Making livestock farming more sustainable

ID-1005418The livestock sector is important as a source of protein and income, and some one billion people rely on livestock for their livelihood but it is generally accepted that the world’s livestock systems place a huge burden on the environment, for example, contributing 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Some 45% of these emissions originate from the production of feed. The one billion tons of cereals produced for feed each year could feed an estimated 3.5 billion humans. The health impacts of a diet high in meat have also been widely reported.  It is clear that the world’s livestock systems are not sustainable but how can we change this? Two new reports address this challenge.

A Nature commentary piece authored by Eisler et al, discusses the need for the sustainable intensification of livestock. They highlight eight strategies to cut the environmental and economic costs of livestock farming while increasing the quantity and quality of the food they produce.

1)      Feed animals less human food. Of the third or more of cereal grains going to livestock feed, 40% goes to ruminants. But ruminants, such as cattle, can survive on food inedible to humans, such as hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues. They can also graze in marginal areas leaving prime agricultural land for growing human food.

2)      Raise regionally appropriate animals. Highly productive livestock breeds such as Holstein cattle have been introduced around the world in the pursuit of increased productivity. Given that they are a temperate breed, however, they are often expensive and labour-intensive to manage in other climates, and yields can be less than a third of normal yields under these conditions. Working with breeds adapted to local conditions such as those resistant to local pests and diseases may be a less risky option, particularly for poor households.

3)      Keep animals healthy. Improving hygiene, quarantine and disease surveillance practices can help avoid animal diseases being transmitted to humans. 13 livestock-related zoonoses cause 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths each year. Improving husbandry practices and animal welfare, for example keeping livestock at lower densities, can improve the health of livestock and the quantity and quality of livestock products.

4)      Adopt smart supplements. Specific plant extracts can help microbial populations in the rumen to grow faster, using nitrogen and energy more efficiently and boosting yields without significantly increasing GHG emissions. And smart supplements don’t have to be expensive: a water fern in India is a source of extra protein for cattle and goats. [Read more…]