A tribute to the heroes of small-scale food production

Watch ILRI’s new 4-minute photofilm, A tribute to the unsung heroes of small-scale food production.

A hitherto disregarded vast group of farmers—those who farm both crops and livestock—hold the key to feeding the world in coming years. Most of the world’s ‘mixed’ farmers are smallholders tending rice paddies or cultivating maize and beans while raising a few animals. A research report led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) indicates that this group is likely to play the biggest role in global food security over the next several decades (see ILRI Corporate Report 2009-2010, ‘Back to the Future: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems’). This photofilm celebrates these ‘unsung heroes’—both the mixed farmers themselves and their farm animals.


Some of our readers will remember that last year a perspective piece by ILRI was published in a special February 2010 issue of Science on food security, “Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems”, focused on the importance of the same smallholder mixed farmers.

This article was based on results of a study by the Systemwide Livestock Programme of the CGIAR Consortium.

Small farms that combine crop and livestock production supply much of the food staples (41 percent of maize, 86 percent of rice, and 74 percent of millet), as well as most of the meat and dairy products consumed in these countries.

The billions of dollars promised by the international donor community to fund small-scale agriculture farming are likely to fail unless policies are reoriented towards these ‘mixed’ farmers.

The pressures of climate change and finite resources, as well as the increasing demand for milk, meat and eggs across the developing world, will require proper planning, looking beyond ‘business as usual investments,’ and a greater ‘intellectual commitment’ to understanding food systems in the developing world.

Read more on this topic in ILRI’s Corporate Report 2009–2010: Back to the Future: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems, 2009.

Or visit the CGIAR Systemwide Livestock Programme website.

Nairobi Science and Policy Forum holds roundtable discussions at ILRI’s Nairobi campus

4th Meeting of the Nairobi Science and Policy Forum held at ILRI, Nairobi Campus on 21Sept 2010

The International Research Livestock Institute hosted the 4th meeting of the Nairobi Science and Policy Forum on Tuesday, 21 September 2010. This Forum takes advantage of a unique location of several science and policy organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme and CGIAR Centres like ILRI that belong to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, in Nairobi. Members are building case studies and scenarios for policy briefs based on the best scientific evidence as well as networking among like-minded stakeholders to advance the objectives of the Forum.

The topic of discussion at this 4th meeting was ‘Drivers of change in crop-livestock systems and their potential impacts on agro-ecosystems services and human well-being to 2030’, presented by Mario Herrero, leader of the Sustainable Livestock Futures group at ILRI. His team is assessing the trade-offs in using environments for ecosystem services or to produce food and income. Its aim is to support and guide policies and investment strategies and to improve agricultural livelihoods and environmental resilience. This group will address issues of policies, institutions and political ecology, including gender, power relations and access to ecosystem services. It will consider drivers of change such as global trade, urbanization, climate change and energy demand.

While membership is not closed to organizations that are not based in Nairobi, a key characteristic of the Forum is that it will be a venue for face-to-face dialogue and consensus among organizations engaged in science and policymaking in the arena of agriculture and the environment. It is expected that membership will continue to evolve and increase.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions of livestock systems

While livestock production levels in developed countries are holding steady, livestock production systems in developing countries, particularly in the emerging economies, are rapidly changing to meet a rapidly growing demand for livestock foods due to those countries’ growing populations, cities and incomes. Some of these fast-evolving livestock production systems are using ever-larger quantities of water and other natural resources and emitting ever-larger amounts of greenhouse gases, which are causing global warming. Many people are questioning whether the increasing demand for meat and milk in developing countries can be met within equitably negotiated and sustainable greenhouse gas emission targets.

The (surprising) answer is ‘yes’. Research tells us that emissions from livestock systems can be reduced significantly through technologies and policies, along with incentives for their implementation.

Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions

Livestock contribute up to 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are ‘anthropogenic’, or generated by human activity. The main greenhouse gases from livestock systems include methane produced by the belching of animals (25 per cent), carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by uses of land that encourage the decomposition of organic substances (32 per cent), and nitrous oxide (N2O), commonly known as ‘laughing gas’, produced by spreading manure and slurry over lands (31 per cent).

As one would expect with such great differences in livestock production systems in different regions of the world, different systems in different regions emit very different amounts and types of greenhouse gases. Overall, most emissions to date have come from industrialized countries practicing factory farming, the least from developing-country family farms. Moreover, two of the most significant contributors to the greenhouse gases produced by livestock systems in the developing world are the rapidly expanding industrial livestock operations in Asia and deforestation in Latin America to make room for livestock grazing and feed crop production.

That said, however, it is also true that the emissions per animal in poor countries tend to be much higher than those per animal in rich countries, for the reason that most livestock in poor countries are maintained on poor diets that reduce the efficiency by which the animals convert their feed to milk and meat. And the increasing human populations, urbanization and demand for livestock foods in developing countries means that future increases in livestock greenhouse gases will come from the South. Livestock researchers at ILRI and elsewhere are helping people to manage trade offs among natural resource use, livestock emissions and livestock productivity. Seven ways to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by livestock Here are seven practical ideas for reducing the greenhouse gases emitted by livestock.

