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FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

Rapid growth in livestock farming has made Latin America the largest exporter of beef and poultry in the world, representing about 45% of agricultural GDP in the region. This growth nevertheless requires a sustainable approach to prevent growing pressure on natural resources in the region and the environment.

Sustainable livestock farming and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean

The farming sector in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has enormous potential to contribute to global food production and food security. Agricultural and livestock production in the region will, however, be increasingly influenced by climatic factors and trends in the international demand for food, energy and biofuels.

In this scenario, risk management is a strategic component of agricultural development processes and a priority issue on the capacity-building agenda for countries in the region. Rapid growth in the regional livestock sector, amounting to twice the world average, has also put great pressure on the natural resource base, especially the loss of forest cover for grazing cattle production and grain production for intensive poultry and pig production systems. It is also very likely that increasing soil degradation problems will lead to livestock production having to compete for land with agricultural or agro-energy production and run the risk of being pushed back to marginal areas. Countries in the region therefore need to improve their capacity for risk analysis and management in the livestock sector and develop strategies for sustainable production from a technical, economic, social and environmental viewpoint. This means that the industry needs to optimize the efficiency, utilization and sustainability of resources by establishing a new outlook, with a sectorial integration approach.

Livestock is estimated to be the main source of income for some 200 million small farming families in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the only source of livelihood for at least 20 million families. If medium-sized producers are added to this total, the figures could easily double. The main problems faced in such systems are the growing degradation of pastures and a consequent loss of productivity, deforestation, increasing dependency on external inputs, technology and genetic material, high incidence of disease and organizational and marketing weaknesses.

The process of expansion of livestock living in Latin American countries represents an opportunity as well as a threat to the sustainable development of the region. On one hand, it offers an opportunity to create wealth and reduce poverty if the right policy decisions are taken to promote sustainable, environmentally-friendly livestock production systems. On the other hand, it is a threat if the activity continues to expand without considering environmental costs and the potential effects in terms of the marginalization of small producers.

In this region, typified by the ready availability of land, the process of livestock expansion is not isolated from the performance of the other major subsectors: grain farming and forestry. Due to its territorial extent and environmental threats, grain farming is undoubtedly the subsector that is most closely linked to livestock farming in a process of growth with major interactions. It is therefore necessary to plan growth and intensification that capitalizes on the positive synergies that integrating agriculture with livestock farming and even afforestation can contribute to the sustainability and competitiveness of production systems.

Current projections indicate that worldwide meat consumption will double in the next 20 years. Although this is good news for the food security of millions of people, facing this demand will push the farming and livestock frontier back to areas of greater environmental vulnerability.

This could increase levels of deforestation in the region and lead to soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and depletion of water resources if prevention measures are not taken. Decisive action must be taken to ensure that the sector grows in an environmentally sustainable way while also contributing to mitigating climate change, reducing poverty and improving human health.

According to FAO, approximately 70% of the grazing areas of Latin America and the Caribbean are undergoing degradation processes to various degrees. The regions most susceptible to the pushing back of the farming and livestock frontier correspond to the Amazon ecosystems in Brazil, the South American Chaco in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia and the arid and semi-arid areas of Argentina and Chile.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), livestock accounts for about 40% of emissions generated by agriculture. Greater public and private investment is therefore required for technological research and development, to harmonize farming and livestock and environmental policies and seek sustainable mechanisms for paying livestock farmers who implement environmentally-friendly production systems for their services to the environment.

Considering the entire food chain, livestock farming as a whole (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry) accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. There is an urgent need to improve the efficiency of resource use in livestock production as well as to reduce negative external environmental effects generated by the sector.

Although deforestation caused by the rise in extensive grazing systems in certain areas is a common feature in the countries of Central and South America, technological and management strategies are available to ensure the sustainable intensification of livestock production and prevent deforestation and expansion of the livestock frontier. In other words, the sector can play a key role in mitigating climate change.

FAO promotes practices such as the direct sowing of crops in degraded pastures and the implementation of integrated farming-livestock-forestry systems as viable alternatives for recovering degraded areas, developing sustainable livestock farming and promoting the sustainable intensification of production.

Livestock farming can play an important role in adapting to climate change as well as mitigating its effects on human welfare. New technologies must be developed in order to harness the sector's potential to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation by increasing its capacity to monitor, report on and verify emissions from livestock production.