Conversation on policies: healthy livestock act as security against hunger

The role of cattle and other domesticated animals in promoting food security should take on an increasingly important position on the policy agenda argue Sarah Chiumbu, Safiyya Goga and Vasu Reddy, reporting  on a new project that focuses on the social and human dimensions of primary animal health care for small-scale farming communities in South Africa.

Food security is a concern in South Africa. Child undernourishment continues to be too high for South Africa as a developed, middle-income country. The 2011 General Household Survey of Statistics South Africa shows that 11.5% – that is close to 10 million people – experienced hunger in the 30 days prior to the survey; and according to the Presidency’s 20 Year Review: South Africa 1994-2014, 21% of households continue to experience difficulty in accessing food.

There is increasing recognition within the international development literature, as well as in research on sub-Saharan African economies and livelihoods, that small-scale livestock farming provide pathways out of poverty, towards food security and sustainable livelihoods. According to Dr Rebone Moerane, chair in Public Animal Health Care, University of Pretoria, there are approximately 1 million small-scale livestock keepers in the country, with 6 million cattle, 3.5 million sheep and 4.6 million goats. Keeping small numbers of cattle continues to be crucial to many agricultural households across the country, as shown in Figure 1:

Smallholder farmers who are already in precarious socio-economic circumstances are worst affected by livestock disease outbreaks

In a 2014 pilot study on two small-scale livestock farming communities along the Mpumalanga-Limpopo border, it was found that 95% of the households in the sample keep cattle, and that livestock were used primarily as a household-sustaining strategy. Livestock keeping seems to contribute to preventing households from stark poverty, as these households sell livestock out of necessity rather than as a commercial activity. Keeping livestock, particularly cattle, serves as a store of value and savings to be sold in times of need and crisis; one participant referred to cattle as a ‘traditional bank’.

Figure 2: Household Food Insecurity (in the areas surveyed)

Disease and animal healthcare
The livestock sector remains highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people are affected. In the South African context, smallholder farmers who are already in precarious socio-economic circumstances are worst affected by livestock disease outbreaks where the loss of even a single animal can sometimes have a devastating impact. The study found that disease, after hunger, is the main cause of death of livestock, and that primary animal healthcare (PAHC), particularly preventative healthcare is therefore a central concern for small-scale livestock keepers.

Rural livestock farming development cannot be separated from broader issues of social and human development

Collaboration between research councils
Taking into consideration the importance of animal health to social and human development in livestock-keeping communities the HSRC and the Agriculture Research Council (ARC) are partnering on Phase 2 of the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre-funded project, ‘Novel livestock vaccines for viral diseases in Africa towards improved food security’.

The project aims to develop vaccines targeted at important viral diseases affecting cattle, sheep and goats. There is growing recognition that the advances in biotechnology towards improving animal disease control are important, with the use of vaccination strategies proving highly successful in preventing, controlling and reducing the incidence of animal diseases worldwide. Vaccines have been a major contributor in the eradication of major diseases and preventing a significant number of livestock deaths which would have occurred as a result of infectious diseases.

The HSRC was invited to join the project to provide insights into the social and human dimensions of animal health and small-scale farming communities across disease-prevalent parts of South Africa. Our participation comes with the recognition that rural livestock farming development cannot be separated from broader issues of social and human development.

The project, which adopts a multi-dimensional approach involving researchers in micro-biology, agricultural economics and social science, examines the links between vaccine development and social and economic factors in order to evaluate the economic impact and ensure the uptake of the new vaccines by small-scale farmers. Ultimately, the project aims to promote greater food and economic security in livestock keeping households through improved animal health.

Animal health and policy
Evidence and statistics on the importance of primary animal health care for livestock development in South Africa show that stronger policy and regulatory measures and interventions are required. Therefore, an important aspect of the study is the holding of a series of policy dialogues, which are intended to create a forum where relevant stakeholders including government, researchers, animal health practitioners and farmers can explore ways of integrating learning into delivery systems.(also read  the NewsRoundup)

The importance of primary animal health care for livestock development in South Africa shows that stronger policy and regulatory measures and interventions are required.

The policy dialogues have the overall objective of contributing to policies and strategies aimed at using scientific innovation and technology to reduce poverty through better animal health, which improves livelihoods and opportunities for household wealth creation in rural livestock keeping communities. The dialogues are aimed at the implementation of the National Research and Development Strategy and the new 10-Year Innovation Plan formulated to help drive South Africa’s transformation towards a knowledge-based economy in which the production and dissemination of knowledge leads to economic benefits and enriches all fields of human endeavour.

Concluding remarks
The area of primary animal health is new to the Human and Social Development research programme at the HSRC, but aligns with key themes in the programme relating to communities, gender and social dimensions of climate change. It is hoped that through the upscaling of the project new and useful insights will emerge on the social and socioeconomic dimensions that impact on community development in rural South Africa.

Authors: Dr Sarah Chiumbu, African research fellow, Human and Social Development (HSD) research programme, HSRC;   Safiyya Goga, PhD intern, HSD; ; Prof. Vasu Reddy, former executive director, HSD, dean of Humanities, University of Pretoria.