More than meat: Shaping the future of livestock

FAO points the way for low-carbon animal products to support nutrition and rural livelihoods.

The livestock sector is a mainstay for food security and rural livelihoods, and the international community must work together to make sure it achieves its potential contribution to sustainable development, U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) director-general José Graziano da Silva said Jan. 20.

FAO has estimated that more than half of the world's rural poor are livestock farmers and pastoralists. Being among the poorest of the poor, they rely on livestock, which play a vital role in their livelihoods.

While animal products make large contributions to nutrition and the fight against poverty, they also entail outsize impacts on the climate and environment, and assuring animal health is increasingly critical for human health, he said at the 10th Global Forum for Food & Agriculture in Berlin, Germany.

Livestock, livelihoods

As demand for meat and other animal products grows robustly, especially in developing countries, the question of equity and efficient distribution grows in importance, FAO said.

More than half the world's rural poor rely on livestock, and they must be provided with appropriate skills, knowledge and technologies to participate in and benefit from that expected growth rather than being "pushed aside by expanding large, capital-intensive operations," Graziano da Silva said.

Increased consumption of animal products will enhance nutrition, especially for younger children in developing countries whose cognitive and physical development requires crucial micronutrients such as zinc and iron, he said, warning that excess consumption also poses risks.

"We have to focus on healthy and balanced diets," he said.

Graziano da Silva also noted that alternative sources of protein — such as fish and pulses — are available and should be explored.

Lowering carbon footprints

As livestock generate more greenhouse gases than other food sources, he said the sector's expansion poses challenges to biodiversity, sustainable access to water and, notably, the goals of the Paris climate agreement's pledge to limit how high average global temperatures rise.

However, "a low-carbon livestock sector is possible to achieve," Graziano da Silva noted, pointing to FAO estimates that methane emissions can quickly be cut by 20-30% across all production systems by the adoption of known husbandry practices such as regenerative grazing, forage selection and better recycling of nutrients and energy from livestock waste. Better management of pasturelands and the health and carbon-storing capacity of their soils is also essential for increased livestock production not to require further deforestation, he added.

"With improved and climate-smart practices, we can quickly put in place more sustainable and 'greener' livestock supply chains," Graziano da Silva said.

Animal health

Graziano da Silva also focused on animal and human health issues, warning that "the emergence of diseases will likely intensify in the coming years as rising temperatures favor the proliferation of insects."

Zoonotic diseases with pandemic potential, such as some strains of avian influenza, "pose a big threat for people, animals and the environment," he added.

FAO has a long track record in tackling transboundary animal diseases, including leading the successful eradication of rinderpest and a new global campaign to eradicate peste des petits ruminants.

FAO also recognizes the need to tackle antimicrobial resistance -- a major threat to human health that is exacerbated by the abuse, overuse and misuse of antibiotics in livestock.

Graziano da Silva emphasized that FAO recommends immediately phasing out the use of antimicrobial medicines to promote animal growth and using them only to cure disease and alleviate unnecessary suffering, while their preventive use should be deployed only under strict circumstances. FAO is helping many countries develop and implement national antimicrobial resistance action plans, Graziano da Silva said.

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