By Alfred Nyakinda

Boosting livestock productivity in low income countries can improve food security and farm incomes while limiting greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural water usage according to a study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

The study indicates that growth in demand for livestock-derived foods will likely remain strong in low and middle income countries. However, it reveals negative effects related to the expansion in livestock production and the management of natural resources are not inevitable, while benefits such as improved food security can be enhanced.

“Increasing the efficiency of the livestock sector in lower income countries presents real opportunities for more sustainable sector development in these countries,” says the study, “key among sector-enhancing strategies is improving the performance of livestock animals.”

The assessment focuses on South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, two regions with high levels of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, where there is substantial potential for livestock-sector led rural development.

“Over the past three to four decades for example, livestock yields, captured as off take per animal, have increased only somewhat on average in South Asia and generally not in Africa,” state the authors, “Even where livestock yields have improved, these have been quite modest.”

Approximately 766 million poor people – those living on less than two US dollars per day- derive direct incomes from livestock, with more than 70 percent of them living in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, contribution of the livestock sector to the value of agricultural production is 30 percent on average in low and middle income countries, and 40 percent globally.

“Results suggest that the expansion of regional production in both regions does not need to follow a path of massive increases in farm animal numbers,” says the study, “research funding targeted to closing livestock yield gaps makes it possible for growth in animal herds or flocks to be more conservative, reducing pressures on agricultural water use, and leading to lower GHG emissions.

The paper further notes that an assessment of poverty reduction strategies for East and Central Africa showed that the greatest effects would come from subsectors including livestock for which the growth in food demand is highest.

Yield-improving interventions can also provide the greatest benefits to consumers in S. Asia and SSA through lowered food prices. This has implications for food security on the rural and urban poor.

The direct competition for food between humans and livestock is also addressed by the paper. An estimated one-third of the volume of cereal crops produced globally is used as livestock feeds according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The competition for biomass as food, feed and fuel can be particularly intense where population density is high. However, recent research shows that 86 percent of all dry matter consumed by livestock is derived of materials typically not eaten by humans.

In addition the intensity of usage for ground and surface water – relative to agricultural commodities produced- is projected to decline as productivity improves, hence improving resource use efficiency in agricultural and livestock systems.

The researchers conclude that direct investments to improve animal productivity, through technological advancement and context-adaptation of livestock genetics, feeds and animal health solutions, have the potential to enhance human welfare and natural resource management.