ROME – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Germany’s Max Planck Institute are partnering to study species-swapping diseases that move back and forth between wild animals and domestic livestock and in some cases — jump to people.

Population growth, modern transportation and increased global trade in animals and animal products have greatly accelerated the spread of zoonoses — species-jumping diseases — capable of damaging farmers' livelihoods and human health alike. A/H1N1 swine flu and the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza are just two recent examples.

On May 30 a memorandum of understanding signed by FAO and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, based in Radolfzell, Germany, establishes a partnership designed to combine the organizations' expertise and resources to help solve this problem.

One major goal of the partnership will be to determine which agroecological landscapes represent the greatest risk for disease transmission among human, livestock and wild animal populations. The agreement also commits FAO and the Institute to help countries strengthen their national capacity to balance preservation of natural resources and biodiversity with and expansion and intensification of agricultural production to ensure food security.

"Combining the Institute's extensive trove of data on wildlife movements with FAO data on livestock production and landscape changes due to agriculture, forestry and urbanization will permit a new level of insight into animal-human interactions, conservation priorities and more effective management of and response to health risks," said Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

"Disease dynamics can no longer be considered in isolation within the livestock sector but must be placed into a broader context of sustainable agriculture, socio-economic development, environment protection and sustainability," added Ann Tutwiler, FAO deputy director-general for Knowledge. "This is why FAO is moving forward with the ‘One Health' approach that emphasizes a multidisciplinary collaboration in solving challenging health issues arising from the livestock-wildlife-human-ecosystem interfaces — working closely with partners like the Max Planck Institute.”

The Department of Migration and Immuno-ecology of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has expertise in investigating animal movements on a global scale, including the creation of its online, open-access database on world animal movements, MoveBank.

FAO was created to safeguard animal and veterinary public health, maintain animal genetic diversity and minimize the environmental impact of livestock production. The UN agency has played a major role in helping countries cope with outbreaks of zoonotic and non-zoonotic animal diseases, including understanding and addressing the factors leading to their emergence. This includes work on avian influenza, A/H1N1 influenza, rift valley fever and African sleeping sickness, as well as the international effort to eradicate rinderpest.