Animal vaccines are a lynchpin of global food security

Keeping livestock healthy ensures people around the world have access to affordable, wholesome sources of animal protein. Boehringer Ingelheim develops and manufactures a wide range of vaccines for poultry, swine and ruminants such as cattle, goats and sheep so that farmers can produce more meat, more sustainably.

Over the past decade, the financial losses associated with livestock disease have run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.1 In each case, the outbreaks caused substantial economic damage and led to price spikes for the affected products. Yet the cost to farmers and consumers is just one piece of the puzzle. Global food security depends to a large degree on the ability of livestock farmers to maintain substantial, healthy herds and flocks.

Demand for meat from the world’s 8 billion inhabitants will continue to rise in the years ahead, particularly in developing economies. In the developed world, the conversation often turns to how to reduce the abundance of meat in people’s diets. The opposite is true in the developing world, where many lack reliable access to adequate sources of protein. This is a particular problem for growing children, who urgently need animal protein for their physical and mental development.

For as long as meat and dairy remain an important part of the human diet, it will continue to be necessary to limit the destructive effects of transmissible animal disease. Since livestock epidemics are largely caused by viruses, prevention is the most effective way to fight them.

Over the years, Boehringer’s scientists have worked hard to achieve progress in this under-publicized but vital field, developing a wide range of vaccines to help farmers protect the health of their animals. These include vaccines for multiple strains of avian influenza, PRRS and porcine circovirus in swine as well as bovine virus diarrhea and bluetongue virus in cattle.

“Boehringer’s VPH Center is one of the world’s leading foot-and-mouth disease vaccine manufacturers and a longstanding partner of health authorities, governments and non-government organizations,” adds Gerald Behrens, Head of the company’s Global Strategic Marketing for ruminants. “This illness is more infectious for hoofed animals than Ebola is for humans. Producing vaccines for it requires an exceptional level of security. By 2026, we will finish building the world’s largest and most modern facility for foot-and-mouth disease vaccines in France.”

“Boehringer’s VPH Center is one of the world’s leading foot-and-mouth disease vaccine manufacturers and a longstanding partner of health authorities, governments and non-government organizations.”

Gerald Behrens
Gerald Behrens,
Head of Global Strategic Marketing for ruminants at Boehringer Ingelheim

Behrens points out that ruminants – grazing animals like cows and sheep that possess four-chambered stomachs and chew their cud – are particularly critical to food security in the developing world, where access to high-quality protein sources is often far from certain.

“Ruminants are especially important to the food supply because they don’t compete with humans for the same types of food. They are able to turn grass into milk and meat. Goats and sheep serve as the main source of animal protein for small family farms in a lot of developing countries,” Behrens says.

But roughly 25% of livestock in developing countries continues to die each year from preventable diseases. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that less than 50% of livestock in Africa receives regular vaccinations.2 One study of small farms in West Africa found that only 16% of livestock herds were vaccinated regularly. Farmers cited affordability, limited knowledge and lack of access to medications and veterinary care as reasons for this low figure.3

Among the worst outbreaks in recent decades was the spread of avian influenza across the United States in 2014, resulting in the death or culling of more than 50 million chickens.4 In 2019, African swine fever broke out in Vietnam, leading to the death or destruction of nearly 6 million pigs, or more than 20% of the country’s total.5 And just after the turn of the century, foot-and-mouth disease appeared in livestock on farms in the United Kingdom in 2001, leading to the death of more than 6 million cattle and sheep6, while starting in autumn last year and continuing into early 2024, a new strain of bluetongue virus killed thousands of sheep in the Netherlands.7

25 %
of livestock in developing countries continues to die each year from preventable diseases.

Considerable attention is now being focused on the need to make farming more sustainable – to reduce its environmental impacts, cut the carbon emissions it generates and reverse deforestation. Keeping farm animals healthy has a big part to play in making farms more environmentally friendly while simultaneously making the food supply more resilient. Productive farms are by definition more sustainable than struggling farms, whether the final product is meat, milk or any source of plant protein. Successful farms simply grow more product for every ton of carbon emissions. And having to cull millions of chickens or cows due to a preventable epidemic is no one’s idea of sustainable farming.

Keeping animals healthy is better for consumers, better for farmers and better for the environment. These wider benefits are what drives Boehringer to continue to invest in protecting farm animals from the ravages of infectious disease.

Global Vulnerability To Emerging Diseases Of Livestock (
Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund of the International Development Research Centre Marks World Animal Vaccination Day (
Access to vaccination services for priority ruminant livestock diseases in Ghana: Barriers and determinants of service utilization by farmers (
What we know about the deadliest U.S. bird flu outbreak in history (
An Assessment of the Economic Impacts of the 2019 African Swine Fever Outbreaks in Vietnam (
Foot and mouth 20 years on: what an animal virus epidemic taught UK science (
UK and European farmers hit by new bluetongue virus strain (