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

Livestock’s Role in the Developing World

This post is written by CGIAR

How do we maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of livestock in a world where too many remain in need?

The future of livestock is a matter of intense and increasing controversy, with concern mounting about its negative effects on human health, animal welfare and climate change. But with the world expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and some 820 million people still going hungry each year, most scientists believe that livestock will continue to play an important role in the nutrition and livelihoods of people in the developing world.

A recent conference on agriculture in the world’s tropical zone, currently home to half the world’s population, provided an opportunity for several leading livestock experts to investigate how livestock can help developing countries while minimizing the potential harms they might cause. The International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI) Board chair, Lindsay Falvey, who is also a professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, led the session, which included a keynote presentation from Lawrence Haddad and additional presentations from several Australia-based researchers.

Several broad themes emerged from the presentations. First, despite increasing concern about livestock in the developed world, animal-source foods (ASFs) play a huge role in developing world diets and livelihoods. This is unlikely to change given the increased demand for ASFs in the LMICs, itself a result of increasing population, incomes and urbanization. However, the smallholders who produce most ASF in the developing world face numerous challenges. They are losing out on value chains and access to market opportunities. The focus on reducing emissions by cutting back on livestock production means that not enough work is being done to mitigate per unit GHG emissions. More can be done to encourage improved animal welfare. Several speakers noted that the research to policy and implementation pipeline is not as efficient or as effective as it could be.

Lawrence Haddad focused on why animal source foods need to be part of the global food security and nutrition agenda, despite some recent criticism of the livestock sector from scientists and activists in the developed world. He had two simple, bottom-line messages:

  • Animal source foods are essential for infant and young child growth (for example, 59% of the world’s children are not fed much-needed nutrients from animal source foods);
  • Too many children under 5 have micronutrient deficiencies (for example, approximately 70% of children in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from micronutrient deficiencies).

He noted that some recent scientific reports, including Food in the Anthropocene, also known as the EAT-Lancet report, have focused largely on the negative health and environmental consequences of eating too much ASF, problems that predominate in the developed world. But there is very little correlation between health and low carbon diets, and South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa are well below the EAT Lancet recommendations for ASF. In the end, he argued, balancing concerns for the environment, livelihoods and individual health outcomes means taking a contextual approach. In high-income countries, policymakers should focus on reducing ASF consumption for both health and environmental reasons; in low-income countries, the focus should be on increasing ASF consumption for nutritionally vulnerable groups, reducing GHG emissions of ASF production, and enhancing livelihood impacts from increased livestock productivity.

Other participants at the conference included Robyn Alders, Centre for Global Health Security, who spoke on public and policy opportunities to support sustainable livestock; Mario Herrero, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), who spoke on some of the myths about livestock and the environment; Richard Eckard, The University of Melbourne, on the potential for methane reduction; Rebecca Doyle, The University of Melbourne, on animal welfare and farm intensification; and Anna Okello, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), on opportunities to transform food systems in developing regions. ILRI’s assistant director general, Shirley Tarawali, facilitated the discussion that ensued after the presentations.

Alders focused her presentation on the quest for policy and public expenditure opportunities to support implementation of livestock and aquaculture interventions. She noted that most of the world’s farms are small and family-run. Alders stressed the importance of understanding how country-led policy and public expenditure can transform agriculture as well as the economy is critical if we are to improve the performance of market-oriented small-scale producers.

Working with Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, Alders is developing a policy-relevant decision toolkit to identify supportive smallholder aquaculture and livestock practices and to innovate value chains that deliver across the triple bottom line of economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability. Improving the performance of market-oriented small-scale producers can contribute to inclusive agricultural transformation, empowered women and well-nourished families.

Herrero focused his discussion on facts and myths about livestock and the environment. He began by noting that some of the major issues affecting livestock include the large and growing size of the sector; the way it is misunderstood by scientists and consumers; the widespread prevalence of unproven generalizations about the sector; the fact that it is dynamic and complex, encompassing both good and bad aspects; and the way it has been mis-represented in the press. He summarized the latest data on livestock growth: In 2002, the annual per capita consumption of meat and milk in developing states was 28kgs and 44kgs respectively; this is expected to rise to 44kgs and 78kgs respectively by 2050. Even in the developed world, per capita consumption of meat and milk is expected to rise from 78kgs and 202kgs to 94kgs and 216kgs, respectively. He cautioned, however, that these numbers mask a wide variation in over and under consumption of various ASF in different regions.

The environmental efficiency of livestock has been improving, but the sector has traded lower land use, and emissions for increased nitrogen use. He made several recommendations regarding how livestock could improve its environmental impact: The beef sector should explore more low-opportunity-cost lands and become more of a by-product of the dairy sector; dairy should focus on smallholder gains, as there is a lot of demonstrated evidence of the benefits of intensification for livelihoods benefits. It should also pursue more circular feed possibilities, to decouple livestock from the negative impact of unnecessary environmental costs.