The world is facing major challenges, from feeding the growing population to tackling severe climate change. Livestock can play a huge role solving these challenges, as one billion of the world’s poorest people depend upon livestock for their livelihoods and food. Yet with just a few exceptions, most studies addressing future food security and other key issues, fail to grasp the huge significance of livestock production and consumption in achieving these goals.

When livestock systems are referred to, the emphasis is often on the ‘sustainable intensification’ of industrial systems, which has major implications for the welfare of billions of animals, as well as the environment and climate change.

At COP18, it is critical to ensure that climate adaptation and mitigation goals in relation to agriculture are maintained and their ramifications on food security are recognised. The climate change debate must begin to consider the huge role and impact of livestock farming; any solutions emerging for agriculture mitigation and adaptation must be equitable, enhance food security and promote farm animal welfare.

The scope of the challenge

On-going damage to the environment is seriously affecting the economic sectors that form the basis of our food supply (fisheries, agriculture, freshwater, forestry) and are a critical source of livelihoods for the poor. Already, 60% of the world’s major ecosystems – from soils, water, forests and fisheries – on which we depend have been degraded, polluted or used unsustainably. Climate change is the planet’s biggest threat, affecting land, water availability and crop yields at a time when populations are rising fast, periodically causing food crises.

How livestock production affects the environment

Measuring the emissions from food supply is difficult given the complexity and global nature of feed and food supply chains. As the GHG emissions per kilogram of output are lower when output per animal is higher, lifecycle analysis (LCA) results argue that intensive animal farming – which includes breeding for high yields, permanent housing and concentrate feeding of animals – is the best way to reduce livestock emissions.

However, this assessment is simplistic and fails to account for other factors, such as co-products. It also often ignores the most disturbing waste in industrial scale animal production systems, for example the killing at birth of offspring considered unsuitable for production, as seen in egg laying chickens or some dairy systems. When impacts are measured per hectare of land used, less intensive and organic methods often have a smaller environmental footprint. This is significant when assessing local impacts, such as biodiversity loss and water or soil pollution.

Production change: intensification is not the answer

Most climate-related and other environmental impacts of livestock production are closely related to the normal functions of animals (food intake, digestion and manure production). Most studies suggest that it is possible to affordably reduce emissions from livestock by around 20% - a small reduction, compared to the large reductions of total GHG emissions (80%) that are needed in developed countries, compared to 1990 levels.

Breed, feed and poor management can have major impacts on emissions. Selection for high yield is often directly associated with poor welfare and can significantly contribute to increasing carbon emissions. Intensification of farming to increase, for instance, cow milk yield or pig litter size (frequency of births and piglet size), often reduces the productive lifetimes of the animals through poor fertility, lameness and physical exhaustion. Therefore, GHGs can be increased on high yield livestock farms due to compromised animal health and poor survival rates.

Industrial farming has still more consequences for GHG emissions: further intensification of global animal production would inevitably increase the amount of land converted to grow feed crops and so increase carbon emissions through land-use change. Any mitigation of emissions from livestock must be based on high animal welfare standards to enhance the potential for reducing emissions.

A sustainable food production system is possible – one which delivers environmental protection, reduces GHG emissions and ensures good animal welfare, public health and meat quality.

Sustainable food systems

There are many examples of humane and sustainable livestock farming. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has identified farming solutions across the world where farmers are achieving the multiple goals of environmental protection and climate mitigation, with good animal welfare, food security and secure livelihoods.

One such example can be found in Kenya where dairy is the largest agricultural sector with almost 2 million small-scale farmers securing their livelihoods by working in this sector. It is a particularly powerful example as small scale farmers are the backbone of Kenyan dairy farming, delivering 80% of all milk in the country. Domestic production meets current demand, despite milk consumption in Kenya being among the highest in the developing world.

The Lessos Livestock Breeding Network Dairies (LELBREN)

LELBREN is a co-operative set up in Kenya with a current membership of 4,000 small scale farmers. The co-operative exists to improve the livelihoods of the community through advising on farm management, increasing milk distribution levels and facilitating access to markets, knowledge and inputs by dairy farmers.

Aside from the multiple positive impacts on livelihoods and food security, the farmers who are part of the co-operative also manage their impact on the environment. Most of the farmers produce a mix of both crops and livestock, recycling the manure back into agriculture or using it to produce biogas, manure and for pasture management. Supporting and educating farmers in these environmental processes helps to reduce GHG emissions and pollution from manure, and avoids soil degradation.

Most of the farmers that are members of LELBREN are farming crops and/or livestock with a vast majority of the dairy production being pasture-based. Pasture-based farming is beneficial to animal health and welfare. Therefore, cooperatives like LELBREB positively impact farming by supporting small-scale farmers to increase productivity of dairy farmers in pasture-based systems and in many cases achieving the same productivity levels as intensive, housed systems. Some members of LELBREN, who had invested in zero-grazing systems, reverted to pasture-based systems due to the high inputs required for intensive farming such as feed supplementation and housing costs. Inaccessibility to reliable production services (such as artificial insemination) and incidences of disease such as mastitis, lameness and infertility have also contributed to farmers reverting back to higher welfare, pasture-based systems.

WSPA paper, Creating greener pastures: Securing livelihoods with small-scale milk production in Kenya: