Livestock on the way to market A man looks after cattle. Near Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia.
Livestock on the way to market near Mekele, Tigray, Ethiopia. | Credit: Kelley Lynch

Answering Agrilinks Community Livestock Questions

By Andrew Bisson, Leslie Brooks

*Disclaimer: Any responses provided will represent the opinions of the authors alone, and will not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) nor the U.S. government. 

Livestock Month Questions

Q1: What is the role of digital technology in the livestock value chain? How do livestock tracking and farming technologies fit into the agribusiness and livestock sectors?  

Even in deeply rural areas of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), mobile phone use has increased considerably over the past decade. Thus, the potential for mobile app development, in addition to leveraging social media and web-based tools is significant. Digital technologies play a critical role in livestock market development throughout the value chain. Added benefits include improving livestock health and production, improving the knowledge, efficiency, and business of livestock service providers, facilitating livestock sales and increased access to consulting/extension services for producers. For example, small-holder farmers can use digital technologies to access more up-to-date market information to get a better price for their livestock at auction. Livestock producers can also benefit from remote sensing and other technologies to gain more access to climate change information, thus increasing resilience and sustainability of livestock systems.

That said, there are challenges when it comes to advancing the use of digital technologies in low and middle income countries. Limited digital skills of the users, limited high-speed network coverage, reluctance to change behaviors, and donor restrictions can all lead to technology adoption levels being less than ideal. It is also important to consider gender as an important factor when designing and promoting agricultural technology, as they play important roles in livestock value chains. Digital technologies can also help decrease time burdens for women, as they tend to have outsized roles in domestic work and childcare, in addition to agricultural-related activities.

Q2: What role does communications play in development and humanitarian programming in response to livestock concerns? What are some examples of communications innovations that support livestock development? 

While development programming and humanitarian response are often talked about as two separate niches, there is a growing need to develop better connectivity between humanitarian and development efforts, often referred to as the Humanitarian Development Nexus. According to UNOCHA, “humanitarian actors should increasingly engage with other actors, including development partners, to leverage their comparative advantages for better results for people.” This is relevant with livestock programming. For instance, at USAID, the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) tries to work collaboratively with the Bureau's focused on development to coordinate activities between development and humanitarian response. One example of this is BHA’s Resilience Food Security Activities, which often incorporate livestock programming focused on food security and livelihoods. 

Within the realm of humanitarian response, the Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) is the tool used for planning and designing livestock interventions. LEGS provides standards and guidelines for appropriate and timely livestock-based livelihood responses in emergencies, using a participatory and evidence-based approach. The guidelines discuss the value of early warning systems to streamline communication and disaster preparedness planning, which if used and acted upon appropriately, are invaluable in mitigating disasters that present warning indicators, such as drought. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET) is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity around the world. FEWS NET evaluates a variety of indicators, including analyses on livestock conditions, to inform humanitarian response planning. Another early warning tool, the Predictive Livestock Early Warning System (PLEWS) monitors forage conditions to support anticipatory actions by communities and governments. PLEWS is a dynamic web-based decision support tool that was created with the goal of reducing livestock loss and improving resilience. 

As the posed question highlights, communication is key. While early warning systems are expanding and tools are becoming more robust and readily available, we still need to make sure we are acting on the warnings and using the tools effectively.  

Q3: How do soil health, carbon sequestration, and proper grazing management relate to USAID’s livestock programming and development objectives? Additional research on the topic listed here:

Thank you for the links provided. Indeed, unifying soil health, livestock production, forage sustainability, food security and its connection to how the microbiome has changed over time are important concepts when looking at the integral role livestock play in supporting development outcomes and building resilience. Advancing technologies in agriculture and livestock production while integrating climate-conscious techniques that place emphasis on the symbiosis of resources while simultaneously aiding the world’s most vulnerable are key concepts considered within the development and humanitarian contexts. Livestock play a unique role in this with their ability to contribute to multiple facets of agriculture while providing for resilience of people and communities.

Q4: What can you tell me about the potential for using biochar in livestock production, either as a feed additive or as part of a deep bedding system?

