Developmental Agriculture: Livestock

This week our Wednesday insight into developmental agriculture focuses on the important roles of livestock in providing both labour and food. The author, Christine Freak, is a keen policy and practical developmental agriculture and economics aficionado with her own blog Grass Ceilings.


With all the talk about the stock market, we thought we better take a look at it – Livestock that is! Livestock are at the heart of developmental agriculture. They form the vehicle for agricultural growth in developing countries, whilst also being vital for social, economic and environmental systems.

Why are livestock so important?

1.3 billion people depend on livestock to support their livelihoods, which includes 600 million poor farmers.  The roles of livestock include:

  • Source of agricultural growth and income
  • Household consumption
  • Draught power for improved productivity
  • Manure production for fertiliser
  • Method of transportation to improve market access
  • Cultural identity
  • Store of wealth, form of collateral and economic safety net

The size of the beast

Livestock account for one-third of global agricultural GDP, and forms the largest single land usage globally! In fact, feed crops to support this sector account for one-third of arable land globally. The FAO also estimates that 80% of total agricultural land is dedicated to producing animal feed. This has many implications: animal feed demand, intensified production, market concentration in supply chains, farm incomes, land use, and human nutrition.


The sector is one of the fastest growing sectors of global agriculture – mostly driven by demand growth in emerging economies. In 2013, the livestock sector was estimated to consist of 1.6 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs, 2 billion sheep and goats, and 23 billion poultry birds.

Animal products account for 16% of total calories, 31% of dietary protein, and also contain essential micronutrients (iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A) which helps overcome public health concerns even in developed countries.

The growth of the livestock sector isn’t solely attributable to intensification of production. In India, for example, milk production increased from 78million tonnes (1999) to 116million tonnes (2009) with average herd sizes being only 3.3 head.

Livestock for Poverty Alleviation

Livestock provide both continual, seasonal and one-off sources of income for much of the world’s poor. The steady supply of by-products such as milk ensures short-term food security in local communities, which can enable people to be nutritionally able to seek employment. Ownership of livestock as a symbol of wealth has also been linked to increased employment and social standing. The sale of fertiliser, rental of draught power and by-products such as fuel also provides a continual stream of income. In the long term, sale of meat and hides spikes household incomes, presenting opportunities for re-investment.

Financially, livestock are a store of wealth, acting as a safety-net in times of extreme hardship. This is particularly essential in rural areas with limited access to banks and financial services. Livestock also act as collateral, enabling the poor to access small loans to begin larger investments for long-term poverty alleviation. In the most impoverished nations, animal traction enables mechanisation without draining foreign exchanges from importing machinery such as tractors from industrialised nations.

With mixed-method farming, livestock have multiple roles for intensification, diversification, mechanisation and expansion. This is from fertilisers increasing yields and market-value, improved soils, draught-power mechanisation, transportation for market access, weed control, and collateral to invest in technologies such as irrigation. Increased production leads to increased incomes, which in turn leads to increased consumption, creating a cycle of poverty alleviation.


Livestock (and livestock rearing programs) also present a number of challenges for the world’s poor: social stigma and wealth distribution, inappropriate technology transfers, access to markets, risk of disease, and a lack of knowledge transfer and extension services.

Livestock rearing also has costs globally: environmental degradation, deforestation, GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, costs of producing feed, and reduced water availability.

These costs must be considered alongside the benefits of livestock for both developed and developing communities. It is worth noting FAO estimates that 75% of animal feed is non-edible to humans. Ensuring these costs are minimised is vital to reaping the full benefits of the sector in the future.

Future Projections

Rapid growth in meat/dairy demand, particularly in Asia, presents opportunities and challenges for the livestock sector and poverty alleviation. Livestock provides an avenue out of poverty for many of the world’s poor (particularly small holder farmers), and provides increased and more stable incomes, more nutrient rich consumption patterns, increased productivity, employment opportunities and financial access.

Christine Freak

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