This paper is part of a multi-donor study entitled “Interactions between Livestock Production Systems and the Environment - Global Perspectives and Prospects”, partially executed and coordinated by FAO. In addition to FAO, the group of donors includes, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) of Germany, le Ministère de la Cooperation of France, the Directorate of International Cooperation, (DANIDA) of Denmark, International Cooperation of the Netherlands and the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) of the United Kingdom. As a follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), The study addresses the issues of livestock-environmental interaction and attempts to asses more objectively the role of livestock in environmentally sustainable agriculture.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janiero in 1992 raised the sensitivity of policy makers and scientists in both developed and developing countries to environmentally sustainable agricultural development. An important component of UNCED was to articulate the need for an objective assessment of the key factors affecting sustainability, and to provide a better understanding of the measures to enhance the positive influences and mitigate possible negative effects of some agricultural and development practices. The role of livestock and livestock development is an important component of this discussion. For example, livestock and their utilization interface with several key chapters of Agenda 21 of UNCED. These include:
Managing fragile ecosystems: combating desertification and drought (Chapter 12)
Promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development (Chapter 14),
Conservation of biological diversity (Chapter 15), and
Environmentally sound management of biotechnology (Chapter 16).
Exponentially expanding human populations raises the demand for all agricultural products and increases the stress on the resource base used for their production. Rapidly growing demand for livestock products worldwide is brought about by human population pressure, growing income and urbanization. Land use and human population pressures are leading to intensification and expansion in many livestock production systems. In addition, expansion of cropping into drier areas is forcing pastoral livestock production systems to relocate into still more arid lands. As a result of these changes new pressures on the environment are developing or could emerge and, therefore, should be of concern.
The scale and nature of the interaction between livestock production and the environment has been the subject of much conjecture, all of which has lacked a technical basis for making informed policy decisions and devising technical intervention programmes. However, it is increasingly clear that livestock-environment linkages should be seen in the context of human, economic and political aspects as well as natural resource utilization.
Characteristics of animal agriculture systems have been developed in response to agro-ecological opportunities and demand for livestock commodities. In many cases, a fully sustainable equilibrium has been established. Furthermore, in many of these environmentally balanced systems, the livestock element is interwoven with crop production, as in the rice/buffalo or cereal/cattle systems of Asia. Animal manure is often the essential element in maintaining soil fertility. In other cases, such as the semi-nomadic pastoral systems of many of the world's natural grassland regions, environmentally stable balances of human society, animal population and vegetative biomass have existed for centuries.
Livestock make an important contribution to most economies. Livestock produce food, provide security, enhance crop production, generate cash incomes for rural and urban populations, provide fuel and transport, and produce value added goods which can have multiplier effects and create a need for services. Furthermore, livestock diversify production and income, provide year-round employment, and spread risk. Livestock also form a major capital reserve of farming households. Because of livestock's contribution to societies, human and economic pressures can direct livestock production in ways detrimental to the environment.
Within the context of the livestock-environment study, the following problem areas or “impact domains” are the major focus:
Livestock utilization of land resources is a key area to be addressed by the study. Sustainable grazing land management is of critical importance in Africa, Latin America, North Africa and Asia. Utilization of semi-arid and arid land resources is dependent not only upon human and animal pressure but also naturally occurring fluctuations in weather. These three factors can be combined to improve the natural resource base or degrade it.
Utilization of forested areas in the humid tropics is another important area. Increasing human pressure could lead to wide-spread deforestation and is often followed by conversion to grazing areas. It is not always clear to what extent livestock production is a cause of deforestation.
Animal waste issues present a dichotomy of how livestock can contribute to sustainability or have negative impacts. Positively, animal manure contributes to soil fertility and tilth enabling sustainable crop and animal production systems to be developed or enhanced. Furthermore, manure is often an important source of fuel. However, increasing human population pressures lead to intensive concentration of animals, with their wastes having a negative impact on soil and water.
Increasing urbanization and economic growth creates opportunities to develop animal processing industries, generating employment and adding value to animal products. Closely associated with this type of industrialization is waste disposal, in particular from slaughterhouses and hide tanning plants which constitute an important environmental problem in both developed and developing countries.
Livestock which are fed low quality feed have relatively high levels of methane production, as well as low performance. Methane emissions of livestock contribute about 3 to 4 percent to the global warming effect. Factoring in the ramifications of increased nutrient intake levels and reducing methane production under an umbrella of sustainable resource use is an important problem area.
The introduction of high-yielding breeds and specialized modes of production leads to losses in genetic diversity among domestic animals and inexisting local knowledge about that diversity. Production systems of lower levels of intensity, however, continue to provide the mainstay of many species and breeds. Clearly, there is a need not only to evaluate livestock genetics from a biodiversity standpoint but also from the standpoint of matching genotypes with the environment. In addition, wildlife bio-diversity is contracting, as the resource base becomes more limited.
As human demand for livestock products increases, intensive production systems which utilize feed grains become more prevalent. If taken to extremes and without appropriate pricing policies, crop production can be promoted in areas which otherwise would be too marginal for crop production. Such practices can be environmentally detrimental; it is critical therefore that these situations also be evaluated.
The integration of crop and livestock systems can provide some very important sustainable advantages for the farmer through nutrient recycling and adding economic value to the system by grazing on crop residue which would otherwise be under utilized. In addition, livestock also provide an incentive to plant nitrogen-fixing crops or forages which serve to improve soil fertility and reduce soil erosion.
The abovementioned impact domains cross-cut animal production systems evaluated by the study. Thus, the building blocks of the analysis are the livestock production systems. A manageable number of livestock systems has to cover a significant portion of global livestock systems to form the focal point of the study.