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FAO Report Views Rising Global Dairy, Meat Production as Major Environmental Threat

Rome, Italy—The global livestock sector is one of the most significant contributors to the world’s most serious environmental problems, and those problems could worsen if urgent action isn’t taken, according to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Livestock’s Long Shadow — Environmental Issues and Options suggests that the livestock sector should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Globally, the livestock sector is socially and politically very significant, the report noted. It accounts for 40 percent of agricultural gross domestic product, employs 1.3 billion people and creates livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor.

Livestock products provide one-third of humanity’s protein intake, and are a contributing cause of obesity and a potential remedy for undernourishment.

Growing populations and incomes, along with changing food preferences, are rapidly increasing demand for livestock products, while globalization is boosting trade in livestock inputs and products, the report continued. Global milk production is projected to grow from 580 million tons in 1999/01 to 1.043 billion tons in 2050, and global meat output is projected to more than double in that same period.

The livestock sector is undergoing a complex process of technical and geographical change, which is shifting the balance of environmental problems caused by the sector, the report noted. Extensive grazing still occupies and degrades vast areas of land, although there is an increasing trend towards intensification and industrialization.

Livestock production is shifting geographically, first from rural areas to urban and peri-urban, to get closer to consumers, then towards the sources of feedstuffs, whether these are crop areas or transport and trade hubs where feed is imported. There is also a shift of species, with production of monogastric species (pigs and poultry) growing rapidly, while the growth of ruminant production (cattle, sheep and goats) slows.
Through these shifts, the livestock sector enters into more and direct competition for scarce land, water and other natural resources.

These changes are pushing towards improved efficiency, thus reducing the land area required for livestock production. At the same time, the report pointed out, they are marginalizing smallholders and pastoralists, increasing inputs and wastes and increasing and concentrating the pollution created. Widely dispersed non-point sources of pollution are ceding importance to point sources that create more local damage but are more easily regulated.

Livestock’s Impact On Land Use

The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land, according to the report. The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet.

Further, the total area dedicated to feed crop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet, the report stated.

Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America, where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring, the report noted. Some 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder.

About 20 percent of the world’s pastures and rangelands, with 73 percent of rangelands in dry areas, have been degraded to some extent, mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action.

Overgrazing can be reduced by grazing fees and by removing obstacles to mobility on common property pastures. Land degradation can be limited and reversed through soil conservation methods, silvopastoralism, better management of grazing systems, limits to uncontrolled burning by pastoralists and controlled exclusion from sensitive areas.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The livestock sector is a major player in global climate change, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent. This is a higher share than transport, the report noted. This high level of emissions opens ...more
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