Ag bioscience helps fight zoonotic disease

Several environmental groups that view modern agricultural production systems as a “problem” are assigning blame to the agriculture sector for the COVID-19 pandemic. Such political agendas overshadow the urgent need to promote practices to reduce incidence and transmission of the disease.

Agricultural research and innovation have already played a positive role in zoonotic disease management and will play an increasingly important role. The following points should be considered in assessing the role of agricultural innovation in addressing pandemics.

  • Zoonotic diseases (diseases spread from animals to humans) are not new.

One of the worst zoonotic pandemics was the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. Spread by rats, the disease ravaged Europe in the middle of the 14th century, wiping out 60 per cent of the population. The worldwide death toll is estimated to be as high as 200 million. It took almost a decade to discover the cause of the disease and to implement effective control measures.

In traditional agricultural production systems, which are still practised in many parts of the world, there is active, daily contact between humans and livestock — in some cases living under the same roof. This establishes an ideal incubation system for zoonotic diseases. Specialized, modern livestock production systems greatly reduce contact between humans and animals, thereby also reducing transmission of zoonotic disease across species.

A century ago (1918-20) the world suffered a global zoonotic viral pandemic—the Spanish Flu—that took more than 50 million lives. The virus appears to have originated with birds, possibly domestic fowl. Knowledge of viral pathogens was very limited at the time. In Canada, around 55,000 lives were lost.

  • Scientific research and associated policy development are critical to reducing the incidence of diseases spread by pathogens.

Advances in epidemiology, virology, immunology, genomics and related disciplines play critical roles in confronting pandemics. Canadian organizations, including Saskatoon-based VIDO-InterVac, are engaged in the global research to develop health solutions to combat COVID-19. Genomic sciences have allowed for the rapid genetic mapping of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Genome Canada has received funds to undertake a detailed analysis of the virus, along with studying the basis for differential expression of symptoms among humans.

  • Agri-food research and innovation play a major role in reducing the impact of zoonotic diseases and in improving health and quality of life.

A healthy population is better able to avoid succumbing to disease and will recover more easily from infections. It is widely accepted that agri-food research has vastly improved the lot of millions of the world’s inhabitants.

India is an excellent example. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, India’s future looked grim with predictions that tens of millions of its citizens would starve. Through intensive genetics and plant breeding, known as the Green Revolution, high yielding wheat and rice varieties were developed, alleviating widespread starvation.

Canadian research organizations play major roles in the development of high yielding, nutritious crops with a positive global impact. As well, our veterinary schools, agricultural colleges, and industry partners have contributed to the control and/or eradication of livestock diseases, reducing the transmission to humans.

An example is trichinosis, a parasite of pork which could be transmitted to humans via improperly cooked meat. Trichinosis was a problem when pigs were raised in small herds and fed garbage and food waste. Change in management and improved feeding practices have virtually eliminated this disease in Canada.

Plant biotechnology also offers potential solutions. Through genetic engineering, it is possible to produce vaccines in plants that are grown in isolated conditions (greenhouses). Plant-made vaccines could offer a quicker and safer (e.g. allergen-free) solution in vaccine production. In Saskatoon, ZYUS Life Sciences is collaborating with VIDO-InterVac to develop a plant-based vaccine against the COVID-19 virus.

  • Rejuvenation of Canada’s food innovation system in response to the COVID-19 experience.

In response to the Spanish Flu, the Canadian government established a health department, which allowed for a national, unifying framework for dealing with pandemics, new medical knowledge, and drug safety.

Because Canada already has an established and relatively strong regulatory system that covers activities from the farmgate to the dinner table, it is not necessary to create a new organization. However, some weaknesses and gaps do exist. Rejuvenation of this system is a high priority for the post-COVID era. The focus should be on integration, modernization, and achievement of fundamental changes across existing organizations.

Wilf Keller has spent more than 40 years working in the agricultural science sector.

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