Animal diseases pose a huge threat to the global economy, but could be tackled more successfully if countries spent less time “reinventing the wheel”, Barry O’Neil, president of the World Organisation for Animal Health OIE, said in London this week.

“It is a very difficult world animal health situation, and it will be more challenging than the oil and food crises of the 1970s, more like the food crises of the seventeenth century [when millions starved in countries all around the world],” he told the audience of leading figures from the UK animal health sector.

With 60bn food animals produced for a global population of 6.3bn people last year the pressure on animal production systems is intense, he said.

“With just 14 animal species relied upon for 90% of all animal food products we are extremely vulnerable to disease and the effects of climate change.”

With 1100 infectious animal diseases to cope with, new ones emerging and moving around the world faster than ever, and 60% of animal diseases threatening human health, the situation was concerning, he accepted.

“The cost implications of new diseases spreading can be huge, SARS being estimated to have cost the global economy US$60bn for example, and controlling other animal diseases US $100bn/year.”

But progress can be made. “We have the tools to be able to address these risks. But it does frustrate me that countries spend so much time reinventing the wheel. There is also too much conflict and competition between agencies and authorities within each country, each defending their own patch, instead of all working together to address the issue.”

He urged animal health professionals to unite around the OIE’s mantra: “one world, one health, on medicine.”

In a clear reference to Defra’s plans for animal health cost and responsibility sharing in the UK, he said farmers needed to work more closely with the industry to tackle disease issues.

In his own country, with 12m cattle and 40m sheep, but just 4m people, farming accounts for 17% of the New Zealand economy. That made the potential impact of animal disease a key concern.

“It is estimated that a foot and mouth outbreak would cost New Zealand NZ$10bn (£4bn), lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and could do such damage to the country that it would become similar in status to a ‘banana republic’.”

“We want to be free of disease, but we want to be WTO compliant too, which is a very challenging combination,” he noted.

* This is the first article in a special FWi mini-series profiling OIE President Barry O’Brien’s speech in London on Tuesday 20 May 2008.

See also: Cost and responsibility sharing roadshow.