M. Atkinson/AHEAD

February 16, 2019

African Farmers and Cornell Wildlife Conservationists Unite to Resolve Age-Old Conflict

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On average, the United States imports 3 billion pounds of beef per year from countries around the world. While beef is easy to take for granted in a double bacon cheeseburger or chalupa, before it reaches your plate it is highly susceptible to foot-and-mouth virus — a disease that severely impacts the meat markets every year.

In a public lecture held in Uris Hall on Feb. 14, Prof. Steven Osofsky, population medicine and diagnostic sciences, discussed his work leading Cornell’s AHEAD program — Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development — and their goal of shifting policy away from veterinary fencing and towards food science to mitigate FMD in the African and global beef markets.

According to Osofsky, since the 1950s, thousands of miles of barricades have cut through the pristine African wilderness. Their original function was to separate wildlife from livestock to prevent the feared foot-and-mouth virus (FMD) from reaching pastoral farmers’ cattle.

Osofsky discussed other less devastating and less intrusive ways to manage foot-and-mouth disease. His goal, along with the the AHEAD program, is to enable African farmers to sell safe beef without impeding migratory wildlife.

AHEAD has worked as a catalyst for new policy approaches on this issue. Housed in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the program works to bring the concept of “One Health” to fruition. According to the “One Health” approach, human health and prosperity are intrinsically linked to the well-being of other species and the environment.

“Foot-and-mouth is the most important disease, from an economic perspective, in the animal health realm,” Osofsky said.

The disease is harbored in African buffalo, who do not manifest illness from FMD. However, when domestic cattle contract FMD, it can devastate their populations and lose farmers and whole countries access to beef markets.

In 2001, 2,000 FMD cases in the United Kingdom led to the slaughter and burning of six million heads of livestock. Since then, solutions like livestock vaccination have been attempted, but Osofsky stressed that this alone will not eliminate the virus in southern Africa.

He explained that, as eradicating the disease in African wildlife is impossible, he and his colleagues are striving to learn how to manage it more effectively.

“Matured, deboned beef, with lymph nodes removed and a pH value of less than six, is safe and cannot spread foot and mouth disease,” Osofsky said.

Because of this, according to Osofsky, monitoring the biosafety of beef production is sufficient to ensure clean meat — and no intrusive barricades are required.

The international rules governing FMD and beef trade were updated to encourage biological approaches to disease controls in 2015, which, according to Osofsky, is a genuine breakthrough in helping both the areas and markets thrive.

“[Conservation] is about people; it’s about human needs and aspirations, and it’s about poverty.”  Osofsky said.

Environmentally damaging policy — which has been proven redundant by science — has been constraining both the African beef market and ecotourism, he said. According to Osofsky, these sectors will grow as wild animal populations recover.

Cornell’s AHEAD program has been funded by USAID, The Rockefeller Foundation, and, most recently, Cornell’s own Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Together, they have supported transboundary conservation areas in southern Africa. These “peace parks” encourage international cooperation between neighbor nations who have been hostile to each other in the past.

One of the biggest “peace parks”, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, lies at the crossroads of five countries and capitalizes on Africa’s unique natural heritage.  Supported by AHEAD, KAZA is focused on unleashing the region’s ecotourism potential while facilitating expanded agricultural ventures. Both industries are critical to creating a sustainable, economic plan to raise local standards of living.