1 Reduce consumption of, and demand for, livestock foods in developed countries

Whereas under-consumption of livestock foods is a main problem in developing countries, over-consumption of livestock foods—including fatty red meat, eggs and full-fat milk and dairy products—damages the health of many people living in affluent societies. The demand for cheap livestock foods in rich countries in many cases is met by imports of livestock products or feed grains from the developing world, the transport and supplies of both of which can lead to environmentally damaging land-use practices and over-use of water and other natural resources, which in turn increase the levels of greenhouse gas emissions in those developing countries. Reducing the relatively high levels of consumption of livestock foods in the developed world would thus not only help improve the health of many people in rich countries but also reduce environmentally damaging livestock production practices in both rich and poor countries, leading to significant reductions in the emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gases.

This point raises another: to ensure that any negotiated emissions targets that may be established are equitable as well as feasible and useful, we shall also have to institute programs to track and account for the greenhouse gases ‘embedded’ in the many livestock and feed products traded worldwide. Such a system would give buyers of livestock products some understanding of the ‘greenness’ of the products they are buying. Common sense can no longer be our guide. Such are the complexities of modern food chains that beef raised on the pampas of Argentina and shipped to the North American Midwest might, for example, have generated lower levels of greenhouse gases than corn-fed beef raised, slaughtered and packaged right there in the Midwest.

2 Improve the diets of ruminants in developing countries

Providing cattle, water buffaloes, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals in developing countries with better quality diets increases their feed-conversion efficiencies and thus reduces the amount of methane generated in the production of a unit of meat or milk. Many small-scale farmers can, for example, improve the diets of their ruminant animals by better managing their grazing lands: they can rotate the pastures they use, plant improved species of pasture grasses, make strategic applications of animal manure, and develop ‘fodder banks’ of planted legumes and other forages. They can make use of more strategic combinations of available feed resources. Many crop-livestock farmers can supplement the poor grass diets of their animals with the residues of their grain crops after harvesting. (Although many cereal residues are of relatively poor nutritional quality, research by ILRI and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics shows there is considerable potential for improving the nutritional quality of stover.) And some can give their ruminants feed additives that manipulate the microorganisms living in the rumen to quicken microbial fermentation. What’s needed are practical methods to monitor the effectiveness of mitigating greenhouse gases using these practices as well as policy environments to make implementing them cost-effective.

3 Help farmers in developing countries obtain and maintain higher-yielding breeds

Where resources allow and breeding services exist, replacing low-producing local animals of the developing world with fewer and better fed animals of higher yielding breeds would reduce total emissions while maintaining or increasing livestock yields. Such shifts include keeping more productive types of a given breed, such as by crossing local cows with genetically improved dairy cow breeds to produce cross-bred cows that possess traits both for both hardiness and higher milk yields.

4 Better match livestock species to environments in all countries

Switching species to find those better suited to particular environments and resources could raise animal productivity levels. In some circumstances, exchanging ruminant animals for pigs, chickens and other monogastrics (which possess single- rather than four-chambered stomachs) could reduce total methane emissions, although high amounts of grain used to feed the monogastrics can offset the methane saved. For this reason, alternative feeds and feeding practices for monogastrics urgently need the attention of the research and development communities.

5 Impose regulatory frameworks for managing manure in all countries

Regulatory frameworks could reduce nitrous oxide emissions from manures, particularly by enforcing better management of excreta in the larger livestock operations in developing countries and applications of slurry and manure in the developed countries. Furthermore, developing ways to monitor and verify reductions would open the door to mitigation payment schemes.

6 Apply land-use policies that forestall cultivation of new lands

Some carbon lost from agricultural ecosystems in the past can be recovered. Any management practice that increases the photosynthetic input of carbon and/or slows the return of stored carbon to carbon dioxide via respiration, fire or erosion will increase carbon reserves, thereby sequestering carbon. We can thus reduce carbon dioxide emissions by applying land-use policies that forestall the cultivation of new lands now under forest, grassland or non-agricultural vegetation.

And rangeland and silvo-pastoral livestock systems would store much greater amounts of soil carbon than they do now if we put in place land use and livestock policies and practices suited to local conditions. Such interventions could serve not only to sequester more carbon but also to provide smallholders farmers and herders with payments for the services their local ecosystems provide the wider community.

7 Provide incentives to adopt mitigation strategies, particularly for poor communities

Finally, successful implementation of livestock mitigation strategies, particularly in poor countries with scarce resources, inadequate rural and peri-urban infrastructure, and inappropriate agricultural policies, will demand a series of smart and equitable incentive systems that encourage people to adopt mitigation strategies and practices. Success in these countries will also depend on developing new kinds of links among institutions that have not formerly worked together, on reforming livestock and agricultural policies, on inventing techniques for monitoring carbon stocks, and on developing appropriate and easy-to-use protocols for verifying greenhouse gas emissions. But the lesson ILRI researchers have learned from their pastoral research may prove to be most relevant here: mitigation activities have the greatest chance of success in poor and hungry communities when they build on traditional institutions and knowledge while building up food security.

This is Chapter three of the ILRI Corporate report 2008–09: Download the full report

Putting livestock on the climate change table

New options should focus on helping hungry animals and people adapt to climate change while mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions of small-scale livestock production systems.

