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Chapter 1: Livestock, environment and human needs

Livestock in a changing world
The environmental challenges

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. The massive appetite of the growing urban populations for meat, milk and eggs often translates into environmental damage and disruption of traditional mixed farming. Where population pressure and poverty coincide, such as in pastoral areas poor management of livestock degrades resources still further. These pressures call for new policies, institutions and markets and require the development and adaptation of new technologies to make livestock environmentally more benign. The scope is enormous and so is the task.

Livestock, Environment and Human needs

Livestock in a changing world

The association between humankind and animals dates back to prehistoric times hut, although the environment may previously have been hostile it is only in recent times that it has become necessary to consider how to satisfy human needs for food without destroying the environment in which that food productions must take place. 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. Large land areas have become degraded through overgrazing and deforestation because of ranching. Biodiversity is affected by extensive as well as intensive livestock production. Water availability in low-rainfall areas is affected by livestock. Where animal concentrations are high land and water may be polluted through waste from animal production and processing. Livestock are an important source of gaseous emission, contributing to global warming, which is projected to increase by 1.80 Celsius worldwide over the next 35 years (Houghton, et al., 1995). 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.

Table 1.1 Animal production grow rates in percent for major livestock products from 1990 to 1995.


Developing countries

Developed countries

Ruminant meat















Source: FAO-VAICENT, 1996

The world's livestock sector is growing at an unprecedented rate and this growth is only taking place in developing countries. 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 small-holder 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 acids 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 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 '60s. With the exception of the '80s, 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 increases relative 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. We also observe a shift from red to white meat, and away from animal fat.

Urban populations differ from rural populations in having a higher consumption of animal products in their diets, further fueling demand (IFPRI, 1995). Currently, over 80 percent of the world's population growth occurs in cities of developing countries. Worldwide, 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 leveled 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.

Table 1.2 Gross Domestic Product per capita and annual percentage change in different world regions.


(US$, 1994)

change %

per year %





East & South East Asia




South Asia




Central & South America




West Asia & North Africa




Sub-Saharan Africa




Eastern Europe and CIS




Source: Ingco et al., UN, 1996. World Bank 1996.

Livestock in a changing world

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, to a certain extent, agro-industrial by-products and waste from households. 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 followed 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 optimize 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 from 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. The association between man and livestock has undergone many changes over time and will keep changing. For example, the empire of largest geographical expansion ever, was based on transport and communication by horses (the Tartars in the 14th century). Today, non-food functions are generally in decline and are replaced by cheaper and more convenient substitutes. The following trends may be depicted:

• The asset, petty cash and insurance functions that livestock provide is being replaced by financial institutions as even remote rural areas enter the monetary economy;

• With the notable exception of parts of sub-Saharan Africa and some areas in Asia animal draught is on the decline as more farmers mechanize;

• Manure continues to he important for nutrient management in mixed farming hut its role in overall nutrient supply is declining because of the competitive price and ease of management of inorganic fertilizer;

• Although the demand for natural fibers is still high, and in some places even increasing, there are increasingly more synthetic substitutes for wool and leather.

The opportunities that arise from 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 utilization. Technological progress has achieved over the past 30 years a doubling of productivity per animal in OECD countries. A major productivity gap remains in developing countries. Closing this productivity gaps could offer opportunities to relieve the strain on natural resources hut 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 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 roughage's 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 total meat production in the developing countries in 1970, this has gone down to 38 percent in 1990 and is projected to farther decrease to 29 percent in 2010 (FAO, 1995). This species shift reflects the better conversion rates for concentrate feed by monogastric animals.

Livestock production is becoming separated from its land base, urbanized and is beginning to assume 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 because, when people move into an area, land is cleared thereby reducing the threat of animal diseases which would otherwise have precluded livestock production. It is in these zones, therefore, 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 decision is often influenced by livestock owners. In the European Union clod 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 small-holder 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.

The environmental challenges

The balance between human needs and natural resource requirements will depend, to a significant extent, on what we do with animal production. Over the last 35 years large land areas have become degraded. In many parts of the world, water resources have fallen to dangerously low levels or become unsafe to drink. Global temperatures have risen by about 0.5° Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. McNeely et al, (1990) estimate that more than 3,000 plant species and more than 500 animal species are in immediate danger of extinction.

