New ways to ensure the sustainability of modern poultry and pig production will be the focus of a £10 million (US$13.7 million) European Union (EU) research project. Known as Prohealth, the initiative has been awarded the EU's largest grant ever in the field of animal health.
The scale of the funding recognizes the difficulties associated with tackling the problems that can lie behind intensive production methods and the resultant diseases, and will support work over a five-year period.
The Prohealth project comprises a consortium made up of 22 research partners from 11 EU countries, with several worldwide experts from very diverse fields. It will focus on poultry - broiler and egg-laying chickens and turkeys - as well as pigs from a wide range of intensive systems across the EU and will look at the cause, extent and risks of diseases and how they interact under field conditions.
The project aims to find ways to increase quality and production of poultry while, at the same time, limiting environmental impact and preserving profitability for farmers, and those who make their living from animal food production.
Newcastle University is leading the Prohealth consortium.
Project leader Professor Illias Kyriazakis, said the consortium will concentrate on production diseases, and funding was set after consultation with the industry.
"The level of funding is roughly divided with 60 percent pigs, 40 percent poultry. The distinction is artificial as all work packages are balanced between the two species and deal with common issues like consumer perception and animal welfare," he said.
These diseases are devastating and have a huge impact worldwide with a reduction in the health and welfare of poultry, and consequently poultry producers' profitability.
Kyriazakis says: "Production diseases tend to persist in intensive animal production systems and, typically, become more prevalent or severe, in proportion to the potential productivity of the system."
Animal health company Zoetis is among Prohealth's partners. Zoetis' director of strategic alliances, Dr. Theo Kanellos, says: "Production diseases not only compromise the health and welfare of animals, but they are also generating inefficiencies which impact adversely on animal productivity and business profitability, environmental footprint, and product quality.
"Control of such diseases is a major factor for production losses in farms where a number of subclinical diseases may co-exist. The lack of appropriate diagnosis of the different animal production diseases leads to suboptimal treatments and farm control schemes with devastating outcomes both for the farmers and environment."
The rise of intensive poultry farming has come at a high price: with an underlying rise in production diseases which compromise health and welfare, reduce profitability and the quality of products, and has a negative impact on the environment.
The result is that affected animals are treated with more antibiotics which then enter the human food chain and has led to increasing concern about the promotion of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogen which put human health at risk.
"Production diseases compromise health and welfare, generating inefficiencies which impact adversely on profitability, environmental footprint, antibiotic use and product quality," Kryiazakis said.
Treatment and control of such diseases is the major reason for use of antibiotics in the food chain and has given rise to growing concern about the promotion of antibiotic resistant strains of pathogen posing risk to human health.
Prohealth is a multidisciplinary consortium. It will look not only at pathogens, but at a variety of factors in relation to poultry disease and examine how the complex interactions between pathogens, hosts, environment and nutrition affect the health of birds.
It will use its research to develop an understanding of the various factors linked to animal pathologies and the intensification of production and use this to develop, evaluate and distribute effective control strategies to reduce their impact.
Kyriazakis says he will "address production diseases of pigs and poultry raised in a wide range of EU-intensive systems, using both epidemiological and experimental approaches to consider the extent of, and the risk factors associated with diseases, the influence of genotype and its modification by early life experience and the dynamic influences of the environment on disease. The mechanisms underlying differences in disease susceptibility will be explored at different levels."
This data will be used to alleviate the high incidence of disease.
"Improvement strategies for diseases including neo-natal mortality, gut and respiratory disorders, leg and metabolic disorders will be evaluated in farm-scale tests and data from diverse systems."
By reducing the incidence and impact of subclinical disease, the project also will indirectly reduce the environmental impact of poultry systems.
Five-year research project
The links between genetic predisposition and environmental stressors will then be studied from an experimental and epidemiological perspective. Over five years, the results will be analyzed and logged, with the aim of cutting the current 30 percent loss of poultry due to disease during the production process.
By working with poultry producers and farmers, Prohealth will help ensure that any scientific advances will be directly beneficial to producers and actively used by them.
As the project has only just begun, it is not yet possible to estimate the entire number of farms taking part in the research. However, the project does have several farm cooperatives and major poultry producers taking part from various EU countries, including Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Germany and Poland. They will be involved directly and indirectly in demonstrations and focus groups.
'Overall, this project will deliver both practical and cutting-edge technological solutions that will help pig and poultry farmers to increase their productivity and at the same time connect to the different production stakeholders in order to ensure that these scientific advances will be well adopted by the consumers," Kanellos said. "In addition, the consortium will develop a unique holistic approach to disease that will include interlinked diagnostics, genetics, therapeutics and prevention tools including nutrition."
Prohealth aims to make the consortium an information hub for poultry producers in the EU.
"In terms of numbers of producers, our aim is quite ambitious and we hope that many farmers - large or small - will want to contact us and work with us in accurately establishing the different animal production disease challenges and consequently developing the optimum respective solutions," Kanellos said.