Farm animals have been providing the world with an uncommon array of benefits since before the dawn of agriculture. Indeed, most small-scale farming even today would be impossible without them. But it is the world’s poorest people—some one billion of them—who depend on cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and other domestic animals the most. Livestock keeping helps them sustain their herding cultures or small-scale farming (e.g., animal manure fertilizes croplands; cattle and buffalo pull ploughs and transport farm produce to markets). Livestock provide them with a rare means of earning and saving an income (people can sell milk, eggs, manure or surplus stock, or they can find jobs in dairy or related businesses). Livestock foods feed hungry people (families can consume the milk, meat and eggs their stock produce or sell these high-quality foods to buy cheaper starchy foods). And livestock are a last hedge to protect households against the shocks common to the rural poor—from drought, flood or disease that destroys food crops in the field, to market distortions that make farm produce worthless, to civil unrest that makes people flee their homes, and, finally now, to a warmer world with increasingly unpredictable weather and extreme weather events.

But the inexorable rise of human populations, along with the aspirations and appetites of their growing middle classes, have led also to global livestock populations of increasing numbers and increasingly intensive livestock production practices. While overconsumption of red meat and other livestock foods is damaging the health of many people of the North, under-consumption of these nourishing foods is hurting, and killing, many people of the South. In terms of the environment, livestock production globally causes up to 18% of the human-generated greenhouse gases that are warming our planet. Livestock do this both directly (methane, for example, is produced in the rumination processes of cud-chewing animals) and indirectly (such as the felling of forests to make room for fodder crops and ranching). The factory farms of industrialized countries not only can treat animals inhumanely but also can pollute air and water and threaten human as well as animal health. The herding and farming families of developing countries, on the other hand, typically maintain their ruminant animals on poor-quality feeds that make conversion of feed to milk and meat inefficient and environmentally damaging—skinny ruminants on poor diets, while not competing with people for grain, produce much more methane per unit of livestock product than do well-fed cattle, sheep and goats.

Just one hundred years ago, the principles and practices of animal husbandry were pretty similar across all the regions of the world where it was practiced (which pretty much meant all the regions of the world). But as schisms have opened up between the livestock production systems and peoples of today’s rich and poor worlds, we must now start from a new understanding—an understanding based on decades of livestock and systems research—that ‘local context’ is everything.

In the North, we need to focus on mitigating the impacts of livestock production and consumption on climate change. We already have many workable and alternative ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental and health ‘bads’ of intensive livestock production systems. We need to get them implemented and to begin monitoring our reductions in livestock-produced greenhouse gases as we begin to build more sustainable and healthy food systems.

In the South, where most of the world’s poor live, work and are fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers and herders, the impacts of climate change will be greatest—and typically experienced at first hand. These farmers and herders include the largely rainfed crop-and-livestock farming communities that, unknown to many, have become the world’s biggest source of staple foods for the poor as well as many of the world’s most renowned herding cultures.

In the rural South, there are few ways of making a living other than by producing food from the land. Therefore, while we need to encourage people to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their livestock enterprises, we need to focus most urgently on helping these people and communities to adapt their production systems to climate change. New incentives and technology and policy instruments should allow them to continue to provide the foods, jobs, livelihoods and environmental services that their livestock make possible and doing so in increasingly more efficient and sustainable ways.

With a perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages fast approaching—and 1 billion livestock livelihoods at the very centre of a nexus of human, climate and environmental vulnerabilities—the time for helping developing countries and communities to transform their livestock sectors has come.

As we move further into a 21st century characterized by depleted natural resources and the projected ‘human tsunami’ that is expected to peak by mid-century with a population of more than 9 billion, those of us in research for development need to focus our energy and attention on the little- as well as well-known levers that drive big change.

Across the developing regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the raising and selling of farm animals, and the increasing consumption of milk, meat and eggs, together represent one of those ‘big-change’ levers. The ubiquitous small-scale livestock enterprises found in every country of the developing world can represent pathways out of poverty and hunger. They can also promote climate change. Livestock researchers are acutely aware that they are working at these critically important crossroads.

This is Chapter One of the ILRI Corporate Report 2008–09: Download the full report

Climate, food and developing-country livestock farmers

Carlos Sere, Director GeneralLivestock researchers at ILRI believe that rather than trying to rid the world of livestock, it’s preferable to find ways to farm animals more efficiently, profitably and sustainably.

More on livestock and poverty: challenges at the interface

View the film:

[blip.tv ?posts_id=3004778&dest=-1]

Markets that work: Making a living from livestock

ILRI Annual Report 2007 is now available for download. Read the foreword by the chair of ILRI board of trustees Uwe Werblow and ILRI's director general Carlos Seré.


This is a time of intense change, with volatile food prices, a near meltdown of financial markets and the continuing growing threats of climate change and emerging diseases.

Research by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners is helping to address these issues by working at the intersection of small-scale livestock production systems with these new global forces. We see strong growth in demand for research into dynamic markets for livestock products; the growing competing demands for human food, animal feed and biofuels; the growing environmental concerns about the expansion of livestock production; bird flu and other emerging zoonotic diseases; and the impact of climate change on animal agriculture in developing countries.

Livestock is one of the fastest growing sub-sectors in developing countries, where it already accounts for a third of GDP and is predicted to become the most important agricultural sub-sector by 2020 in terms of added value. We view market-led pro-poor growth, the topic of this year’s annual report, not as a silver bullet that will solve all the ills of the livestock sector in poor countries but rather as one of several pillars of livestock development. The livestock markets and trading systems of developing countries are as yet remarkably poorly studied and understood. What we do know is that they are far more complex and dynamic and have far higher through-put than is commonly assumed.

