Livestock, engine for economic growth and sustainability

Sustainable Livestock



The livestock sector is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in low and middle-income countries. Demand for animal source foods is growing rapidly, fuelled by population growth, urbanisation and rising incomes. This offers huge opportunities for the livestock sector and people who keep animals, but also poses some challenges that cannot be ignored.

With technology, investment and the right policies, livestock can contribute fully to food security and nutrition, health and economic development while at the same time respecting planetary boundaries and contributing positively to the environment and social and gender equality.

Let me begin with food security and nutrition. Livestock-derived foods can play an essential role in reducing levels of malnutrition, for they are nutrient-dense, providing rich and diverse essential micronutrients, especially for those often most vulnerable including poor rural women and children. Stunting in children is not just physical, but affects cognitive development, learning ability and social development. The World Bank has estimated that Africa is losing 10 percent of its GDP due to child stunting. Animal source foods can have a critical role in reducing that burden. Consumption of animal source foods in Africa for example is a tiny fraction of that in the developed world and we must recognise these regional differences. Many people in low- and middle-income countries, especially the most vulnerable would benefit from a small increase in their consumption.

Livestock also support over 1.3 billion people in the world who depend on livestock to some extent for their livelihoods –  that is one person in five on this planet. Currently, the sector contributes an average of 40 percent of the total agricultural GDP across developing countries, ranging between 15 and 80 percent in individual countries, and growing. The sector can be an engine for economic growth.

For livestock keepers in low- and middle-income countries, livestock provides many other benefits, including income generation, draught power, transport, manure to enhance soil nutrients, social security, and insurance in times of need.  At least half of the staple cereals underpinning food security in Africa, for example, can only be produced because livestock are integral, providing income, animal power and manure. 

Livestock can also provide business and employment opportunities, not just in production, but all along the value chains especially for young people and women. Indeed these opportunities can be transformational for women’s lives.

However, the sector is not without its challenges, and we must deal with them.  
First is climate change: we know that emissions have to be reduced and whilst many see livestock as a major problem, efficient, low-carbon sustainable livestock production can enhance rather than harm the environment.
Second is health. About 2.4 billion human illnesses and 2.2 million deaths are caused by zoonoses each year, the vast majority in developing  countries.  70-80 percent of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.
In terms of food safety, the burden of illness and Disability Adjusted Live Years (or DALYs) is comparable to the burden of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs combined. About 1.2 million deaths are a result of anti-microbial resistance and some projections suggest this could rise to 10 million by 2050.
Third, a relatively new challenge - the polarized narratives around livestock and its products that leave us with two extreme groups of advocates, one that says livestock is great, another that says it’s all bad, let’s get rid of it! Coverage of the livestock sector in international media outlets tends to be dominated by some voices from the Global North, focused on its negatives with little media coverage of livestock’s more positive contributions to livelihoods, incomes and equality, especially in the Global South.

Without a doubt, the livestock sector must address these shortcomings. And as we will see in the presentations today on sustainable livestock innovations, much is being done.

At the CGIAR we have been working together as “one” for almost ten years. The innovations you will hear today were started in the previous CGIAR Research Programs on Livestock and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health and where CGIAR Centres worked together to develop an integrated approach to improve sustainable livestock production, safe guard human health and strengthen rural livelihoods.

This has evolved into the new CGIAR Livestock Systems agenda which brings together these three areas.

One of the key opportunities for reducing GHGs from livestock in low- and middle-income countries is through increasing productivity.  For example, adoption of improved practices by smallholder dairy farmers in five east African countries could reduce absolute carbon equivalent emissions by between 8 percent and 16 percent by 2030, whilst increasing milk yields  by 60 percent and creating thousands of additional jobs.

With the right policies and investments, livestock could accelerate food systems transition in low- and middle-income countries and help feed a fast-growing population in a healthy manner, especially young women and children, while respecting the environment and providing job opportunities for those who need them.

So, we hope through the presentations and discussion we will demonstrate that the best way to ensure sustainable livestock is not to exclude livestock from discussions on sustainable development but rather to make sure that livestock options are part of the solutions on offer.

Iain Wright's remarks at the FAO Science and Innovation Forum side event "Sustainable livestock production as a solution for climate, health, nutrition and livelihoods: Framing role of livestock -  a multi problem solving solution"; 13 October 2022.

Iain is a member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) since 2022.