Senior Officer (Livestock Development Planning), Animal Production and Health Division, FAO, Rome, Italy


There are massive pressures on animal production to satisfy the deeply rooted demand for high value animal protein. These pressures are resulting in a major transformation of the livestock sector, from one which is resource-driven (based on available waste and surplus products) to one that looks aggressively for new resources. Surging demand for animal products, a liberalized trade environment, changes in national policies and rapid developments in the area of technology and information bring about a whole series of opportunities and risks. These are compounded by shifts in the level of decision-making, away from the centralized nation-state towards both the lower (community) and higher (international) level. The dynamics surrounding the livestock sector call for novel approaches for safeguarding international public goods, now and in future.

Livestock in a changing world

The domestication of animals and their integration with crop agriculture have provided the main avenue for agricultural intensification and this, in turn, has allowed for unprecedented economic and human population growth. Livestock production, mainly as a result of pressures in this process, has become an important factor in environmental degradation. All these pressures on the environment are the result of a process of change in which the rising demand for livestock commodities is creating a new role not only for livestock but also for the environment. In essence, the conflict between livestock and the environment is a conflict between different human needs and expectations.

Animal Production growth rates in percent for major livestock products from 1990 to 1995
CommodityDeveloping countriesDeveloped countries
Ruminant meat4.3-2.0
Source: Waicent (1996)

The world's livestock sector is growing at an unprecedented rate. Livestock are not only important as producers of meat, milk and eggs, which are part of the modern food chain and provide high value protein food, but other non-food functions; although of declining importance, still provide the rationale for keeping the majority of the world's livestock. For millions of smallholder farmers, animal draught power and nutrient recycling through manure compensate for lack of access to modern inputs such as tractors and fertilizer, and help to maintain the viability and environmental sustainability of production. Often, livestock constitute the main, if not the only, capital reserve of farming households, serving as a strategic reserve that reduces risk and adds stability to the overall farming system. As such, livestock can satisfy a large variety of human needs. Yet, in many places, livestock production is growing out of balance with the environment or is denied access to traditional key resources, and degradation is the result. The driving force behind the surge in demand for livestock products is a combination of population growth, rising incomes and urbanization. The world's population is currently growing at 1. 5 percent; the growth rate is 1.8 percent in the developing countries and stagnating at less than 0.1 growth in the developed countries. The real incomes of consumers in the developing countries have doubled since the early 1960s. With the exception of the 1980s, per capita GDP has grown annually by over 3 percent per year. There is a strong positive relationship between level of income and consumption of animal protein. As people become more affluent, consumption of meat, milk and eggs relatively increases compared to the consumption of staple food. Diets become richer and more diverse, and the high-value protein that livestock products offer improves the nutrition for the vast majority of people in the world. Incomes have increased in most countries over the past five years, particularly in Asian countries. In the developed countries, however, increasing incomes are no longer associated with incremental consumption of animal protein as markets have become saturated. On the contrary, higher income often leads to a decrease in animal food consumption because of human health concerns, particularly the incidence of heart and blood circulation diseases associated with excessive consumption of animal fats.

Currently, over 80 percent of the world's population growth occurs in cities of developing countries. World-wide, urbanization has risen from 30 percent of the population to 45 percent in 1995 and is projected to reach 60 percent by 2025 (UNFPA, 1995). In the developed countries, urbanization rates have levelled at 80 percent while in the developing world urbanization still averages 37 percent with marked differences between the regions: 74 percent in Latin America but only 34 percent in Africa and Asia. In the past, many governments tried to slow down urbanization, but it is now increasingly recognized as a rational pattern of development as economic activity at higher levels of development benefit from agglomeration. Urban populations differ from rural populations in a higher consumption of animal products in their diets, further fuelling the demand (IFPRI, 1995).

Gross Domestic Product per capita and annual percentage change in different word regions
(US$, 1994)
change % 80–90per year %
East and South East Asia9476.19.2
South Asia3183.43.3
Central and South America3,392-0.11.4
West Asia & North Africa2.309-2.2-0.5
Sub-Saharan Africa4821.1-1.3
Eastern Europe and CIS1.5021.21.0

Source: Ingco et al (1996), UN (1996), OECD (1997)

The rapidly increasing demand for livestock products pushes against a traditional resource base for livestock production that cannot expand at the same pace. Diversity is a main characteristic of traditional livestock production. A wide array of feed resources is being used, most of which have no or only limited alternative value. These include pastures in marginal lands, crop residues and agro-industrial by-products, but also waste from households and industrial food preparation. The scope for increasing the traditional feed resource base is limited. Firstly, across the world the most productive pasture lands are being turned into cropland as the demand for high-potential arable land continues to increase. Likewise, degraded cropland is fallowed and reconverts into poor pastures. As a result, the overall pasture area may not change much but the land productivity is likely to be lower. Technologies that increase pasture productivity have shown impressive results in Latin America but, globally, productivity growth is marginal. Secondly, the basic principles of crop research are to optimise the transformation of land resources, solar energy and inputs into high-value products, for example, into grains. Consequently, the availability of crop residues for animal feed does not increase with rising yields.

