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The role of livestock in the pollution of land, water and air resources


In recent decades livestock production has increased rapidly particularly in developing countries. Most of the production, however, is not generated by traditional production systems that characterized the region for centuries, but from industrial, large-scale production of pigs and poultry, and to a certain extent, dairy. Large-scale, industrial production accounts for roughly 80 percent of the total production increase. Production relies almost exclusively on concentrate feed, often imported from elsewhere in the country or from abroad.

In many developing regions, this rapid growth has been triggered by dramatic shifts in the nature and location of livestock production. Traditional mixed farming systems, in which farmers raise a few animals alongside their crops, have given way to large industrial operations with thousands of animals. New production has shifted increasingly from cattle and other ruminants that graze on grass and fodder to pigs and poultry fattened on diets of concentrate feed. And the centre of gravity for livestock production has shifted from rural, farming communities to the outskirts of cities.

Geographically, most large-scale industrial production takes place in and around major cities. This leads to massive pollution in these areas, particularly of surface and ground water. The emission of greenhouse (methane, nitrous oxide) and other gases (ammonia) are other important forms of pollution. Moreover, there are several public health risks associated with the close proximity of high human and animal densities. In addition, the rural areas that would have the resource potential to supply the growing urban markets are deprived of a rapidly growing commodity market. The current policy framework often favors the development of large scale industrial production making the poor even more vulnerable.

The reasons for the geographic concentration of livestock production lie in the cost advantages for enterprises close to the consumer market, given that in most countries infrastructure (including roads, cold chain, marketing and handling facilities) is still not well developed. Regulations for livestock production and related waste management are either insufficiently sophisticated or not being enforced. Thus, large-scale industrial production causes significant environmental damage with local and global consequences. At the same time, rural small-scale producers are put at a disadvantage by the urban policy bias reflected in these trends.

While these trends are extremely worrying from a social, environmental and public health point of view, there are a number of countervailing tendencies. Firstly, environmental awareness is growing in countries that have reached a middle income level, raising the chances of stricter environmental regulations and enforcement. Secondly, infrastructure developments have started to allow the siting of new production units in rural areas, where much more land is available to absorb the waste. Thirdly, the urban and rural price differentials for land and labour in these countries are accentuated, providing incentives for the establishment and feasibility of productive units in rural areas.

LEAD’s approach in addressing the issues

The LEAD Initiative has approached problems arising from industrial livestock production in various ways focusing on countries experiencing rapid increases in production, major changes in production systems towards specialized industrial production and huge concentration in certain areas.

  • Conducting comprehensive baseline analysis related to industrialized livestock production that will enable appropriate decision support and provide policy-makers with informed policy advice on these issues.
  • Development and testing of novel approaches/concepts such as the Area-wide Integration (AWI) for the management of large-scale industrial production.
  • Assist in development of decision support tools (e.g. Nutrient balance model) and capacity building on environmental problems arising from industrialized livestock systems.

To this end, LEAD has focused on implementing a number of projects that address environmental problems related to intensive livestock production. 

  1. Area-wide integration pilot projects (Completed)
  2. Industrialization studies: Livestock industrialization, trade and social-health-environment impact in developing countries  (Completed)
  3. Livestock waste management in East Asia (LWMEA) [Ongoing]
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