Global call for sustainable livestock transformation

THREE DAYS of high-level debates at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) showcased innovative local projects and relevant advances in knowledge related to the global quest to make livestock production more environmentally friendly, supportive of rural livelihoods and able to meet the world’s growing protein needs.

The first-ever Global Conference on Sustainable Livestock Transformation, attended by more than 700 participants including 27 ministers or senior government officials, 100 youth representatives and myriad researchers and representatives of multilateral organizations, wrapped up with FAO Director-General QU Dongyu’s closing remarks urging all parties to translate their words into concrete actions, acknowledging the difficulty of the task while emphasising it is “essential for the well-being of people and the planet.”

In many ways livestock is an indicator of a better life, Qu said. “Governments, farmers, researchers, civil society and the private sector, and all partners, should move ahead hand-in-hand to drive change at every level.”

Two overarching messages emerged from the Conference: first, that we now have ample global knowledge of what needs to be done and often of how to do it, while implementation skills are still a work in progress. And second, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a sector on which more than 1.7 billion depend and that uses more than half the planet’s terrestrial surface, in particular areas that are not suitable for crop farming.

Participants also noted that reducing the carbon footprint is a key requirement for the sector, but achieving effective goals will require collaboration and cooperation across borders, as well as proper accounting for welcome synergies that sustainable livestock management can provide such as fertiliser, weed control and soil health and carbon sequestration capacity.

Sustainability and the concept of transformation do not have fixed definitions, but FAO’s vision of the Four Betters can serve as effective guides to steering new policies that are economically, sociologically and ecologically sound, said Jimmy Smith, Director of International Programs at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We must create liveable futures for people engaged in livestock,” he added, noting the sector has attributes attractive for youth and youth employment.

Livestock is a source of critical nutritional protein, but also of employment opportunities, income and social integration among communities, said Elizabeth Nsimadala, President, Eastern Africa Farmers Federation and Board Member (Africa), World Farmers’ Organisation. “Many opportunities have not been exploited, and if they are, they will produce more opportunities,” she added, noting that investment and policy support in developing regions can play an important role in pre-empting a shift into lower-risk agricultural activities that contribute less to overall food security.

A key consideration is the diversity of humans, not only ecosystems and animal breeds, said Renata Bueno Miranda, Secretary of Innovation, Sustainable Development, Irrigation and Cooperativism at Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. “Science cannot be used as a cloak of neutrality, we cannot use it to paint everything gray,” she added, noting the huge role livestock has played in turning Brazil into the world’s largest net exporter of agricultural goods.

Broadly speaking a sustainable livestock transformation depends more on actions than on further research, participants concurred. “We know a lot but aren’t doing that much. We are good at talking about it a high-level but not at implementing on a farm level,” said Harry Clark, Chief Scientist at New Zealand’s Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre.

The transformation of livestock production towards sustainability, in some cases, may require reduction of output, observed Christianne Van der Wal, Minister for Nature and Nitrogen Policy of the Netherlands.

Innovations in livestock feed were also noted as an important opportunity.

In others, trade can leverage complementary synergies, allowing countries to focus on what they do best, a point made by Fernando Mattos, Uruguay’s Minister for Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries. While fully recognising the need to tackle challenges such as reducing methane emissions, he emphasized that many positive outcomes are being achieved and that a holistic approach is critical. “The problem of the environment is not cows but human beings,” he said.

Numerous projects and programmes aimed at fostering sustainable livestock transformations were outlined in the project, along with technical presentations on greenhouse gas emissions and an important new FAO report on “Methane in Livestock and Rice Systems”.

A senior official from Kenya explained his country’s experiment with index-based livestock insurance, a rollout that includes a mobile game for pastoralists to facilitate adoption of risk financing tools in a country where moving herds across rangelands is of major importance

In Uruguay, a climate-focused cattle project implemented on pilot farms led to an 18% drop in the emissions intensify of meat production, as well as greater grassland species diversity and more resilient forage production. That project will be scaled out and expanded to include soil organic carbon targets.

The head of India’s National Dairy Development Board highlighted actions taken in his country, where milk production has risen by more than 50% in less than a decade and now accounts for almost a quarter of global output.

In an important move, members of the Global Youth Dialogue on Sustainable Livestock Transformation concurred on a consensual statement outlining recommendations they wish policy makers to consider – related to science, investments, social, economic and environmental sustainability, and a greater role for integration of youth in the policy and innovation process – and asking for an official youth position in the Sub-Committee on Livestock, a new and important part of FAO’s Committee on Agriculture, one of FAO’s central governing bodies.

Many of the issues raised at the Conference will be discussed during the upcoming second session of the COAG Sub-Committee on Livestock, to be held in May 2024.


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