Focusing on the livestock-associated environmental problems, some hot spots stand out:

• Land degradation of semi-arid lands in Africa and India, caused by a complex set of factors involving man and his stock, crop encroachment in marginal areas and fuelwood collection. Land tenure, settlement and incentive policies have undermined traditional land use practices and contributed to degradation through overgrazing. (Map 1)

• Livestock follows deforestation where ranching pushes into the remaining rainforest frontiers. This is the case in Central and South America, and, to a very limited extent, in Central Africa and South-East Asia. Misguided policies, where the expedient use of ranching to obtain land titles and fiscal incentives, have encouraged extensive grazing and large-scale clearance of forest. Significant biodiversity losses are associated with such deforestation. (Map 2)

• In northwestern Europe, northeastern USA, and in densely populated areas of Asia, animal waste production exceeds the absorptive capacity of land and water. Continuous nutrient import results in over-saturation of nutrients with a series of negative implications on the environment, including biodiversity losses, groundwater contamination, eutrophication and soil pollution. Nutrient surplus situations are a result of human population pressure and livestock density, access to markets, and feed and fertilizer incentive policies, aggravated by lack of regulatory response. (Map 3)

• In many highland areas of the tropics, high human population densities are traditionally sustained by complex mixed farming systems. Continuing human population pressures lead to decreasing farm sizes to a point where the system disintegrates. Livestock, often large ruminants, can no longer be maintained on the farm. The nutrient and farm power balance runs into a widening deficit and disinvestment occurs as natural resources degrade. This process has been called involution of the mixed farming system (Ruthenberg, 1980) and can be observed in the eastern and central highlands of Africa, Java and Nepal. Here, with the disappearance of the resource-enhancing role of livestock, the environmental balance is disrupted, often resulting in human conflict (Map 4).

• Mainly in the developing countries, slaughterhouses release large amounts of waste into the environment, polluting land and surface waters as well as posing a serious human health risk. Because of weak infrastructure, slaughterhouses often operate in urban settings where the discharge of blood, offal and other waste products is uncontrolled.

In these hot spots, livestock interacts mostly with the environment within the confines of a production system. In addition, livestock affect some global commons which are essential parts of our support system. Biodiversity is affected indirectly through concentrate feed requirements and the resulting intensification and expansion of crop agriculture. Related environmental effects may be disguised because livestock production and feed production are geographically separated and only linked through international trade. Furthermore, livestock and livestock waste emit important quantities of greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, contributing to the phenomenon of global warming. Livestock can also have beneficial effects on the environment. Grazing livestock can improve species wealth and the integration of livestock into mixed farming systems can improve water infiltration and recharge of groundwater reserves. The biggest contribution of livestock to the environment, however, is to be seen in providing the main avenue for sustained intensification of mixed farming systems. This is bound to continue even when crop and livestock activities specialize into separate activities as they often do under developed market conditions. This resource-enhancement and resource-sparing effect continues to he underestimated because it is indirect and does not catch people's eyes. Without this environmental function, intensification of agriculture could not have taken place and current populations could not he sustained.

Box 1.1 Scapegoats and missed opportunities.

PERHAPS IT is no coincide that the scapegoat is an animal. Statements like: "Livestock have been criticised for damaging the environment in a number of ways" (FAO, 1995) and "Livestock have been charged with wholesale devastation of African rangelands and irreversible destruction of soils desertification" (Winrock International Institute, 1992). It would appear as if livestock themselves go out and decide to destroy or not to destroy our environment; two centuries after the age of enlightenment we are still in need of a scapegoat, literally. Livestock do not move, produce or reproduce without our wanting it. They are completely dependent upon us and inseparable. Livestock do not degrade the environment-humans do. As a result of these misconceptions about livestock development, institutions and governments continue to miss opportunities which would permit the livestock sector to make its full contribution to human welfare and economic growth.

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 (Box 1.1). Such scarcity of informed decision-making has often exacerbated the 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 complementarily 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 in some countries and social classes excessive, 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 environmental challenges

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