The increasing demand for livestock products is creating opportunities for improving the welfare of millions of poor people who depend on livestock for their livelihoods, but changes in production, procurement, processing and retailing of food, along with environmental and food safety concerns, erosion of animal genetic resources and the threat of emerging infectious diseases, threaten the potential of the poor to benefit from the on-going livestock revolution. With these new challenges, we believe livestock researchers must find new ways of working, including adopting innovation systems and valuechain approaches to their work.

The role of research is never greater than during times of change. With our research investors and partners, we continue to look for ways to adapt ourselves to continual change while seeking technical, institutional and policy solutions to complex problems. We continue to support national work to build indigenous livestock research capacity and to develop institutional arrangements that encourage continual learning. And we continue to look for effective ways to integrate research results and share research-based knowledge with those who need it most. We thank those investors and partners who continued to make this all possible in 2007.

Uwe Werblow                                          Carlos Seré
Chairman of the Board of Trustees              Director General

Download ILRI Annual Report 2007


Markets that work: Making a living from livestock (3MB PDF File)

The time is now: Safeguarding livestock diversity

ILRI’s Annual Report: ‘The Time is Now: Safeguarding livestock diversity’ has just been released. The report on 2006 work focuses on how research is helping to characterize, use and conserve the world’s rapidly diminishing livestock genetic diversity.

The mission of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is to help people in developing countries move out of poverty. The challenge is to do so while conserving the natural resources on which the poor directly depend. Among the natural resources important to the world’s poor are the ‘living assets’ people accumulate in the form of their farm animals.

ILRI works with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many other partners to improve management of livestock genetic resources in developing countries. This year, FAO produced the world’s first inventory on animal genetic resources ‘The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources’, highlighting that many breeds of livestock are at risk of extinction, with the loss of an average of one livestock breed every month. The FAO report estimates that 70% of the entire world’s remaining unique livestock breeds are found in developing countries.

ILRI’s Director General Carlos Seré says: ‘Although our information on the world’s remaining livestock genetic resources is imperfect, experts agree that we need to take action now rather than wait for substantially better information to become available.

‘The accelerating threats to livestock diversity in recent years demand that we act now before a substantial proportion of those resources are lost to us forever. The time is now’, says Seré.

At a recent keynote address, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Achim Steiner, echoed these concerns and highlighted the implications of loss of the world’s animal genetic diversity:

‘I, like so many others, was shocked to read of the decline of genetic diversity in livestock outlined by ILRI and FAO in September (2007) at the First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources.

‘The increasing over-reliance on a handful of breeds such as Holstein-Friesian cows, White Leghorn chickens and fast-growing Large White pigs mirrors the trend in agricultural crops.

‘Mono-cultures, whether it be in agriculture or in the narrowing of human ingenuity and ideas, will not serve humanity well in a world of over six billion shortly moving to perhaps 10 billion.

‘(Mono-cultures) will not enhance stability and adaptation in a climatically challenged world’, concluded Steiner.

Download ILRI’s 2006 Annual Report: ‘The Time is Now: Safeguarding Livestock Diversity’: https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/10568/2479/1/AnnualRep2006_Safeguard.pdf

Related articles and resources on animal genetic resources

A ‘Livestock Meltdown’ Is Occurring As Hardy African, Asian, and Latin American Farm Animals Face Extinction: https://newsarchive.ilri.org/archives/550

FAQs about saving livestock genetic resources: https://newsarchive.ilri.org/archives/552

Films on animal genetic resources

• 3-minute film on conserving livestock for people

Livestock breeds that have helped people survive countless challenges throughout history are now dying out at an extraordinary rate. Globally, governments are discussing this problem, meanwhile this film sets out 4 approaches that can help now.


• 30-second film highlight on Sheko cattle

Sheko cattle come from Southern Ethiopia and there are only 2500 left in the world. They are adapted to withstand trypanosomosis, a disease that kills cattle and people.


• 30-second film highlight on Ankole cattle

Ankole cattle come from East Africa. These hardy, gentle, animals are threatened by expanding human populations and market demands. At current rates they will disappear in 50 years.


• 30-second film highlight on Red Maasai sheep

Red Maasai sheep come from East Africa and do not get sick when infected by intestinal worms. However, the numbers of pure Red Maasai sheep are declining.


The time is now

The world’s first Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources was agreed at a recent FAO conference in Switzerland from 3 to 7 September. While international negotiations continue, much can be done now, before it’s too late.

The First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, held in Interlaken in September, was a week-long series of negotiations organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and hosted by the Government of Switzerland to consider the current state of the world’s animal genetic resources and to reach international agreement on the best ways forward to protect these resources for long-term use. The conference opened with the launch of the world’s first report on the status of farm animal genetic resources, The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources. By the end of the conference, the world’s first Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources had been agreed by representatives from 109 countries. The global plan identifies four high-priority areas for animal genetic resources: characterization, inventory and monitoring of trends and risks, sustainable use and development, conservation and policies, institutions and capacity building.
Progress made at the Interlaken Conference includes:

  • Agreement on a global plan for identifying and conserving valuable livestock species
  • Agreement that livestock keepers rights are fundamental and need to be considered as part of an inclusive and equitable global plan
  • Agreement that incentives need to be provided to help the traditional custodians of indigenous animal genetic resources—usually small-scale livestock keepers—continue to keep their native breeds.

