The Role of Livestock Breed Diversity in Sustainable Diets

By Irene Hoffmann, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

When we were invited to contribute to the book “Diversifying Food and Diets: Using Agricultural Biodiversity to Improve Nutrition and Health”, my colleague Roswitha Baumung and I were faced with an interesting challenge. Agricultural biodiversity, including livestock breeds, is important for food and nutritional security as a safeguard against hunger. It provides a source of nutrients for improved dietary diversity and quality and strengthens local food systems and environmental sustainability. However, at the same time, there are heated discussions taking place about the environmental impact of livestock production and about how much meat, milk or eggs are needed for a healthy and nutritious diet.

In 2010, experts of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agreed on a general concept for sustainable diets, “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” This definition highlights the fact that biodiversity is linked with human diets and the diversity of livestock and livestock systems.

While there are trade-offs in the livestock sector between different environmental, social and economic goals at the global and regional scale — for example on greenhouse gas emissions or pollution — there are many overlaps between environmental sustainability goals, sustainable production and providing sustainable diets at the local level.

There is no question that globally, demands for animal products will continue to increase in the next decades as population numbers, urbanization and incomes continue to grow. Most of this production increase will come from selected high-output breeds in intensive systems. To lower the environmental footprint of livestock production, a further push to enhance efficiency across all livestock production systems, a reduction in food losses and waste, and dietary changes are all needed.

At the local level, several arguments favor local, mostly low-input breeds and the multiple products and services these breeds provide, because they are adapted to local, often harsh conditions. Their ability to make use of low-quality forage results in a net positive human edible protein ratio. In this context, the ability of livestock, especially ruminants, to transform grass and agricultural by-products unsuitable for human consumption into high-value products such as dairy and meat, plays an important role in sustainable diets.

Grasslands and rangelands are important in this context because they occupy about 25 percent of the terrestrial ice-free land surface of the earth; many of them have a high natural value and many cannot be converted to cropland due to climatic limitations. They have been identified as critical for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, soil and vegetation restoration, water cycling and livelihoods for poor, vulnerable people — namely pastoralists. These landscapes need to be well managed to provide this range of ecosystem services, which is only possible with locally adapted, diverse breeds.

Thus, under appropriate management, livestock kept in low external input mixed and grazing systems provide several important ecosystem services. As a result, and linked to local breeds’ recognition as cultural heritage, linkages to conservation of both ecosystems and rare breeds need to be further explored and strengthened. All this is in harmony with the qualities of a sustainable diet.

We are currently working on an assessment of the ecosystem services provided by grazing livestock across the globe. Are there other services provided by these livestock and landscapes that we didn’t mention here?

Read Hoffmann and Baumung’s chapter in Diversifying Food and Diets The Role of Livestock and Livestock Diversity in Sustainable Diets


Photo: Irene Hoffmann, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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