Opening ceremony of the GFFA.
Photo: Messe Berlin

Securing world food supply with sustainable animal husbandry

In mid-January, the tenth Global Forum for Food and Agriculture was held during the International Green Week in Berlin, Germany. This year, it addressed the issue of making animal husbandry more efficient, responsible and sustainable.

In 2050, the world will be inhabited by ten billion people. Growth is also accompanied by consumer behaviour, with more and more people living in cities and burgeoning middle classes creating a rapid increase in the demand for meat, milk and eggs. How can animal husbandry be made more productive so that it can feed an ever greater world population without putting more pressure on the climate and the natural resources of water and soil that are becoming scarcer? For three days, these issues were discussed by more than 2,000 representatives of politics, business, science and civil society at what is now the tenth Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin in mid-January.

Securing the livelihoods of more than 1.3 billion people

During the opening event, Jimmy Smith, Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), reminded the meeting that animal husbandry secured the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people world-wide. However, production systems and consumption differed considerably on a global scale. While every European ate more than 70 kg of meat a year on average, the figure for Africa was a mere 8 kg. Smith warned against generally condemning the consumption of animal products, which, as he maintained, was happening more and more often in the global North. In the countries of the South, a greater demand for meat could create income and jobs, and hence more sustainable living conditions. Moreover, Smith argued, animal husbandry could contribute either directly or indirectly to at least eight of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

A push factor for migration

José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), stressed the importance of animal proteins in combating malnutrition. This high-value protein was essential especially for the diets of children and youths as well as older people and was difficult to substitute. Moreover, it often contributed to maintaining dietary diversity, an extremely important aspect.

In addition, livestock was often people’s main asset, especially among the poorest of the poor. The nomadic stockbreeders in the Sahel Zone were in a particularly precarious situation. Climate change, with its sinking levels of precipitation, was causing pastureland to dry out, while insects thriving in hotter conditions were spreading devastating diseases among the animals. At least half of the pastureland world-wide was subject to some sort of degradation. The pastoralists, meanwhile, were losing their herds and hence their income, leaving them with the sole option of migrating – to the neighbouring cities or even across the Mediterranean to Europe. “We must help the poorest of the poor to secure their survival at local level!” Graziano da Silva appealed to the meeting.

Integrated management systems of utmost importance

Not only is livestock the largest user of agricultural land, animal husbandry is also responsible for around 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is largely an inherent problem stemming from the digestive system of livestock. In this context, however, Graziano da Silva reminded the panellists that another of the main reasons for gas emissions was land use, with forests being cut down for grazing, whereas better use of soils could result in their acting as carbon sinks.

Brazilian Minister of Agriculture Blairo Maggi was convinced that there were ways to produce meat in a completely climate-neutral manner. The employment of modern technologies in livestock breeding, feeding and rangeland management as well as a clever combination of crop-growing, forestry and animal husbandry were crucial in this context.

Creating financial incentives

The panellists agreed that a one-fits-all solution existed neither for more efficient nor for more responsible animal husbandry. For example, livestock systems in which animal welfare played a significant role did not automatically maintain a better emissions balance, said European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan. He recommended that payments be made to farmers to stick to certain environmental and climate targets in order to create appropriate incentives. Observing such targets is already a requirement for some of the direct payments in the context of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. Pastoralists in the global South could be paid for environmental services, Jimmy Smith suggested.

More money needed

Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya called for a rethink both in politics and among livestock breeders themselves. “They have to regard animal husbandry not only as a way of life, but as a business,” the Minister maintained with regard to the traditional mode of production in her native country and the fact that animals were viewed there more as a symbol of wealth than as a production factor. Siliya was seeking to counter this with better agricultural extension systems, financing options and improved access to markets for the producers. Banks often not willing to co-operate with agriculture continued to be a big problem in Africa. Regarding financing, ILRI’s Director General also reminded the donors to do their homework. “Only 4.5 per cent of Official Development Assistance goes to agriculture, out of which only 4 per cent goes to the livestock sector,” Smith said. “This amounts to tremendous under-investment!”

Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21