Overview of the Interlaken conference
On the first day of the conference, ILRI’s director general, Carlos Seré, presented a paper on ‘Dynamics of Livestock Production Systems, Drivers of Change and Prospects for Animal Genetic Resources’. He identified key drivers of change, how they were influencing current trends and future prospects, and their impacts on the management of animal genetic resources for food and agriculture.
Seré identified four drivers: economic development and globalization, changing market demands, environmental impacts and trends in science and technology. He described the trends in livestock production in industrial, crop-livestock and pastoral systems, emphasizing that while the trends are occurring in both developing and industrialized countries, the outcomes are different. In the developing world, some trends are reducing the ability of livestock keepers to improve their livelihoods, reduce their poverty and manage their natural resources. The industrial livestock production systems of developed countries have already greatly narrowed the livestock genepool, reducing our ability to deal with future uncertainties, such as climate change and zoonotic diseases.

Local breeds being crowded out
During the presentation, the ILRI director general cited replacement of indigenous tropical breeds with exotic animals as a key reason for the erosion of genetic diversity. Local breeds are estimated to be disappearing at the rate of one a month. This concern was echoed by the representative from the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson stated that policies relating to the introduction of exotic breeds and subsidies were helping large-scale production systems but hurting pastoralists.
Seré stressed that conserving our livestock genetic resources required appropriate institutional and policy frameworks and concerted international efforts. As these negotiations will take time, Seré proposed four complementary actions to improve the management of animal genetic resources and maintain our genetic options for the future. These are: provide incentives for in situ conservation of local breeds (‘keep it on the hoof’); facilitate movement of breeds within and between countries (‘move it or lose it’); match breeds to environments (‘livestock landscape genomics’); and establish genebanks (‘put some in the bank’).
These four strategies are practical steps that can help conserve indigenous tropical breeds. Seré cautioned that if actions are not taken now, it could be too late for some breeds that will soon be lost to the world forever.

Media help to raise awareness of ‘livestock meltdown’
There was extensive media coverage of the FAO Interlaken conference, with regional and international press and radio and local African TV all helping to raise awareness of the ‘livestock meltdown’ taking place.

Local livestock breeds at risk: Nature (3 September 2007) reported that indigenous animals are dying out as commercial breeds sweep the world.

‘Many of the world’s indigenous livestock breeds are in danger of dying out as commercial breeds take over, according to a worldwide inventory of animal diversity.
‘Their extinction would mean the loss of genetic resources that help animals overcome disease and drought, particularly in the developing world, say livestock experts.’

Read the full article at http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070903/full/070903-2.html (subscription required).

FAQs about saving livestock genetic resources

01.   What did ILRI/FAO find and how did you find it?
How: A global assessment of livestock genetic resources has been coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The assessment aimed to determine the status of the world’s livestock resources – what exists and where, what are their characteristics and the risks they may be facing, and what is the capacity of nations to deal with these. As an international organization addressing poverty through sustainable livestock production, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) develops research tools for characterizing livestock breeds of the developing world and assessing their diversity.

What?: The ‘assessment of the State of the World’s livestock resources’ (as this initiative was called) had the following findings:

  • Over 7000 breeds (representing mammalian and avian species) have been developed over the last 12,000 years, since the first livestock species was domesticated.
  • There are 40 livestock species used for food and agriculture, 5 of which – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – account for most of the world’s food and agriculture production.
  • Some 696 breeds have become extinct since the early 1900s.
  • A total of 1,487 breeds are at risk, of which 579 are at critical levels (requiring immediate action).
  • Key causes of threat were identified (see examples below).
  • Lack of information on the world’s livestock resources—what livestock breeds and populations exist and  where, what are their characteristics, do they possess unique genetic diversity—was found to be a key impediment to their sustainable use.
  • Conservation programs are lacking, especially in developing countries where most of the world’s remaining breeds reside and where the risk of loss of livestock genetic resources is greatest

02.   Why do a few specialized ‘European’ breeds of farm animals dominate?

  • In pursuit of quick wins to increase productivity to meet demand, developing countries over the last half century have imported specialized, high-producing breeds, such as the black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow.
  • Aggressive promotion by breeding companies of the North.
  • Subsidized importation, usually through development assistance.
  • Exotic breeds have been imported into developing countries without adequate information on the robustness/hardiness/appropriateness of the native breeds the imports have been supplanting.

03.   How are the exotic imports faring in their various new locales in developing countries?
There are local niches where exotic breeds have proved productive. For example, Holstein-Friesian cows have done well in the East African highlands, which have temperate climate and adequate feed resources. However, the imports have been unable to cope with the disease, heat, humidity, scarce and poor-quality feed in many developing-country environments. Their inappropriateness for these stressful environments has tended to be discovered only after they have been widely used and have significantly ‘diluted’ the local gene pool, leaving local farmers without their traditional hardy animals.

04.   Why can’t we save all domesticated livestock breeds and populations?
Saving all existing livestock breeds around the world would require considerable investment. Fortunately, some specialized breeds in developed countries are currently safe or relatively safe because they remain popular with local communities and thus are supported by market forces. With globalization and ease of movement of traded commodities, there is increasing risk that fewer and fewer breeds will be supported this way. Many local traditional breeds support the livelihoods of the world’s poor livestock keepers in developing countries. While these native breeds are threatened by rapid changes occurring in the livestock production systems of poor countries, these countries lack the resources to conserve all their traditional native stock.

