The important role animal health will play in meeting the challenge of feeding a burgeoning world population was highlighted yesterday at a conference at Edinburgh’s Moredun Research Institute.
Among the audience of 120 from the agricultural, veterinary and research sectors was the Princess Royal in her capacity as patron of the Moredun Foundation, which governs the work of the internationally renowned institute.
The Princess Royal has previously praised the research work at Moredun as vital for the protection of livestock and people, both in Scotland and worldwide.
Moredun scientific director Professor Julie Fitzpatrick, who is also professor of food security at the University of Edinburgh, pointed in particular to the importance of animal health to the 700 million of the world’s poorest people who rely on farming animals for their survival.
“Infectious diseases of food-producing animals result in reduced efficiency or significant losses in food production and adversely affect animal welfare and trade,” said Fitzpatrick.
“Effective control of animal pathogens is crucial not only for safeguarding and securing national and international food supplies, but also for alleviating rural poverty in developing countries.”
Her remarks are pertinent in the light of a new midges-borne disease for which no vaccine is available, Schmallenberg virus, which has hit sheep flocks in the east of England and is threatening the survival of lambs through reabsorption of the foetus, stillbirth and deformed lambs. The disease is spreading rapidly, but no cases have been reported in Scotland as yet.
Founded by Scottish farmers in the 1920s, Moredun is recognised throughout the world for its research into the prevention and control of infectious diseases in livestock.
Disease adversely affects growth rates, feed conversion and food quality. Moredun’s research is focused towards developing diagnostic tests, control measures and vaccines to maximise biological efficiency of livestock throughout the world.
Many animal diseases can also have a direct impact on human health. In the UK lone, it is estimated that about a million people suffer a food borne illness each year, with more than 500 deaths and 20,000 being admitted to hospital. Scientists at Moredun are working on the top four food and water-borne pathogens that pose a threat to public health, with the aim of developing effective control measures.
Speaking at yesterday’s conference, Nigel Miller, the National Farmers Union of Scotland president, who is also a qualified vet, highlighted the crucial role of cattle and sheep in tackling world food concerns and dismissed calls for the emphasis to be placed on growing crops that humans could eat directly.
This was unrealistic, he argued, as much of the land in Scotland – and elsewhere in the world – was only capable of growing grass and was unsuitable for arable crops. Climate and geography meant that the options available to farmers in Scotland were limited and cattle and sheep had the ability to produce protein from grass.
“A relatively reliable level of rainfall does allow us to focus on the crops we can grow well, particularly grass,” said Miller. “Scotland’s cattle and sheep continue to generate high value protein from grass – a crop of little nutritional benefit to the human race – and livestock production is always likely to be the cornerstone of our contribution to food production.”
Good animal health was vital to achieve optimum productivity, as well as performance recording and targeted nutrition
“Moredun is driving forward the way we tackle costly production diseases.
“These developments in animal health will help generate productivity benefits for our farmers and also ensure Scotland is best placed to contribute to rising global demand for livestock products” he said.
Food security, he added, was undoubtedly one of the big challenges ahead for mankind – both in economic and moral terms – with the world’s population predicted to rise from seven billion to nine billion by 2050.
“The current and future demand for food will impact on every agricultural area in the world and the contribution that they must make to food requirements,” said Miller.
l The Princess Royal will today be attending the Royal Northern Spring Show at Thainstone Centre, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire