Following Covid-19, everyone is conscious of pandemics, but farmers have always known the impacts of contagious disease. In just the past few years they’ve been forced to grapple with avian influenza (HPAI), foot and mouth disease (FMD), and African swine fever (ASF), among many others. They’ve developed the tools to cope, but they face a growing disease threat: the frequency of these outbreaks is increasing at an alarming rate.

Larger headcounts and globalisation create significantly more opportunities for diseases to spread, but all signs point to a major cause: global warming. The numbers are stark. Herds and flocks everywhere have been affected by these developments:

  • From February to June 2022, 186 cases of AI were reported in the US, resulting in the loss of 40.1 million birds. The number of states affected with AI in 2022 is significantly more than double the number of states that were affected in 2015, which was the most recent large outbreak (1). Worryingly, the London insurance market now thinks AI is endemic in the wild bird population rather than a seasonal occurrence.
  • Indonesia endured 450,000+ confirmed cases of FMD from January to July 2022, endangering its entire production line (2).
  • ASF caused upwards of 1.9 million animal losses in five global regions between January 2020 and August 2022 (African Swine Fever – Situation Report 19, 2022). 

Temperatures, infections rising:

The higher temperatures caused by global warming are the greatest driver of the increasing frequency and severity of livestock disease. The impact has been known for some time. In a 2016 paper in Preventative Veterinary Medicine, a group of scientists published an article called ‘Effects of climate change on the occurrence and distribution of livestock diseases’. They said: “Direct effects [of warming] manifest as reduced capacity of [infected animals] to mount a response to infection (e.g. due to heat stress), or increased development rates of pathogens and vectors.” In other words, warmer weather creates two issues in relation to livestock disease:

  1. Infectious bugs – microbes and fungi – breed faster in warmer weather.
  2. Rising temperatures reduce livestock’s ability to fight infection. 

Unfortunately, the effect of global warming isn’t limited to those two factors. Other environmental phenomena increase the likelihood of infection, particularly by fostering the living vectors of disease. These parasitic agents – principally insects – increase in number in higher temperatures. Their increased ubiquity makes it more likely that they will transmit infections. To cite just one example, the World Mosquito Program says: “As the planet warms and climate change lengthens the mosquito season, the world’s deadliest creature will expand its geographical range to new regions and re-emerge in areas where mosquito numbers had subsided for decades.”

A further problem is more frequent and increasingly severe flooding. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observes that it is increasingly clear that climate change “has detectably influenced” variables like rainfall and snowmelt, which contribute to floods. Global warming might not cause floods directly, but it amplifies other events that do, and floodwater brings livestock disease. Anthrax, blackleg, botulism, foot rot, tetanus, and brooder pneumonia are just some of the ailments which can be fostered by floodwaters.

Biosecurity benefits:

The livestock sector has been active in the face of the rising disease threat to herds and flocks through its dramatically intensified focus on biosecurity. Some precautions are very simple, like the regular cleaning and decontamination of facilities and equipment. Other provisions are more complex, including a variety of animal and feed management practices which may help to hinder the spread of infectious disease. Books have been filled with advice on such measures.

For the long-term though, it is clear that climate change must be tackled to in order to significantly limit these outbreaks. Alongside efforts to reduce infections now, prudent farmers are adopting measures intended to reduce the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions, a key component of global warming. Several strategies have been developed which, when used in isolation or combination, may also serve to reduce the current disease threat, such as:

  • Increasing forage digestibility to reduce greenhouse gas production from fermentation in the gut as well as from stored manure. Whilst its impact will take years to coalesce, the measures can be implemented quickly.
  • Improving manure management to ensure that time for storage, aeration, and stacking is reduced, and solids and liquids are separated efficiently. This is possible only in intensive systems where animals are housed but serves the long-term goal as well as delivering the immediate benefit of reducing environments for pathogens to breed and thrive.
  • Improving husbandry overall through better animal genetics, proper nutrition, and accentuated herd-health management. This is considered to be the most effective of the three options, and is also the broadest, including measures which will take generations to deliver sustained benefits, and others which will reduce the incidence of disease immediately.

Risk transfer solutions:

Any biosecurity efforts made by clients tend to encourage underwriters to offer lower insurance prices and improved coverage. Providing evidence of biosecurity work increases access to livestock insurance products and reduces their cost. A range of products are available, especially through Miller, which can provide cover for diseases such as HPAI and ASF. 

Policies can be arranged to cover livestock anywhere in the world for these diseases, but the insurance is available only from Lloyd’s and the London insurance market, and through specialist brokers like Miller who trade there. Insurance may cover mortality arising from any and all risks, or for specific perils only, with extensions including heat stress, warm weather, intentional slaughter on the order of a government, and others. 

It will take time to realise the benefits of longer-term solutions to climate change. In the interim, insurance helps to make manageable the increasing incidence of livestock disease in our warming world. 

(1) Analysing the 2022 US avian influenza outbreak | Poultry World
(2) Indonesia aiming to get foot and mouth disease under control by year-end | Reuters