05.   Why is genetic diversity important in livestock?
Diversity is the basic ingredient for improving productivity, product quality and adaptation to meet different needs. It offers farmers and breeders the options needed to make adjustments to new market needs or to respond to changes in the production environment. A disease outbreak that wipes out a particular (susceptible) genetic type presents a greater risk in ‘monoculture’ (single-breed) production systems than it does in multi-breed systems. In other words, livestock diversity can help people cope with adversity while also providing prospects for livestock improvements. Changes in livestock production across the developing world, as well as an unpredictable future, require that these genetic options be safeguarded. It is particularly important to conserve livestock genetic resources because the ancestors of most of our existing livestock species no longer exist; crop breeding, on the other hand, has benefited enormously by being able to harness genes from the wild ancestors of our major crop plants.

06.   Can’t we just recreate desired traits via genetic engineering if necessary?
This will probably be technically feasible in the future for many production traits of interest in our livestock. And that is exactly why we need to have the diversity from which ‘new animal types’ could be created – whether through genetic engineering or conventional breeding (acceptability and costs, among others, will determine which ‘creation avenue’ is employed). Importantly, we do not know which traits we will need in future and which of the present breeds posses the requisite genes. Thus, as we develop technology and tools to conserve livestock genetic resources, we must also ensure that we have access to the raw materials—the livestock and/or their germplasm.

07.   Doesn’t industrialized agriculture obviate the need for such diversity?
As has happened in crop agriculture, industrialized livestock systems are typically characterized by a handful of specialized ‘breed types’. The chicken and pig industries have a few parental lines that form the basis of commercial chickens and pigs around the world. An outbreak of a disease to which these lines are susceptible could wipe out most of these animals, with disastrous global impacts. Thus, it is in the interests of both the public and private sectors to safeguard diversity in livestock as source of future options.

08.   How is foreign investment reshaping local livestock practices?

  • Direct foreign investment finances breeding companies that introduce foreign breeds.
  • The ‘supermarket revolution’, which is driven in many countries by foreign direct investment, is impacting livestock as well as crop agriculture in significant ways:

    o Standards required for food products sold in supermarkets influence such things as product quality, size  uniformity and timing of delivery.
    o The production volume needed to meet these food standards make it difficult for poor smallholders to participate in the supermarket revolution.
    o Contract-farming provides avenues for a few, well-informed and/or better-endowed farmers to participate in this revolution, sometimes through cooperatives.
   o But most smallholders are left out in this process.

09.   Do developed-world genebanks already hold some of this diversity material?
Developed-world genebanks hold very little livestock germplasm from developing countries—just a few breeds they may have imported for experimental evaluation. The major global flow of livestock genetic material has been from North to South. Currently, the fastest and most effective way for the North to help stem livestock biodiversity losses is to assist developing nations in establishing capacity to save their endangered native breeds. It is not good enough for Southern countries to depend on the North to be custodians of their livestock genetic material. The greatest livestock diversity remaining in the world is in the South and Northern countries are not highly interested in these breeds.

10.   Are rare breeds going to end up being preserved by hobbyists or organic enthusiasts?

In the developed world, there are examples of livestock breeds being preserved by livestock hobbyists or enthusiasts. In the developing world, most livestock owners are poor and the number of breeds needing attention is too large to be addressed by a few rich farmers. Alternative and substantive actions are required.

11.   How important is livestock production to developing world development?

Worldwide, one billion people are involved in animal farming and domestic animals supply 30 per cent of total human requirements for food and agriculture. In developing countries, 70 per cent of the rural poor depend on livestock as an important part of their livelihoods and livestock account for some 30 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product, a figure expected to rise to 40 per cent by the year 2030. Currently, more than 600 million rural poor people rely on livestock for their livelihoods. (Sixty-three per cent of the developing world’s total population live in rural areas, including 75 per cent of the 1.2 billion people trapped in extreme poverty; of these 900 million rural poor, some 70 per cent, or 630 million, raise livestock as part of their livelihoods.) The developing-world’s large and rapidly growing livestock markets make livestock production an income-generating opportunity similar to horticulture and other high-value agricultural commodities. The advantage of the livestock markets is that they are largely domestic and thus require no export infrastructure. Finally, livestock is what poor farmers know how to produce, and they have access to feed and other resources to produce it competitively.

12.   Does livestock production still offer a pathway out of poverty?
Yes. The growing livestock markets and expanding post-production value addition are providing jobs and incomes at many levels. Increasing animal production also of course keeps down critical food prices for the urban poor.

13.   Is another answer to simply scale back the use of livestock in general by reducing demand in the developed world while stopping demand before it starts in developing countries?
The livestock revolution is demand-driven. As consumers become more urbanized and their incomes grow, as they have in much of Asia and Latin America, their demand for animal products grows markedly. We expect that the developing world will double their consumption of animal products in the next 20 years. Livestock production growth to meet the growing market demand has to rely on the same or shrinking land, water and other natural resources. What we need are dramatic productivity increases. Policies will play a key role in shaping what happens in different parts of the world. If polices enforce more environmentally neutral production systems, this could lead to higher prices, particularly in the developed countries, which use intensive systems heavily reliant on external inputs and energy.

