7 The role of livestock in sustainable agriculture; delivering for people, animals and planet

Developing farming in ways that maximise food security and nutrition of malnourished adults and children, and enhance the wellbeing of humans, the environment and livestock in the most optimal ways

Organizers: Senegal; Kenya; FAO; University of Winchester Centre for Animal Welfare; The Brooke


This multi-stakeholder side event will discuss and explore how livestock can best support food security and nutrition, and the wider wellbeing of humans and the environment. Emphasis will be given to the needs of the most food-insecure people and places; and also those who support the basis of food production in the most vulnerable situations, such as pastoralists, women and small-scale family farmers. Livestock, reared for food and as working animals, support billions of people all over the world, particularly subsistence smallholders and the urban poor, providing a wide range of essential services when integrated into land-based farming systems. As we review the role of livestock in food security and nutrition, we ask how we can develop farming that is effective in feeding food-insecure people sustainably, and how we can best care for livestock so that they can help the most vulnerable people thrive. Panellists will provide insight into the priorities of poor livestock keepers, seeking to present a fuller understanding of the role of livestock in supporting food security, nutrition, and livelihoods, including their role in food production value chains and the true cost of food.

Key speakers

Dr. Badi Besbes (Chair), Animal Production and Health Division, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Ali Mohamed dit Séga Camara, Executive Secretary, Conseil National de Sécurité Alimentaire, Government of Senegal

Dr. Kisa Juma Ngeiywa, Director of Veterinary Services, State Department of Livestock, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Government of Kenya

Philip Lymbery, Visiting Professor, University of Winchester Centre for Animal Welfare

Dil Peeling, Director of Animal Welfare and Sustainability, Brooke

Fabio Fuselli, Head of the Secretariat of the General Direction of International and EU policies (PIUE), Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry Policy, Government of Italy 

Main themes/issues discussed

This event explored the multiple roles of livestock, with a focus on the ways in which livestock can most sustainably support food security and nutrition, as well as the wider wellbeing of humans and the environment.  As the producers of the majority of the food consumed in the world, special attention was given to the needs of smallholder farmers, while exploring the externalities and impacts of industrial farming systems. 

Panellists presented findings, case studies and priorities from their varied organizational and country contexts.

Summary of key points

While the links between livestock and food security are complex and differ across the varied food production systems, in many smallholder land-based systems, livestock keeping is a fundamental element of food security and nutrition.  Through using rough pasture, forage and crop residues to produce meat, milk and eggs for human consumption, land-based livestock farming contributes positively to food security and nutrition.  

Livestock also provide essential services and while FAO noted the significant contribution of livestock to human protein intake, livestock’s important role goes beyond food production, and also includes, for example, the draught power used to produce, distribute and access food, as recognized by this year’s CFS recommendations on the role of livestock in sustainable agricultural development.  

The member state representatives of Kenya and Senegal highlighted the crucial and integral role of livestock to their national economies.  It was noted that in Senegal 28.2% of households are livestock keepers and communities rely on working animals such as horses, donkeys and mules which plough the fields, provide crucial transport of fuel, water and agricultural produce, supporting agricultural and animal-sourced food production and generating valuable income.  The poorest households in West Africa were said to be those without a working animal.  This was a common story which was echoed by the other speakers, with case studies from across the globe, with the panelists noting the key role of working livestock in keeping those that benefit from their labour out of poverty. 

Livestock also play an important cultural role in society, particularly in rural communities, and examples were given from the Kenyan context where livestock are a key feature of life and community events, and also represent an important means of saving.  It was therefore emphasized, that ensuring the welfare of these animals was essential in order to protect this key livelihoods resource.

However, the expansion of large-scale, industrial agriculture, undermines not only the welfare of animals, but also negatively impacts the environment – depleting and polluting local waters and soils and contributing heavily to climate change – and represents one of the biggest threats to global food security. Research shows that intensive industrial agriculture and the current western diet are unsustainable and must be addressed. The recent High Level Panel of Experts report advises that contraction and convergence of diets is needed, with a reduction in consumption of animal animal-sourced foods by high consuming populations needed to allow for an increase amongst the food-insecure.  The food security of the most food-insecure people is also eroded when farm animals are fed grains and soy which could otherwise be eaten by people, as is often the case in industrial contexts.  

Overall, it was noted that livestock offer a huge potential in delivering food security, but need to be managed in ways that most sustainably meet the needs of the food-insecure, while protecting the environment and the welfare of the animals that people depend upon.

The session was filmed, and the video will be made available.

Key outcomes/take away messages

The participants welcome the endorsement of the CFS recommendations on the role of livestock in sustainable agricultural development.  These recommendations represent a significant step forward in promoting more sustainable use of livestock for food security and nutrition.  Nevertheless, significant work is still needed and these recommendations can only be as strong as the actions taken by member states, institutions, organisations, the private sector and other stakeholders to implement them in their own contexts.

Despite their indispensable contributions to food security and national economies and their inclusion in the definition of livestock in the new CFS recommendations, working livestock remain largely invisible in the eyes of decision and policy makers.  Inclusion of these animals in development policies, animal health initiatives, agricultural extension services and emergency responses, can bring tangible benefits in enhancing the efficiency and performance of working livestock in their contributions to livelihoods and food security.  

The side event underscored that to feed the world sustainably, there is a need to return to more sustainable diets and farming practices, such as mixed-rotational land-based farms, or pastoralism; and to ensure that animals are also treated humanely.

Discussions following the presentations included interventions from the CFS Africa Regional Group, ILRI, FAO, IUF and Practical Action amongst others, covering a wide range of related topics including: the need for global education and awareness-raising on the value of livestock, the low level of investment in agriculture and livestock development, the rights of agricultural workers, animal hygiene and health, the impact of livestock on climate change, the use of animal by-products including manure, and the promotion of sustainable food production systems.