Africa is set to experience a unprecedented boom in demand for animal foods over the coming decades that if not properly managed could lead to the spread of new diseases, damage the environment and affect people's livelihoods, experts say.
The United Nations forecasts demand for meat, milk and eggs in Africa will almost quadruple by 2050, fuelled by a ballooning population - expected to double to 2.4 billion - and a growing appetite for high-protein foods driven by rising living standards.
This is despite the fact that more than 20 million people are currently struggling to feed themselves because of hunger crises spurred by drought and conflict in the Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad region. "The entire continent is going to change in the next couple of decades," said Ugo Pica Ciamarra, a livestock economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
As meat products and livestock are perishable and difficult to export, demand is to be met mostly by local producers who will move deeper into wild areas to make room for cattle, chicken and other animal farms, he said. Such expansion will bring risks to human health, as viruses hosted by wild animals could move onto domestic animals and people, said FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth.
"We are going to encounter new pathogens," he said. Three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases in recent years have spread to humans from animals or animal products, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The FAO officials said African countries should start preparing now to contain the risks of pandemics by training more veterinarians, improving access to clean water and regulating the market before it booms. For example, chicken farms should be separated by at least two kilometres to limit the possibility of contagion when an outbreak occurs, said Lubroth.
East Asia, where per capita consumption of meat products has sky-rocketed five-fold over the last half century, became a breeding ground for new diseases, like the Sars virus and bird flu, partly because livestock farms sprawled unchecked, they said. "In Asia there was a lot of excitement about high growth rates but no one was really thinking 20 years ahead," Pica Ciamarra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "That's the main lesson (to be learned)".
Some West African countries are already dealing with outbreaks of the highly contagious H5N1 bird flu virus that have raised fears of transmission to humans, given poor health infrastructure in the region. "It's a ticking bomb," said Lubroth. Improving access to electricity, roads and markets in rural areas is also vital to stop farmers clustering around cities, increasing the risk of disease transmission from animals to people, said Pica Ciamarra.
Paired with labour and fiscal policies favouring small and medium producers, better infrastructure would also help small farmers scale up their businesses. Otherwise many of the 60 percent of rural households that keep animals in Africa would be forced out of the market by big producers, and, having lost their livelihoods, pushed to migrate to Europe or elsewhere.
Unchecked livestock growth also threatens to worsen climate change, which is expected to cut harvests in developing countries in the long term, also bringing more frequent drought and erratic rainfall. As a consequence an additional 42 million people will be vulnerable to hunger in 2050, the UN estimates. Livestock accounts for more than 14 percent of planet warming emissions, mainly from animal burping, manure and feed production, according to the FAO.
Pica Ciamarra said investments should be directed at making African livestock healthier, by increasing vaccinations and switching to more nutritious feeds, to boost production without increasing the number of animals farmed. "In Africa a local cow can produce say five litres of milk per day, we are at up to 30 here (in Europe), you see the difference," he said.
In February, FAO launched an initiative to identify policies to foster a sustainable growth of the livestock sector with six African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. "We want to make sure policy makers start ... to develop an idea of how they would like the system in 2050, rather than being passive and then face challenges that they will not be in a position to address," said Pica Ciamarra.