Raising sustainable livestock

Researchers from the University of Bristol are challenging the notion that raising livestock is bad for the planet. By outlining eight strategies, they show how livestock can produce food that is better for the people and the planet.

With one in seven humans undernourished, and with the challenges of population growth and climate change, the need for efficient food production has never been greater. An international team of scientists, led by academics at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences, have published eight strategies in a Comment piece in the environmental journal Nature which they believe will cut the environmental and economic cost of keeping livestock (cows, goats and sheep), while boosting the quantity and quality of the food produced.

One strategy is to feed animals less human food because livestock consume an estimated one-third or more of the world’s cereal grains. The scientists argue instead that animals should be given food that humans cannot eat, such as hay and high-fibre crop residues. Another strategy is to raise regionally appropriate animals. For instance, European and North American Holstein dairy cows were exported to Asia and Africa in an attempt to alleviate malnutrition, but these cows produce much less milk when exposed to hot climates and tropical diseases. Farmers, therefore, should be encouraged to keep and improve livestock adapted to local conditions.

Another strategy is to give animals supplements to boost their productivity. With some supplements, animals can even produce more milk and meat for proportionally less greenhouse gas. Animals should also be kept healthy to control transmissible diseases.

Perhaps the more striking strategies have to do with raising livestock in developing countries. The scientists argue that while raising animals for milk and meat is often considered at odds with the challenge of feeding a growing human population, there are significant health benefits to consuming health animal products for undernourished communities. The goal should instead focus to a balanced diet across all countries, with a target of no more than 300 grams of red meat per person per week. Similarly, livestock practices must be tailored to local cultures. Of the one billion of the world’s poorest people who rely on livestock for their livelihood, traditional animal husbandry supplies more than just food: Keeping animals provides wealth, status and even dowry payments. However, to keep livestock husbandry sustainable, industrial systems that prioritise short-term production must be discouraged.

“With animal protein set to remain part of the food supply, we must pursue sustainable intensification and figure out how to keep livestock in ways that work best for individuals, communities and the planet,” says Professor Mark Eisler from the University of Bristol.

Photo credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net

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