Efficiency of livestock systems must be improved – UN report

Zebu cattle on a breeding farm in Kenya

14 December 2011 – As demand for livestock increases, efficient methods to increase production will be crucial to meet global needs, a new United Nations report stresses, warning current production practices lack the necessary capabilities to provide sustainable solutions over the next few decades.

“As it stands, there are no technically or economically viable alternatives to intensive production for providing the bulk of the livestock food supply for growing cities,” says the World Livestock 2011 report, released today by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

An urgent challenge is to make intensive production more environmentally benign. According to the report, by 2050 consumption of animal protein will increase by two thirds, particularly in developing countries, bringing new strains on the planet’s natural resources.

Much of the demand will be met by large-scale, intensive animal-rearing operations. However, the report warns that large-scale production is a source of concern due to negative environmental impacts such as groundwater pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as their potential to act as disease incubators.

Rather than increasing production, the report argues that improvements in the efficiency of current livestock systems will be needed, which will require capital investment and supporting policies.

“An urgent challenge is to make intensive production more environmentally benign,” the report says, and provides three ways to achieve this, which include reducing the level of pollution generated from waste and GHGs, reducing the input of water and grain needed for each output of livestock protein, and recycling agro-industrial by-products through livestock populations.

The report stresses that one of the main challenges the industry faces is keeping livestock healthy as production is ramped up, as diseases may directly threaten human health.

“It is not enough to pour funding into coping with the urgent disease threats of today – disease intelligence and epidemiological research must be financed to anticipate future diseases in the countries that produce the bulk of livestock source food,” it says.

Animal protein products today make up 12.9 per cent of calories consumed worldwide, amounting to 20.3 per cent in developed countries.

However, the report says consumption has not increased evenly around the world. In developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, many communities have not seen an increase in their animal protein consumption, the report says.

“Average consumption of livestock protein in Africa is less than a quarter of that in the Americas, Europe and Oceania, and represents just 17 per cent of the recommended consumption level for all proteins,” says the report. “By contrast, the consumption of livestock protein in the Americas, Europe and Oceania in 2005 was between 78 and 98 per cent of the total protein requirement, suggesting that livestock products are being over-consumed.”

The report adds that an increase in livestock consumption in developing countries is needed as it can have significant effects combating malnourishment.

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