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Blog Post
27 April 2022

Livestock’s many virtues – why livestock health should be prioritised

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya from Pexels

Why should people in Sweden care about diseases in livestock in low- and lower-middle-income countries?

This is a question that I have been asked on numerous occasions ever since I started my doctoral studies, researching diseases of sheep and goats in Zambia and Tanzania. While my opinion might be biased from working with livestock health, there is no doubt in my mind when I answer this question.

Ever since domestication thousands of years ago, livestock have played a substantial role in human development. It is evident that society as we know it today would not exist without livestock. These species do not only put food on our tables. They are also integral sources of income for both commercial and traditional farmers across the world. For all this, a good state of health is a prerequisite. Ensuring good livestock health should therefore be a focus in any development agenda.

Many imagine that healthier livestock mainly mean improving the efficiency of delivering livestock products, which is a critical response to the increasing demand for animal-derived foods. However, as we will see, healthy livestock is not just about producing more food. It is essential for a healthy society as a whole.

Throughout much of the world, livestock are cornerstones in people’s lives, and their role is perhaps especially important for the poor in the Global South. It has been estimated that roughly 70% of the rural poor are partially or completely dependent on livestock (1). In addition to yielding a source of household income, they can transform grass and foliage growing on non-arable lands into meat, milk and eggs, etc., containing high levels of important proteins, nutrients and micronutrients, which are essential to healthy development, disease prevention, and wellbeing. Hides and fibres from livestock are widely used as building materials, and their manure as fuel and fertilisers. Larger livestock species often play important roles as draught animals, for example when transporting goods and cultivating fields. As livestock ownership is often less restricted than land ownership, livestock can play important roles for vulnerable groups in society, such as women, youth, and members of marginalised ethnic groups. Livestock can hence contribute to alleviating poverty, reducing hunger, and improving societal equality.

“In our village, we do not have banks, the goats are our bank accounts.” These are the words of a goat farmer in northern Zambia. In addition to generating revenue, farmers who invest in livestock also acquire a means to store their wealth until urgent need, similar to bank accounts in the Western world. The way this works is that the farmer can sell animals when in need of money, for example, to pay hospital bills or to buy fertilisers for the crop fields. Also, the sale of livestock is often used to pay school fees, and as such, these animals help farmers put their children through school.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio from Pexels

So, back to my question, should we care about livestock diseases? My obvious answer is “Yes”, for multiple reasons. In addition to their more obvious effects on animal welfare (which should not be disregarded), livestock diseases also cause impacts of varying severity on people’s lives. These diseases can be manifested as severe outbreaks that can wipe out entire herds, causing disastrous consequences on people’s access to, for example, income and food. The effects are not limited to farmers, families, and communities but will also trickle down to other members of the value chain, including animal traders, abattoir workers, various retailers, and consumers of animal-derived food. However, livestock diseases can also be manifested as solitary cases of mild, insidious symptoms that temporarily or permanently will reduce the productive potential of the animal and/or herd. It is a well-known fact that healthy animals free of diseases grow faster, are superior producers of, for example, milk and eggs, and are better equipped to both become pregnant, give birth and raise young animals. They are less resource-demanding than animals in poor health states, thereby causing a smaller burden on the environment and contributing less to global warming. As healthy animals do not need to be treated with, for example, antibiotics or anthelmintic drugs, they contribute less to the development of bacteria and parasites that are resistant to these drugs.

As if this was not enough, a considerable proportion of livestock diseases are zoonotic, which means that they can spread from animals to humans or vice versa. Hence, these diseases have a direct, sometimes deadly, impact on our health. It has been estimated that more than 60% of infectious diseases in humans originate from animals (2). People in the developing world carry a considerable proportion of the burden of these diseases. However, in today’s globalised world, diseases can spread rapidly to almost anywhere on the planet. This means that diseases impacting animal and human health in the Global South today, can wreak havoc in Sweden tomorrow.

What can then be done to improve livestock health?

There is plenty to be done, and while some measures are demanding in terms of resources and money, others are comparatively easy and cheap to implement. Improved access to veterinary assistance would benefit both animal and human health. In remote areas, community members can be trained to recognise and treat common animal diseases, what to do and who to contact when assistance is needed. These community members will hence not only improve the access to basic animal health care in remote areas, they will also create watch posts that can report disease outbreaks to the authorities.

Last but not least, ingenuity and knowledge of local settings can go a long way. For example, this has been manifested in Northern Zambia, where efforts have been made to persuade farmers to build enclosures for lighter livestock species risen above ground and with small spaces in the floor. This system allows faecal material, urine and other dirt to fall out of the enclosure and away from the animals themselves. This facilitates cleaning and reduces the occurrence of common animal illnesses, such as foot rot and skin infections.



  1. Otte J, Costales A, Dijkman J, Pica-Ciamarra U, Robinson T, Ahuja V, et al. Livestock sector development for poverty reduction: an economic and policy perspective – Livestock’s many virtues. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2012.
  2. Taylor LH, Latham SM, Woolhouse ME. Risk factors for human disease emergence. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2001;356(1411):983-9.


Sara Lysholm, Post-doctoral scientist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)