Animal Diseases / Food Security / Research / UK

Why Britain faces a bleak future of food shortages

Britain faces a ‘perfect storm’ of water shortage and lack of food, says the government’s chief scientist, and climate change and crop and animal diseases will add to future woes. Science is now striving to find solutions.

The farmers of tomorrow will not only have to improve yields using less fertiliser, they will also have to be increasingly wary of new agricultural pests and diseases as global temperatures have risen and more and more devastating varieties of viruses and fungi have spread around the globe. Britain will not be immune.

A classic example is provided by bluetongue disease, a virus that affects cattle, sheep, deer and goats and is spread by midges. Sheep are especially vulnerable and one in three can die if infected. The disease was unknown in north-west Europe until 2006, when an outbreak occurred in Holland and spread to nearby countries. Then, in 2007, it spread to Britain. Only swift action by agricultural authorities halted its advance. In future this will be harder to achieve.

“The problem is that the life cycles of diseases such as bluetongue speed up as temperatures go up,” said Dr Chris Oura, of the Institute for Animal Health in Newbury. “The warmer it gets, the more infective they become.” Bluetongue could soon return. More importantly, it is only one of many other exotic, potentially devastating livestock ailments that could be spread by insects.

“Bluetongue appeared out of the blue. And that could happen again. Other diseases like epizootic haemorrhagic disease (EHD) and African horse sickness are also spread by midges and threaten Europe and Britain,” added Oura.

However, it is not just global warming that is increasing the risk of deadly new epidemics of livestock disease. Globalisation itself threatens to bring infestation in its wake. An important, and very worrying, example is provided by African swine fever virus, said Oura. “As its names suggests, it infects pigs. There is no cure and no vaccine and it kills every animal it infects. Recently the disease emerged from Mozambique and has spread along shipping routes around the coast of Africa and into central Asia. Should it appear in Britain, it would be devastating. And were it to strike in China, where there is a massive consumption of pork, it would be a disaster. Apart from the hardship there, pork prices around the world would soar.” British pig farmers might do well, but the public would face a major jump in the price of a basic commodity.

The key to preventing such a scenario is science, said Oura. “We had the right vaccine to deal with the strain of bluetongue that hit Britain. We now need to develop vaccines that will halt diseases like EHD or African swine fever and contain them long before they ever hit our shores.” This work is another key priority for researchers.

Read more … (The Guardian)

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