Sustainable livestock systems for sustainable lives

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Bread and Eggs.

This month, in a new issue of the science journal Animal Frontiers, ILRI scientist Padmakumar Varijakshapanicker leads authorship of a paper on Sustainable livestock systems to improve human health, nutrition, and economic status.

Sustainability issues

Padmakumar and his co-authors begin their paper by making the case for a ‘holistic’ definition of ‘sustainability’, one that ‘jointly considers ecological, social, and economic dimensions of a system or intervention for long-lasting prosperity.’

Experience shows that economic development at the cost of ecology does not last; therefore, it is critical to harmonize ecology with development.

‘This also applies to livestock systems, which should be economically viable for farmers, environmentally friendly or at least neutral, and socially acceptable in order to be considered sustainable.’

The authors say that the great diversity of the world’s livestock systems must be taken into account when addressing sustainability issues.

There are different types of livestock production systems, depending on availability of resources, environmental conditions, and social and economic contexts, and they vary considerably in sustainability.

These livestock systems include the grassland-based extensive systems, intensive landless systems, and mixed farming systems among others.

Livestock systems, say the authors, contribute to global sustainability by providing various ecosystem services, including the following.

  • Net accumulation of soil carbon or sink of greenhouse gases has been found to be greatest when grassland is converted to silvo-pastures combining trees, forage and livestock.
  • Land maintained for livestock grazing has lower greenhouse gas emission than the same land converted for crop production.
  • Rates of soil loss in US croplands are more than four times that of grazing lands.
  • Grazing lands sequester more carbon per unit area than cultivated croplands.
  • Globally, more than half (57%) of the 2.5 billion hectares of land used for producing forage is unsuitable for food production., so forage crops make productive use of non-cultivable land.
  • Since only 14% of the feed consumed by livestock is edible by humans, the remaining 86%—including by-products, crop residues, and grasses or fodder—is converted into human food, generating incomes as well as food and reducing environmental pollution from burning or dumping the residues and by-products.
  • Livestock are contribute 13% and 28% of global human protein and energy, respectively.
  • Nutritional, genetic, health and management strategies can reduce greenhouse gas emission intensities by as much as 30%.

The concept of sustainable diets that are profitable, ethically and socio-culturally acceptable, and environmentally benign is emerging as one of the key solutions to ensuring the sustainability of livestock production systems.

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Bowl and Milk Jug.

Nutritional benefits

Animal-source foods are considered superior to plant source food for several reasons, including the following.

  • Meat, milk and eggs are a dense source of energy, essential amino acids and micro-nutrients (iron, B12, Zn), very relevant for children as their stomachs are small and their requirements for these nutrients are high.
  • Some micro-nutrients are available only in meat, milk and eggs.
  • The ‘bio-availability’ (proportion of nutrients absorbed and used for normal body functions) of eggs and other animal-sourced foods is up to one-third greater than that in food crops.

For more about the nutritional benefits of livestock-sourced foods, see another paper in this currant (Oct 2019) issue of Animal Frontiers, The role of livestock products for nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, written by three other ILRI scientists.

Economic benefits

The authors list some of the huge economic impacts of livestock systems worldwide.

  • Meat, milk and eggs are among the top 10 globally traded commodities with a value of approximately USD1.27 trillion.
  • Livestock generate income for farmers of all categories via sale of animals and livestock products.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, millions of farmers keep livestock as insurance against emergencies and sell them to meet cash needs.
  • Livestock systems capitalize on underutilized family labour.
  • Livestock income is more regular, less seasonal, than crop income, enabling farmers, and women in particular, to depend on their animal stock as a vital source of regular income for household essentials, such as paying for school and medical expenses.
  • Women have important roles in raising livestock in many low- and middle-income countries.
  • Livestock manure and draught power can be used, sold or exchanged for needed commodities.
  • Livestock income allows farm households to make better dietary and health choices.
  • The livestock sector is an integral part of agriculture, which contributes 60% to 70% of total employment in many African and Asian countries.
  • Jobs in the livestock sector include not only farm production but also the aggregation, processing/value addition, distribution, transportation, storage, retailing, and marketing of livestock-derived foods. Raw milk collection and distribution in Bangladesh and India creates 20 to 40 full-time jobs per 1,000 liters of milk traded. Milk processing generates another 60 to 100 jobs per 1,000 liters of processed milk, with around 15% of the traded milk being processed, leading to around 32 additional full-time jobs per 1,000 liters of marketed milk.

Low consumption

The authors detail the varied reasons for low consumption of animal-sourced foods in developing countries, where economic and sociocultural factors, including religion and traditional beliefs, can constrain consumption of animal-sourced foods by the poor.