The desire for greater productivity form livestock is resulting in a change in the use of animal genetic resources. Traditional genotypes, which have developed through exploitation of harsh environments, cannot match the sector's demands for higher productivity. Now that the means exist to modify the bio-physical environment, even in the tropics, exotic genotypes are being introduced which provide a higher return on external inputs. Consequently, the use of indigenous breeds is diminishing.

As the world economy develops and many countries industrialize, people seek different uses of livestock. Today, non-food functions are generally in decline and are replaced by cheaper and more convenient substitutes. The following trends may be depicted:

The opportunities that arise from a strong market demand conflict with the limited potential to expand the conventional resource base. This results in an extremely dynamic situation in terms of technology and resource utilisation. Technological progress has achieved a doubling of productivity per animal in OECD countries over the past 30 years. A major productivity gap remains in developing countries. Closing this productivity gap could offer opportunities to relieve the strain on natural resources but it is clear that this cannot be obtained by expanding the conventional resource base. Increasingly, the world livestock sector resorts to external inputs, notably high quality feed but also more productive breeds and better animal health and general husbandry inputs.

Grazing systems offer only limited potential for intensification, and livestock production is becoming increasingly crop-based. Thus, the importance of roughages as a feed resource is decreasing at the expense of cereals and agro-industrial by-products. There is an important species shift towards monogastric animals, mainly poultry and pigs. While ruminant meat accounted for 54 percent of the total meat production in the developing countries in 1970, this has gone down to 38 percent in 1990, and is projected to decrease further to 29 percent in 2010 (FAO, 1995). This species shift reflects the better conversion rates for concentrate feed by monogastric animals.

Livestock production is being separated from its land base and urbanized, and is assuming the features of industrial production. In recent years, industrial livestock production grew at twice the rate (4.3 percent) of that in mixed farming systems (2.2 percent) and more than six times the grazing system production growth (0.7 percent) (Seré and Steinfeld, 1996). This trend has accelerated in the past five years.

In agro-ecological terms livestock production is growing more rapidly in humid and sub-humid zones than in arid tropical zones and the highlands. The growing human population largely explains the expansion of livestock into the more humid zones: when people move into an area, land is cleared which reduces the threat of animal diseases that would otherwise have precluded livestock production. It is, therefore, in these zones that pressure on the environment will build up most rapidly. The complexity of livestock-environment interactions makes generalizations difficult and has left a void in the development of comprehensive policies in this regard.

In some regions, such as the Americas, livestock ownership is severely skewed in favour of the wealthier groups in society. For example in southern Africa and Central America, political decisions are often influenced by livestock owners. In the European Union and the USA, the livestock lobbies belong to the most powerful political action groups. Yet in many other regions, such as the Indian sub-continent and North Africa, livestock is especially owned by the poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, herders are politically marginalized.

Typically, livestock products have a high elasticity of demand but traditionally a low elasticity of supply, particularly in land-based smallholder production. Because of this demand pattern it has been argued that livestock development tends to favour the higher-income sectors of society - an isolated view, yet one that has deterred potential donors - but does not adequately take account of benefits on the supply side. These factors have created a policy void which is further exacerbated by the general move, in developing and developed countries alike, to reduce the presence of governments and to liberalize markets and trade.

Following the GATT agreement, international trade is being liberalized; in many countries more reliance is put on market forces and national economies have become deregulated. Thus, there has been a trend away from national self-sufficiency to a greater reliance on international trade. Price supports and subsidies are successively being removed and producers left to compete. Likewise, capital, labour and commodity markets are increasingly turning international. In very general terms, this means that the global pattern of livestock production in terms of geographical distribution, resources used and technology applied is redeveloping along more rational premises. Livestock production becomes less productive where it has benefited from domestic market protection (EC, Near East) and it may become more productive where it used to be penalized because it had no access to international markets (CSA, SSA).

Market liberalization is also an important factor in national markets in many developing countries where goods now move more freely and price administration is decreasing. Trade is a major determinant of livestock environment interactions and is of international dimension.