14.    How will the ‘supermarket revolution’ take hold in the developing world and what impact this will have on livestock production?
Supermarkets will impose stringent requirements on production of crops and livestock foods, particularly in terms of homogeneous large volumes and food safety conditions. This can make it increasingly difficult for smallholders to participate in these modern commodity chains. Important developments in terms of organizing smallholders for collective action are critical and are being established by agribusinesses and non-governmental organizations (e.g. contract-farming, vertical integration, cooperatives). Large-scale production units will continue to grow and can be developed in pro-poor ways by maximizing employment in poor areas that have resources suitable for animal production. For example, large-scale dairy or feedlot operations may contract forage production to small-scale farmers.

15.   Is the goal of saving diversity simply to boost the potential of alternatives to industrial animal husbandry, such as crop-livestock systems?
No, it is to provide options for the world. Even industrial systems will need animal genetic resources if significant shocks to the system happen, e.g. ban on antibiotics, climate change causing higher temperatures in certain regions and the spread of diseases from the tropics to the temperate world.

16.   Why is it important to boost crop-livestock systems?
Boosting crop-livestock production is the best way to sustain agricultural systems in large parts of the developing world. There are big inefficiencies in these systems that can be addressed with technology, better training and knowledge sharing.

17.   How far along with ‘landscape-livestock genomics’ are you? Is there even the beginnings of a map? When do you expect such a thing might be available?
The aim of landscape genomics is to learn from the co-evolution of livestock and their production systems and use the knowledge gained to better match different breeds with production circumstances. The approach employs molecular genetic tools to understand the genetic composition of livestock at the population level, using specified genetic regions (‘signatures of selection’) that appear targeted by key influencing factors in that environment. By overlaying this information with other sets of information such as agro-ecological maps, one can see what genetic material are candidates for use in which parts of the globe.
Where are we today? Independent of the genomics work, much progress is being made in modelling and mapping livestock systems, including how they are evolving in response to climate change. Development of tools for rapidly mapping genetic composition of populations is also advancing. Over the next 5 years, we plan to have made significant advances in this area and to have applied landscape genomics (even at a pilot scale) in the humid zone of West Africa, focusing on cattle populations.

18.  What do you hope to do next?
Urgent actions include:

  • With FAO and other collaborators, sensitize the global community about the value of conserving livestock genetic resources and mobilize greater support for saving the remaining livestock diversity in the developing world.
  • Focus on breeds already at risk, especially those in the FAO ‘critical list’.
  • Establish gene banks: Ex situ conservation (in gene banks) is seen as the fastest way to save some of these breeds, even if characterization information is inadequate or absent – a special session at the global conference in Interlaken (Switzerland) on 3 September 2007 discussed strategies to move this forward.
  • Facilitate the sharing of genetic material among developing countries, especially where there is evidence that a breed in one country holds promise for another, which will serve as long-term insurance against losses arising from droughts, civil conflicts, and other disasters.
  • Develop re-stocking strategies to ensure that appropriate breeds are used in the aftermath of disasters.
  • Develop pro-poor breeding strategies appropriate for low-input livestock production systems and infrastructure levels available in developing countries.
  • Identify factors that constrain competitiveness of indigenous breeds.

Protecting breeds for people

Animal Genetic Resources Are a Key Tool for Coping with Change in the Livestock Sector

Livestock are ubiquitous in the developing world. The ‘big five’—cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and pigs—as well as 9 other popular farm animals and 26 or so more specialized species are raised by more than half a billion people either on pastoral rangelands by nomadic herders, or on mixed farms by smallholders who raise crops along with livestock, or in peri-urban areas by people who raise a few animals in their backyards. All of these small-scale livestock enterprises matter to developing-country governments because livestock account for some 30 per cent of their agricultural gross domestic product, a figure expected to rise to 40 per cent by the year 2030.

The diverse livestock production systems, like most crop production systems, are changing in response to globalization, urbanization, environmental degradation, climate change and science and technology. But the fastest changes are occurring within the livestock systems. That’s because the developing world’s rising human populations and household incomes are causing demand for milk, meat, eggs and other livestock foods to soar. As one would expect, livestock markets are growing and changing to serve that growing demand. What’s less appreciated are the changes being wrought by many of the billion-plus small-scale livestock keepers and sellers of the developing world who are changing the way they do business to help meet that growing demand.

The rate of change within the livestock sector is so rapid that many local populations of livestock developed by small-scale farmers over millennia no longer have time to evolve adaptations to their new circumstances or the new needs of their owners. They are simply dying out, and at unprecedented and accelerating rates. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that on average a breed disappears every month and that 20 per cent of our uniquely adapted breeds of domestic animals are at risk of extinction.

Over the last 150 years, farmers in industrialized countries supplanted their indigenous farm animals with a few high-producing breeds of a few species (chickens, pigs, cattle) suited to highly intensified production systems. The result is that 70 per cent of the world’s known livestock genetic diversity now resides on small farms and in remote regions of developing countries. With all the challenges facing developing countries and their one billion people living on less than a dollar a day, the question arises as to what immediate practical and cost-effective steps could be taken to preserve the wealth of their livestock genetic diversity.

From a research viewpoint, it’s clear that if we’re going to manage the world’s remaining livestock genetic resources well, we’ll have to characterize the remaining populations to decide which are worth saving and why, we’ll have to find ways of broadening use of those populations deemed useful, and we’ll have to conserve the most important livestock genetic diversity for possible future use—by poor and rich farmers alike.

From a political viewpoint, we’ll need new and appropriate institutional and policy frameworks, as well as lots of policy discussions, to find ways to strengthen national and international programs that support the conservation of livestock biodiversity.

