The LEAP guidelines, a reference tool cited by the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture 2020


The SOFA2020, one of FAO's major annual flagship publications, highlights the importance of LEAP in promoting sustainable water use in livestock production systems and supply chains

This year's edition of the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture 2020 (SOFA2020) presents new estimates on the pervasiveness of water scarcity in irrigated agriculture and water shortages in rainfed agriculture, as well as on the number of people affected.

The report informs a discussion of how countries may determine appropriate policies and interventions, depending on the nature and magnitude of the problem, but also on other factors such as the type of agricultural production system and countries’ level of development and their political structures. Based on this, the publication provides guidance on how countries can prioritize policies and interventions to overcome water constraints in agriculture, while ensuring efficient, sustainable and equitable access to water.

Also, the SOFA2020 highlights the importance of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) Partnership in promoting sustainable water use in livestock production systems and supply chains and cites the guidelines on water, soil carbon and nutrients, as reference tools in water resources management in agriculture and livestock production. 

Water for livestock production

Water in the livestock sector can be divided into direct use (service and drinking water) and indirect use (production of feed, fertilizer, pesticides and other inputs). Precipitation patterns are critical for land under permanent meadows and pastures grazed by livestock, much of it not convertible to cropland because of climate, slope, soil depth or other factors. Precipitation patterns also play a major role in increasing soil carbon storage. Manure can increase water-use efficiency in arable lands, enhancing resilience, yields and soil carbon storage.

As the sector uses a large share of agricultural land, either as pastureland or for feed production, it also consumes large amounts of water. An integrated approach is crucial to improving water productivity and the efficiency of all food production sectors. Reducing the amount of irrigated feed and animal water consumption are the two main strategies to reduce livestock’s impact on water scarcity.89 Other factors influencing water consumption are animal species and breeds, and the moisture content and production of feed.

A major challenge in global or regional assessments of livestock water use is the very large diversity of production systems. LEAP has recently developed assessment guidelines that take into account a wide range of conditions.

Solutions to water pollution from agriculture

The adoption of best agricultural practices and technologies is essential in order to prevent pollution emissions from farms (e.g. by reducing nitrate and phosphorus leaching). Examples of beneficial practices include: (i) soil and water conservation methods, such as zero or minimum tillage, and other land husbandry methods that reduce erosion, such as terracing and agroforestry; (ii) vegetative filter strips that prevent surface runoff, restore wetlands and field drainage; and (iii) planting riparian buffer zones that reduce the leaching of nutrients into watercourses. Restored wetlands have also been shown to be effective at reducing the loss of nitrogen from cropland to surface water, as the vegetation takes up nitrogen and wet soils enhance denitrification. They can also help restore aquatic biodiversity and associated fauna and flora.

The large amount of livestock manure produced globally also represents an agronomic and economic opportunity. Improving livestock and water productivity as well as soil fertility and nutrient management – the amount, placement, form and timing of the application of plant nutrients to the soil – is paramount.

The LEAP guidelines to assess nutrient flows and impact assessment for eutrophication, and acidification for livestock supply chains, provide a framework that can be adjusted to national contexts. If poorly managed, these practices and systems can lead to pollution of water systems.

Improved water management in livestock production systems

The livestock sector is already a major user of natural resources such as land (although often marginal lands where crop production is not viable) and water through feed and rainfed pasture. Livestock water usage should be an integral part of agricultural water-resources management, taking into account the production system (e.g. grassland-based, mixed crop–livestock or landless) and scale (intensive or extensive), the species and breeds of livestock, and the social and cultural aspects of livestock farming in different countries.

To improve insight into the demand for freshwater in a specific region and enhance the performance of individual farms and the whole supply chain, stakeholders must undertake sound, transparent water accounting, taking into account climate, agricultural practices and feed utilization.

To this end, in 2012, LEAP was established to improve the environmental sustainability of livestock, including optimal use of water, and to identify opportunities to improve water productivity for livestock. Monitoring systems can conduct dryland water and feed assessments to improve early warning systems and inform development strategies.


FAO. 2020. The State of Food and Agriculture 2020. Overcoming water challenges in agriculture.