Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Livestock-Smart Development

This post was written by Tracy Mitchell, a Senior Global Practice Specialist at DAI.

It has been eye-opening to read recent nutrition studies showing that eating an egg a day, or more meat, can dramatically improve school performance, improve physical health and turn around the otherwise bleak outlook for many children in developing countries. When coupled with data showing that rising incomes equate to rising demand for meat, eggs and dairy products, it is easy to see why donor programs are increasingly focused on livestock production. 

But all you have to do is scratch the surface to begin questioning whether more meat and dairy is part of the solution or the problem. A recent Guardian op-ed argued that livestock are so harmful to the environment that we would be better off focusing entirely on crop production to feed the world. On top of environmental degradation, every few years there is a new health pandemic linked to livestock. Knowing all this, why would we push developing countries through the same agricultural development pathway that we followed in developed countries? Can we help others avoid our mistakes?

It is a valid question, but if we look at science-based facts, the answer clearly shows that livestock are a vital part of agriculture and our future development. Here is why:

Much of the land that is currently used to produce livestock is not able to produce crops due to climate, soil or terrain. An estimated 70 percent of agricultural land is not suited to crop production, so eliminating or reducing livestock production does not equate to more land for crops. Livestock are traditionally produced on marginal lands because they have the unique ability to digest grass and fiber that humans cannot. This digestive “skill” comes at a cost, however, making livestock less efficient at converting a pound of feed to a pound of meat or milk (in comparison to poultry or fish that need lower-fiber diets, for example); but it is often a pound of feed that would have otherwise been wasted, and it is usually grown on land that cannot produce crops.

Livestock production and crop production both present risks to human health, making it challenging to say one is safer or more harmful than the other. It is true that 60 percent of emerging diseases in humans have animal origins (livestock and wild animals), but it is also true that pesticides and chemical fertilizer can be dangerous to our health. Livestock produce an estimated 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, but crop production requires petroleum, fertilizer and crop protection products that are also linked to environmental degradation and climate change.

A balanced diet consists of both plant and livestock products, each with its own important nutritional attributes. Animal-based foods are high in protein and other nutrients that plant-based foods usually do not have. Plant-based foods are a good source of carbohydrates and other nutrients and are usually less expensive than animal-based foods on a per-calorie basis. Unfortunately, balanced vegan diets require access to a wide range of quality plant-based foods that are often not an option in developing countries. The world’s poorest people often have diets based on maize or rice, which is why there is a growing recognition that while we may have reduced world hunger through the green revolution, this has not translated into equal reductions in malnutrition. People do not just need food; they need diverse, quality foods, of which protein and other nutrients from animal-based foods are critical.

However, it is irresponsible to approach livestock development without considering lessons that we have already learned in developing countries. Instead, we should adopt livestock-smart development that meets the following minimum criteria:

Livestock do not directly compete with humans for food or with crops or forests for land (or at least only minimally). The focus is on using grasslands and mixed cropping systems.

Human health issues are considered and mitigated through proven One Health programs that prevent the spread of diseases from livestock to people.

• Nutrition education activities anticipate the inevitable swing of the pendulum toward obesity, diabetes and other dietary excess by emphasizing balanced diets, instead of just setting minimum consumption goals that are often exceeded as incomes rise.