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New Disease Threatens India’s Milk Production

India is the largest milk producer in the world.

NEW DELHI — Milk production in India — the highest in the world — has been hit by a relatively new disease.

Lumpy skin disease (LSD), a transboundary animal disease that spreads quickly, has started affecting Indian cattle and Asian water buffalo.  The disease can decrease milk production by more than half, damage hides and cause emaciation, infertility, and abortions in animals. It has spread to 20 of India’s 28 states, putting at risk more than 303 million cattle and buffaloes that drive India’s milk production.

Characterized by skin nodules, nasal and ocular discharge, fever, and reduction in milk production, the diseases was first detected in India in July 2019.

India is the largest milk producer in the world, with an annual production of 187 million metric tons in 2018-19, about 22 percent of the world’s annual milk production, followed by the United States, China, Pakistan and Brazil.

LSD was first found in Zambia in 1929. Since then, it has spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, southeastern Europe, Central Asia, and more recently in South Asia and China. The World Organisation for Animal Health, which monitors LSD and other diseases, wrote: “The causative virus seems to be spread mainly by blood-feeding insects, such as certain species of flies and mosquitoes or ticks, and outbreaks can be widespread and difficult to control.”

The disease was first detected in India in July 2019 in Odisha, which is the worst-affected state in the country.

“We have recorded 57,893 cattle and buffaloes affected with LSD till now,” said Dr. Bibhu Prasad Das, deputy director at the Directorate of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services of the government of Odisha.

“Besides illness, milk production reduced by around 60 percent,” said Das. “Even after the milch animals recover, their production capacity does not return.”

There are 73 million dairy farmers in India who depend on one to five cattle or buffaloes for their livelihood.

Milk yield

Around 87 percent of India’s 130 million farmers have land of less than 2 hectares (5 acres), making them among the smallest land-holding farmers in the world. With small plots of land, owners turn to dairy farming over agriculture.

Income from crop production is seasonal, whereas dairy provides year-round income and can be a lifesaver during frequent droughts. It is a major generator of employment in rural areas.

According to the national plan, the milk sector must grow annually by an average 4.2 percent to achieve milk production of 240 million metric tons by 2025.  Exotic or crossbred cattle, which drive India’s milk production, were severely affected by LSD. Exotic cows are 21 percent of total cattle, but their total share in cow’s milk is 59 percent.

Besides milk, LSD also affects hides and meat. India is the second-largest beef exporter worldwide, after Brazil. India is also one of the world’s major producers of raw hides for tanning.

There are no vaccines to control LSD, but goat pox vaccine has been found to promote a strong protective immune response in healthy animals and prevents infection.

India’s leading animal healthcare company, Hester Biosciences Ltd., has said it will have a vaccine for LSD by early 2021.

Due to lack of regulations and/or sufficient monitoring, LSD has crossed into neighboring countries.

“The long porous borders between India, Nepal and Bangladesh allow for a significant amount of bilateral and informal animal trade, including cattle and buffaloes,” said Dr. C. Padmanabhan, assistant director of the Directorate of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Service in the government of Tamil Nadu.

Milk production in India

With a huge demand for animal protein and disparities in livestock prices, unofficial imports flourish from India to Bangladesh. In Nepal, there is a continuous flow of informal cross-border movement of cattle from India, usually by foot. There are no official records of live cattle or buffalo trade.

“In Tamil Nadu, we detected the disease in February, but before we could have made a detailed work plan to prevent it, the national government imposed a Covid-19 lockdown, which made the situation worse,” said Padmanabhan.

The Agricultural Biosecurity Bill 2013 to protect plants, animals, and related products from pests and conditions to ensure agricultural biosecurity has not yet been cleared by parliament.

“There should be a proper law in a place regulate imports and exports of plants and animals, their inter-state movement, conduct surveillance and risk assessment of pest and diseases in the country,” said Dr. Sachin Joshi, a veterinarian associated with Pune-based nonprofit BAIF, which is engaged in cross-breeding high-yielding cattle with sturdy Indian breeds.

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Judith Isacoff.)