Livestock: a pathway out of poverty, but only with better data
“Great science is helping to turn livestock into a pathway out of poverty for hundreds of millions of people,” said Bill Gates in his recent visit to the University of Edinburgh's Easter Bush Campus.
by Vanessa Meadu
Bill Gates reaffirmed what livestock researchers have always known, that livestock is crucial for economic development. But while “we have a lot of tools [such as] breeding, gene editing, vaccines… the lack of data makes us pretty uncertain about the right way to go,” he said. To make an impact, we need better data. Gates was speaking to researchers and development partners at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush campus last week, as part of a discussion on innovation and agricultural research. Joining him were the UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Geoff Simm, Director of the newly launched Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security.
Livestock is at the centre of achieving the Global Goals of no poverty and zero hunger. “If you care about the poor, you care about agriculture. If you care about agriculture, you care about livestock,” said Gates, noting that almost half of the world’s agricultural GDP is accounted for by livestock. After the high-level announcements of millions of pounds of funding for livestock vaccines, and the unveiling of a plaque for the new Global Academy, Gates got down to the matter of closing the data gap, an important pre-requisite for deploying solutions.
As a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, SEBI (supporting Evidence Based Innovation) is spearheading a global effort to collate and catalogue data on livestock health and productivity in the tropics. The goal is to better inform the design and targeting of development interventions that the Gates Foundation, UK Aid, and national governments support in order to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of livestock-dependent people.
For example, “which disease do we prioritise in which country?” asked Gates, noting that key data is often missing, or sitting in closed databases. “Historically, it’s been very expensive to collect the data and sometimes when the data is collected there is no-one to act on it,” he explained.
Closing the data gap
Collecting essential data doesn’t have to be expensive. Referring to his Foundation’s polio eradication work, Gates noted that digital satellite photography was used to cheaply analyse location of pastoralists. “We could have at the same time looked at their herds and their [numbers],” he explained.
SEBI is also working towards addressing the data gap in an efficient and cost effective manner, by ‘piggy backing’ on existing field campaigns to collect more data more efficiently.
Gates pointed to the world of human health, which has made significant improvements in its data in the last 20 or so years. “The understanding is way better than it used to be. In fact we’ve avoided there being duplicate duelling databases, [and made available] different surveys and trials,” he said. The level of uncertainty in the human data has also dramatically decreased. As a result, there have been major advances to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of good health and well-being.
One of the priorities for SEBI is to catalogue and organise livestock data, making it more accessible, discoverable and digestible. By cataloging and sharing meta data on past and ongoing livestock projects and convening experts in the community to interpret data from multiple sources, SEBI is helping to reduce duplication. SEBI also helps build connections between ‘data suppliers’ and ‘data users’ and encourages them to work together on livestock data challenges, through the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) community of practice. A knowledge platform and data portal are currently being developed, offering a hub for livestock information and resources, and a window into associated databases.
Indicators of success
“Agricultural research is one of the most effective investments we can make in development,” argued Penny Mordaunt, noting that DFID is spending 3% of its budget on research that will drive global progress. But for UK Aid and other public sector agencies, it’s especially important to track the results of these investments, to justify continued spending, and design more effective and impactful programs.
Measuring success means starting with a baseline, and a key area of SEBI work involves initially gathering data on cattle and small ruminant mortality in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, and then use evidence to plan interventions to reduce mortality through sustainable adoption of animal health technologies by smallholder farmers. The interventions will be regularly monitored and evaluated to demonstrate impacts on the animals and on farmers’ livelihoods.
Boldly moving forward
We are still in the early days: “It will take the better part of a decade to get some significant data that will drive our research priorities,” said Gates. There is plenty of urgent work to be done by SEBI, its partners, and the wider livestock and development community. “Gates has reconfirmed the vital importance of SEBI’s mission, and assured us that our approach is on track,” said Prof Andy Peters, Director of SEBI. As global consumption of meat and animal products continues to rise, and technologies such as vaccination and genetic engineering blaze ahead, the most important tool may ultimately be data and evidence to decide on where interventions are most needed, and which approaches work best.
Watch the videos
A full recording of the event is available on Facebook.
Watch a short video with interviews on YouTube
Vanessa Meadu is the Communications and Knowledge Exchange Specialist for SEBI, based at the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) Veterinary School.