks. Its new One Health Initiative, “Protecting human health through a One Health approach,” is consolidating a multi-disciplinary team — and providing a new focus on the economics and environmental dimensions of One Health. It is engaging partners in Bangladesh, Cote d’Ivoire, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Vietnam. The program will improve the detection and control of zoonotic pathogens; implement new strategies for preventing food-borne diseases; and work with farmers and governments to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and aquaculture. Key aspects of the initiative include:

  • Surveillance: no more COVID-like surprises – CGIAR experts have recently worked closely with governments in Colombia and Kenya to use a genomic platform to monitor genetic variations in SARS-CoV2—the virus that causes COVID-19. This same type of advanced “genomic surveillance” will be valuable for tracking emerging zoonotic threats in the food system.
  • Food safety: simplicity for safety’s sake – The One Health Initiative will expand successful food safety interventions already implemented in informal markets in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Kenya and Ethiopia. Food-borne risks can be reduced by following simple strategies, like using color-coded surfaces and containers for keeping raw and cooked food separate and implementing training and behavior change programs coupled with incentives for adopting good food hygiene practices.
  • Drug-resistance: seeking the antidote for overuse of antibiotics – CGIAR experts will test interventions that address the root problems that lead to an over-reliance on cheap antibiotics by small-scale food producers. These include the lack of affordable vaccines, quality feed and other alternatives for improving the health of livestock herds and fish stocks.
  • Environment: biosafety on the farm – This work includes focusing on pollution generated by livestock and aquaculture production that can carry antibiotic-resistant pathogens into local water supplies. There are also lessons from places like Kenya’s Masai Mara region about how to work with livestock-dependent communities to limit livestock interactions with wild animals.
  • Governance: uniting under the One Health banner – A 2003 avian influenza outbreak prompted the government of Vietnam to consolidate human, animal, agriculture and environmental health experts into a new One Health Partnership. This strategy was credited with controlling outbreaks of other avian influenzas and rabies as well. It now offers a One Health model that can be adopted in many other countries.

The high costs of COVID-19 vs. the low costs of One Health

The CGIAR One Health Initiative provides a beacon for rallying global investments that can help avert another trillion-dollar-plus shock to the global economy like that administered by COVID-19. This type of One Health work is also vital for stopping smaller outbreaks of zoonotic diseases and food-borne illness and the rise in drug-resistant pathogens that are collectively causing an enormous amount of human suffering and economic damage. Even before the current pandemic, every dollar invested in One Health approaches was already generating five dollars in benefits. Supporting the CGIAR One Health Initiative is a timely and cost-effective way to secure a future in which food fuels healthy bodies—not pandemics, drug-resistant diseases and food-borne illness.

Authored by: Hung Nguyen-Viet, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH); and Vivian Hoffman, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH).

Header image: Livestock receive vaccinations. Photo by ILRI.

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