While biochar, typically defined as charcoal produced from organic material in a low-oxygen setting, has traditionally been used in livestock production as a low-dose treatment to adsorb toxins, current research has begun to investigate the impacts of biochar as a feed additive for other purposes. In most monogastric livestock species studied, such as poultry and swine, feeding biochar has had little to no significant impact on productivity in the form of weight gain. However, some research has shown improvements on daily weight gain among ruminants when supplemented with biochar. Another significant body of research has focused on the potential for biochar to reduce methane emissions, either in the form of enteric methane released by ruminant digestion or methane released by decomposition of livestock manure. The results of these studies are not yet conclusive; although some studies have seen reductions in enteric methane emissions, others have seen contradictory results. Proponents have suggested that using biochar as a part of animal bedding could help absorb phosphorus and other compounds, making the manure a higher quality soil additive and potentially reducing environmental impact. Biochar, in small doses, does not seem to cause negative impacts to livestock, although composition of biochar can vary depending on the source organic material. More research is needed to fully understand the potential role of biochar in livestock systems.

Q5: In some countries, people are consuming a lot more animal protein (than in other countries). Should they reduce it in the interest of climate change? 

In countries where Animal Source Food (ASF) consumption is very high, consideration should be given to moderating ASF intake to achieve desirable environment and health outcomes. However, in countries where USAID undertakes most of its programming, under-nutrition and deficits in essential nutrients in human diets are often a greater problem. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to these deficits. USAID supports the consumption of ASF where this ensures the provision of adequate essential nutrients and a healthy, affordable diet. USAID does not support restriction of ASF consumption in the interest of greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation where this could lead to negative health or nutrition outcomes — a position also held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

USAID supports the production of ASFs and indeed all foods in ways which are environmentally sustainable and a dietary intake of ASFs that converges within a healthy range, neither too much, nor too little. USAID seeks to facilitate just, sustainable food system transformations, which include locally led, culturally appropriate dietary transitions as part of those transformations.

Answers to this question can be plagued by the hazards of generalization and over-aggregation of data when seeking evidence and science-based answers. The livestock sector and human diets are tremendously diverse — there is no single correct answer, rather there is a need to embrace the complexity and consider a number of variables including livestock production system type, socio-economic status and diet, to arrive at nuanced, equitable answers. Context matters.

The climate crisis will require substantial transformative action in food systems and indeed all major sectors, if global warming is to be kept to a manageable level. These transformations need to be evidence-based and equitable but are complex. Livestock support the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people, many adversely impacted by climate change. Livestock deliver more than simply food products. USAID seeks to consider how livestock can most effectively support a number of development outcomes, including but not limited to nutrition and climate.

What is the Livestock Sector’s Footprint?

Food systems and forestry contribute approximately 24 percent to GHG emissions (other sector contributions: electricity and heat production 25 percent; industry 21 percent; transport 14 percent; buildings 6 percent, EPA). Agriculture represents the main source of GHG emissions in the food sector with livestock contributing 14 percent to the global GHG emission total.  Beef and dairy contribute over 70 percent of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions (Cusak, 2021) (this estimate does not include the CO2 that trees and plants in livestock systems remove from the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in biomass, and soils, offsetting approximately 20 percent of the emissions).

The Role of Animal Source Foods in Healthy Diets

Over and under consumption of critical nutrients are important issues in all countries. USAID supports healthy, balanced diets for all, which contain adequate levels of nutrients. The required levels of those nutrients vary according to different life stages and health status — e.g., pregnancy, infancy, old age. USAID supports the development and use of effective National Nutritional Guidelines that set out appropriate diets, providing advice on minimum and maximum consumption of a complete set of nutrients in practical, culturally appropriate ways.

USAID’s work focuses on low income countries and low income segments of lower-middle income countries. The dietary issues in these geographies and demographics are variable but significantly differ from those of higher income countries where animal protein is typically consumed in greater quantities. Reducing ASF consumption in countries where it is high and results in adverse health outcomes, as well as negative climate outcomes, is advisable and recommended by WHO and a number of nutritional authorities.