The authors cite several of these factors, including lack of awareness. ‘Food consumption is mainly aimed at satisfying hunger; knowledge about the importance of animal-sourced foods in the diet is lacking.’ And because animal-sourced foods are relatively expensive, ‘their consumption is income-dependent. . . . The relatively high cost of animal-sourced foods is a challenge for the poor who must make tough decisions on how to spend their scarce resources. Consequently, for many families, animal-sourced foods are not consumed at all, or only on rare occasions such as religious festivals.’

In addition, ‘taboos associated with animal-source foods often create barriers to consumption of these foods.’ In some countries, pregnant women and menstruating girls and children are denied milk, meat or eggs due to various cultural beliefs. ‘Members of the Hindu faith avoid beef consumption due to veneration of cows. . . . Muslims avoid pork consumption for religious reasons. In Ethiopia, devout orthodox Christians . . . [avoid] animal-sourced foods for up to 240 days a year . . . [and] all over the world . . .  there is food allocation bias against females of all ages, and against younger household members. . . . In South Asia, women, particularly pregnant [women], are discriminated against during allocation of food in households due to food insecurity or socio-cultural factors . . . . This is also true in many sub-Saharan African countries where the man gets the choice portions of the meal followed by the children.’

In many cultures, women may prepare household meals but they will eat last and least, fast the most, and have little decision-making power over food purchases. And as they approach childbirth, some mothers will limit their consumption of animal-sourced foods for fear of having large babies.

The authors conclude that any assessments of the impacts of livestock on the environment and livelihoods ‘should not focus on single criteria such as greenhouse gas emissions, but should balance ecological, social, and nutritional costs and benefits.’

Sustainable livestock systems contribute to food security, economic, environmental stewardship, and sociocultural needs and are vital for achieving most of the UN SDGs. They are particularly important for improving human nutrition, health, and economic productivity. Concerted efforts are needed to promote such systems in low- and middle-income countries.


Padmakumar’s paper in Animal Frontiers, ‘Economic impacts of sustainable livestock systems’ has an incorrect figure that is now being corrected by the journal. The statement, ‘Livestock products (meat, milk, and eggs) are among the top 10 globally traded commodities with a value of approximately US$6.5 million’ is incorrect. The correct figure updated for 2016 is US$1.27 trillion. This figure has also been corrected in the article above.

Read the whole paper, Sustainable livestock systems to improve human health, nutrition, and economic status, by Padmakumar Varijakshapanicker (ILRI), Sarah Mckune (Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems at the University of Florida), Laurie Miller (Tufts University),  Saskia Hendrickx (University of Florida),  Mulubrhan Balehegn (University of Florida and Mekelle University), Geoffrey E Dahl (University of Florida),  Adegbola T Adesogan (University of Florida), Vol 9, Issue 4, Oct 2019.

Read a related paper by ILRI scientists in this same issue: >The role of livestock products for nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life.

For an evidenced-based review of the role of protein (meat and otherwise) in our future food supply, see the 2019 World Economic Forum-ILRI white paper on Meat: The Future Series—Options for the livestock sector in developing and emerging economies to 2030 and beyond.

About the authors

Padmakumar Varijakshapanicker has been working with International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) since 2009 and is currently managing the Asia hub of the Livestock System Innovation Lab, a Feed the Future Initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and serving as acting head of ILRI’s Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) Feed Technology Platform at Patancheru, Hyderabad, India.

Adgebola (Gbola) Adesogan is director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems and professor of ruminant nutrition at the University of Florida. His research interests include use of animal-sourced foods to improve human health and nutrition, improving food and feed safety and quality, and devising sustainable strategies to optimize the performance, health and welfare of livestock.

Sarah McKune is assistant professor in the department of environmental and global health and the center for African studies at the University of Florida. She currently leads the human health and nutrition cross-cutting theme for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems. Her research seeks to explain how household behaviour, women’s empowerment and gender dynamics, climate change, hygiene and sanitation, and livestock ownership affect child growth and nutritional outcomes.

Laurie Miller is professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of nutrition and child development at Tufts University. She works with Heifer Nepal as an investigator in several projects supported by USAID’s Nutrition Innovation Lab and Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems. She also serves as a consultant on zoonotic diseases to a World Bank-funded project in Nepal. She is currently a visiting professor and researcher in the department of child psychiatry at St Anne’s Hospital, in Paris.

Mulubrhan Balehegn Gebremikael is associate professor of livestock production and pastoralist development at Mekelle University, in Ethiopia. An animal nutritionist, his research interests include improving the quality and productivity of animal feeds in developing countries. He is currently working as a research coordinator at the University of Florida.

Saskia Hendrickx is deputy director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems at the University of Florida. She is a veterinary epidemiologist by training with experience in public health, livestock research, and project management in developing countries. Before joining the University of Florida in 2016, she worked with ILRI and the World Health Organization.

Geoffrey Dahl, the Harriet B Weeks Professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Florida, conducts applied and basic research with direct impact on dairy production. He has active extension programs in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Rwanda, and Ethiopia and is the former president of the American Dairy Science Association.