Trade changes the geographical pattern of livestock production, with potential negative and positive impacts (FAO, 1995, SOFA). Trade also changes the pattern and level of consumption. Trade separates production from consumption, in geographical terms. For trade both in feed and in livestock products, this has implications which need to be addressed in national policies and international agreements. An analysis conducted by FAO (SOFA, 1995) suggests that in many cases trade liberalization and environmental concerns are compatible. Given an appropriate response to environmental protection, whether through market incentives or through regulation, and adequate services (information, training and extension), consumer needs can be met at lower environmental costs than in a protected market.

A world economy emerges, with great opportunities but also inherent dangers. How can public goods, human well-being, equality, health and the environment be protected and fostered?

At the same time, the realm of governments is being reduced. Extended public services have been trimmed, forced by the need to reduce budgets and to respond to international market pressure. This trend started in the late eighties in most countries and accelerated in the early nineties. Reduced government interventions have had the most dramatic effects in the CIS and Eastern European countries, reshaping the livestock sector in technological and institutional terms. Starting in 1979, China began adopting market-oriented principles of economic management. In the OECD countries, reduced subsidies are changing the role of livestock as a converter of surplus products generated by wasteful policies, and more rational patterns of livestock production are evolving. Many developing countries embarked on major reforms, including reductions in public services, privatization of state-owned enterprises, removal of interventions that had caused currency overvaluation, and reduced capital controls. With reduced budgets, governments are becoming more selective in their policy measures and subsidies, and services become better targeted. In many instances, for example in EC countries, this implies a move away from price subsidies to more direct forms of income subsidisation. At the same time, the roles of public and private services are changing. Governments are increasingly concentrating on roles where they are essential as guardians of public goods.

In many developing countries, economic development is finally taking place and at an unparalleled speed, involving a vast amount of resources. Animal production is part of this development. Because of its major impact on global agricultural production, this provides a unique opportunity towards the creation of jobs, income and poverty alleviation in developing countries.

Increased attention to livestock-environment interactions is therefore of critical importance in sustaining the world's resource base. These interactions have been the subject of much conjecture, often lacking objectivity, and over-simplifying complex relationships. Such scarcity of informed decision-making has often aggravated he negative effects. For example, the misperceptions regarding overgrazing in the arid areas led to measures which controlled stocking rates and movements, thereby causing more, rather than less, land degradation. A better understanding of the complementarity of domesticated and wild animals would have led to greater species wealth and improved well-being of local human populations.

Finding the balance between increased food production and the preservation of the world's natural resources remains a major challenge. It is clear that food will have to be produced at less cost to the natural resource base than at present. Arguably, the environmental problems associated with livestock production would best be resolved by reducing consumption of their products, as many environmentalists suggest (see, for example, Goodland, 1996). We believe that chances for lowering the overall demand are close to nil and that the billions of poor people have a right to improve their diet. We acknowledge that consumption of meat and other livestock products is excessive in some countries and social classes, causing medical problems such as cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure. For the large majority of people, however, particularly in the developing countries, livestock products remain a desired food for nutritional value and taste. This, as well as the developing requirements of the majority of countries need to be respected.

The theme of this Conference is livestock and the environment. As we have seen, the issue is surrounded by complex and extremely dynamic factors. New risks and new opportunities emerge, to which we need to respond. This takes me back to the nature of the conflict. It is inappropriate to speak about livestock and the environment as a conflict. The conflict is in our changing needs and expectations as they relate to both livestock and the environment. As we have seen, the role of livestock is changing, away from a multi-purpose tool and companion, engrained in many societies and company through history to a sole provider of food, or better high value animal protein. In many ways, this change is too rapid for the mass of agricultural producers to keep pace with; new forms of production emerge. At the same time, different roles are assigned to the environment, thoroughly modified in large parts of the world, but left largely untouched in vast areas Our future rests on dwindling natural resources, and we can extract less and less.

Undoubtedly, livestock are at the core of big environmental problems and other risks, such as threats to human health. But they are also at the core of global change with emerging opportunities for development and human well-being. These need to be seized, and in the process, the role of international organizations, governments, farmers and other stakeholders needs to be redefined. Already, some requirements can be identified:

Livestock development issues of global concern, such as efficient agricultural resource use, land husbandry, changes in demand for food and primary products, international exchange of goods, capital and knowledge, all call for international coordination to help manage the speed and direction of these changes since they go beyond the capacity of individual national governments. These issues must be dealt with both from a policy and technology perspective to be blended into strategies that position livestock in development so as to make their optimal contribution.


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