Editor, World Animal Review FAO, Rome.
Livestock can be beneficial to the environment, maintaining the mountain pastures, savannahs and lowland meadows. Or it can be highly detrimental, causing desertification and producing noxious pollutants. This issue of World Animal Review is concerned with livestock and the environment, relating these to human issues of food production and sustainable livelihoods.
Sustainability, like many buzzwords in development jargon, is suffering from overuse. But we continue to degrade land in many countries and to use finite resources, particularly fossil fuel reserves, at a rate that will exceed the limits within a short period, probably less than 100 years. The Brundtland Report1 suggested that "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This is the definition of sustainability that has generally become accepted.
It must not be forgotten that "sustainable development" is still "development" and implies economic growth and an increase in productivity to meet the needs of the population. Another important publication, Blueprint for a green economy2, refers to "sustainability as resilience". Resilience is the ability of ecosystems to adapt to change. This is vital to the success of a managed ecosystem, which is the case in agriculture and livestock production where the purpose of human activity is to transform an ecosystem deliberately to achieve food production. There is a need not only to reduce the impact of agriculture, and livestock in particular, on the environment, but also to do this while increasing productivity to meet the needs of the growing population and demand for livestock products - and to do it in ways that are sustainable.
The consequences of livestock in the system can be at two extremes. At one end, overgrazed pastures can deplete nutrients and lead to impoverishment of the soil, erosion and decline in productivity. At the other, intensive livestock units produce an excess of nutrients which can have equally devastating environmental effects.
A few years ago, I noted in the FAO electronic conference Livestock feed resources within integrated farming systems3 that a sustainable agricultural system was likely to be a modification of the natural ecosystem of the area or region. Extreme disturbances such as deforestation resulted in systems that were not sustainable. This is particularly true of the humid tropical rainforest where the nutrients are mainly in the biosphere and the soils after deforestation are incapable of holding nutrients. It is also true of the dry tropics, where removal of the tree component (Acacia and other legume trees) leaves land that is susceptible to drought and consequent overgrazing.
Production systems that avoid degradation and depletion in these contexts are those that involve both trees and pastures and resemble the natural ecosystem of the region, be it wet or dry savannah. These systems are usually much more productive in terms of livestock production than pastoral systems alone, either natural or where the pasture is (temporarily) replaced by "improved" grasses.
Extensive cattle ranching is an unsustainable system on many tropical soils. In his article on Environmental and social conversion of cattle ranching in Colombia, Enrique Murgueitio deals with the transformation of the present system of cattle ranching into something more sustainable, less incompatible with biological diversity and more appropriate for human welfare. This involves the exploitation of high biomass species and plant diversity and such practices as agroforestry, intercropping, efficient use of manure, diversity of habitats, reduction in the use of pesticides and other toxic compounds, as well as appropriate prairie management.
Improved technologies have not always been adopted in the past. The paper by Faminow and Dahl, on Smallholder risk, cattle and deforestation in the western Brazilian Amazon, looks at why intensive management systems are not widely adopted in the western Amazon, even though they seem to display agronomic and financial benefits.
Dr Murgueitio and his colleagues at the Centre for Research in Sustainable Agriculture and Livestock Production (CIPAV) in Cali, Colombia have considered small-, medium- and large-scale farming systems. Small-scale integrated systems can be highly productive and environmentally sustainable, as described in the article by Lukefahr and Preston: Human development through livestock projects: alternative global approaches for the next millennium. But we cannot ignore the large- and medium-scale farms that produce a high proportion of the food needs of people and often present the most difficult environmental challenges.
The new FAO Livestock Programme for 2000 onwards has introduced a component called Decision support for efficient livestock resource use, focusing on high-potential systems in selected regions, where the emphasis will be on productivity, while protecting or enhancing natural resources. This is an important challenge for all concerned. The intention is to develop the sustainable use of animal genetic and feed resources with the aim of meeting the increasing demand for livestock products. We do indeed have some well adapted breeds that can make better use of locally available resources and a great array of feed materials that can be exploited, including underutilized plants and by-products from crops.
In particular, increasing knowledge on the use of trees and other fodder plants for livestock feeding will lead to development of integrated systems and agro-silvopastoralism. Also, general improvements in the utilization of feed resources will improve efficiency and hence reduce wastage, which often contributes to pollution. Many by-products can be used as feed and the technology for their management and feeding is known. Again, adoption of technologies is the key, through information dissemination, demonstration and training. The programme will direct attention particularly at their use for pigs, poultry and dairy cows and in medium- to large-scale as well as small-scale enterprises.
Many health problems associated with livestock, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli infection and chemical contaminants, are connected to environmental management. There needs to be informed control throughout the food chain, starting with the raw materials that are used in the feed. In this respect, FAO has developed a draft Code of Practice for Safe Animal Feeding, and this will be further refined by the Codex Alimentarius in the coming year. It is also important that this can be applied in developing countries and in small and medium-sized as well as large enterprises.
One approach to dealing with the large-scale livestock systems has been called area-wide integration. This seeks to apply technologies that deal with environmental pollution and degradation of natural resources (air, water, soil, biodiversity) in intensive animal production systems (especially pigs and poultry) which are increasingly developing in many countries. The approach includes studies of the problem, in particular locations and aspects of nutrient flows and balances. It then looks for solutions through improving current systems; reducing of inputs, nutrient influx and water consumption; manure management; composting; aerobic and anaerobic treatments; biogas digesters; land application; and other existing and new technologies. FAO will assist national policy-makers, state and municipal authorities, institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and farmers in applying these adjustments through improved regulation (environmental standards, adaptation of standards to local conditions, incentive policies and zoning) and technology transfer.
It may be that neither very small livestock enterprises, which are not market-oriented, nor very large industrial units, with very large problems of waste disposal and pollution, are appropriate or sustainable. The growth area could be the medium-sized livestock systems that make good use of resources, feeds and labour and yet still have the potential to supply the product processors and market needs. Such enterprises can make better use of by-products and be integrated with crop production, using manure as fertilizer (and fuel, through biodigesters).
The challenge is to meet the increasing demand for safe and wholesom1e food, and provide for improved rural livelihoods while reducing the impact on the environment.
1 World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987.
Our common future. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. 8 pp.
2 Pearce, D., Markandya A. & Barbier, E.B. 1989. Blueprint for a green economy. London, Earthscan Publications.
3 FAO. Livestock feed resources within integrated farming systems. Rome. www.fao.org/WAICENT/FAOINFO/AGRICULT/AGA/AGAP/FRG/TFCONF2.HTM