While the political issues are being discussed at length at national and inter-governmental fora, four practical things can be started immediately to ensure that the world’s remaining livestock biodiversity is conserved for future generations.

(1) Keep it on the hoof.
Give local farmers and communities incentives for maintaining local livestock breeds by, for example, improving access by poor farmers and herders to markets, perhaps including niche markets, where they can sell their traditional livestock products.
 (2) Move it or lose it.
Encourage safe movements of livestock populations within and between countries, regions and continents to widen global access, use and conservation of farm animal genetic resources.
(3) Match breeds with environments.
Optimize livestock production by expertly matching livestock genotypes with farmer ambitions, fast-changing environments and specific natural resources, production systems and socio-economic circumstances.

 (4) Put some in the bank.
Freeze semen, embryos and tissues of local breeds and store them indefinitely to protect indigenous livestock germplasm against extinction due to the on-going declines in livestock diversity and to serve as long-term insurance against catastrophic losses due to wars, droughts, famines and other future shocks.

How science can help
It’s clear that most of the developing world’s indigenous livestock populations will not be able to adapt in time to their rapidly changing environments and circumstances; we’ll need new strategies and interventions to improve our conservation and husbandry of these resources. It’s also clear that advances in several scientific fields promise to give rise to those innovations.

On-going breakthroughs in livestock reproductive technologies and functional genomics, for example, as well as in the information fields of bioinformatics and spatial analysis, are being systematically marshaled for the first time to address this challenge.. And policy and agricultural systems analysts are today articulating more judicious thinking about the production and funding of global public goods.

Finally, whereas societies and countries tend to differ in their short-term interests in livestock production, their long-term interests—such as learning how to cope with unforeseen changes in livestock production systems and their environments—tend to converge. This creates real opportunities for international scientific, environmental and aid agencies to work with developing countries in collective action to conserve the world’s remaining livestock genetic diversity.

Visit the online press room for further information and a series of short films and high-quality images of the third world’s unique farm animal breeds.

The ‘big five’ African vintage cows

We are losing the genetic resources locked up in the world’s domesticated livestock at an unprecedented rate
Of the 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock reported to FAO, 1,491, or 20%, are classified as being ‘at risk’. What’s at stake in this ‘livestock meltdown’ is nothing less than the animal basis for world food security. If we are to adapt food production systems to radically changing conditions in the coming decades, animal as well as plant genetic diversity will be critical resources for doing so. Traditional breeds offer diversity, which is the only base for future selection and adaptation. The on-going loss of our livestock genetic heritage is tantamount to losing a road map for survival—the key to food security, environmental stability and improving the human condition. Here are five rare ‘vintage cows’ of Africa that could be part of that road map.



Only some 2,400 Sheko cattle remain alive. These relatively small animals, which are related to West Africa’s ancient N’Dama cattle, are found only in the remote corner of southwestern Ethiopia, near the Sudanese border, where the Sheko people bred them for millennia for their natural resistance to disease, particularly tsetse-transmitted trypanosomosis. The Sheko are believed to be the last remnants of Africa’s original humpless shorthorn cattle, which were probably first domesticated in this region of eastern Africa.



There are about 3.2 million Ankole cattle in five countries of East and Central Africa. The Ankole are drought-resistant and beloved by their keepers also for their uncommon gentleness, beauty, rich milk and tasty meat (believed also to be low in cholesterol). Rapidly expanding human populations, infrastructures and markets, however, are forcing more and more farmers to replace their indigenous African Ankole cattle with exotic breeds such as the black-and-white Holstein-Friesians dairy cows, which produce much more milk. At their current rates of decline, these hardy, graceful animals will disappear within the next 50 years.

This large bony and typically red-coated animal has extremely long lyre-shaped horns. It is kept by pastoral Fulani people, who herd the animal across open semi-arid rangelands of the Sahel that criss-cross five countries of West and Central Africa. This is a dual-purpose milk and meat animal prized for its ability to cope with heat, ticks, insect bites and great water and feed scarcity.


These hamitic longhorn humpless cattle inhabit the hot, humid shores and archipelagos of the Lake Chad Basin in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. They are large-bodied, typically white, and carry highly distinctive bulbous horns. The breed is adapted to the hot and humid climate and can survive long droughts. They are managed under traditional systems, feeding on grass on the small islands of Lake Chad. They are excellent swimmers and follow their herdsmen through the water as they travel from an island to another; their bulbous horns are considered useful in floating. The Kuri are highly fertile animals and excellent milk and meat producers. ILRI estimates the remaining population of Kuri, now threatened with extinction, to number only some 10,000 head.


The semi-nomadic Borana tribe in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya herd the Boran, a medium- to large-sized and long-legged zebu animal that has considerable potential as a meat breed. On acquiring them early in this century, Kenyan ranchers judiciously crossed the original Ethiopian Boran with European breeds. This scheme to maximize the potential of an indigenous breed rather than attempt to replace it with exotic types has been highly successful. Today, the Improved Boran is one of Africa’s top beef breeds. Docile and well-adapted to hot, dry ranching conditions and to sparse pasture, these valuable animals have been exported from Africa to other continents, such as Australia, and from there to the USA.

Further Information

A ‘Livestock Meltdown’ Is Occurring
As Hardy African, Asian, and Latin American Farm Animals Face Extinction

Visit the online press room for further information and a series of short films and high-quality images of the third world’s unique farm animal breeds.