However, USAID is more focused on lower income consumers in LMICs who lack the range of food choices available to the western supermarket customer. Such food choices are a luxury the world’s poor generally cannot afford. In addition, the young, pregnant, lactating, sick and elderly need nutrients at a high density, which is often not available via non-ASF protein alternatives. When supporting healthy, nutritious diets in LMICs, USAID often aims to modestly increase ASF consumption to meet minimum levels of essential nutrients, many of which are not available and/or not affordable in other forms. Thus USAID supports consumption of ASFs within a healthy range, a convergence of consumption levels, neither too much nor too little, ensuring nutritional needs are met and keeping the environmental impact of diets within planetary boundaries while accounting for local contexts and respecting local food cultures. Upper consumption limits for ASFs would be more applicable to consumers in wealthy nations.

When evaluating the GHG footprint of ASFs, the unit to be used as the denominator, often expressed as CO2 equivalent per KCal, may need to be reconsidered. ASFs represent far more than their energy contribution (and indeed more than their nutritional contribution). Reframing GHG emissions to consider the supply of key amino acids and other essential nutrients rather than calories, i.e., emphasizing diet quality, can change the calculus quite dramatically. More holistically, should livestock be considered only as a set of food products when in many contexts they create value on a multifunctional level (contributing to livelihoods, risk-management, financial services and safety nets, crop-livestock integration, ecosystem services, and socio-cultural contributions)? 

Livestock Sector Options to Reduce the GHG Footprint of Diets

Improving the efficiency of livestock production systems in sustainable ways reduces the GHG emission intensity and brings with it significant co-benefits (for nutrition, poverty alleviation, livelihoods and economic development and gender empowerment). This approach must however track and mitigate potential negative environmental outcomes such as land use conversion, impact on biodiversity and contamination of watercourses.

Where overconsumption of ASFs is clearly  identified, substituting ASFs with other sources of protein is a useful strategy. This may include other ASFs (particularly pork and poultry) and/or plant-based protein sources). When projecting future dietary scenarios and considering the consumption of ASFs, one frequently observed dietary shift to consider is the increase in the consumption of poultry and pork (with its smaller GHG footprint than red meats) as countries undergo an economic transition (the nutritional transition). This shift, bundled with other diet and lifestyle changes, brings fresh challenges (e.g., obesity, antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare issues, environmental contamination) but does reduce the per capita rise of diet related GHG emissions.

It is not USAID’s position to prescribe how food system transitions should take place, nor the specific diets people should consume, except to strive to ensure the right of all to adequate, nutritious food. USAID seeks to play a role in facilitating evidence-based dialogs on equitable, just food system transitions and to support well governed, stakeholder engaged, decision-making processes that promote good nutrition achieved within planetary boundaries.

Additional Reading

Q6. What are people's best ideas for reducing GHG emissions from the livestock sector?

There are a large number of options to address GHG emissions from the livestock sector and the science for several is still emerging. To optimize these, it is helpful to disaggregate the livestock sector into a number of different production systems, and regional geographies, each with their own GHG emission footprint and unique context, challenges and opportunities (see figure below, FAO); ).


Visual breakdown of emissions from different animal groups in regions across the globe

This disaggregation helps to support matching the most appropriate solutions for GHG emission abatement to these different production systems. As an example, ILRI undertook a feasibility study of low emission dairy sector options in East Africa.

Solutions can be categorized into several broad approaches such as improving ruminant feeding, manure management, efficient fertilizer use for feed crops, etc. For each production system, appropriate options within each solution-type can be considered. In general terms, ruminants are the main source of GHG emissions and make a logical place to start although there are marked regional differences.

In most USAID contexts, i.e., emerging economies, the greatest impacts initially will likely be via measures that improve the productivity of livestock production systems. This can be achieved through a suite of good practices covering husbandry, breeding and management, feeding and animal health. For example, a USAID-supported dairy project in Rwanda significantly reduced GHG emission intensity through the impacts the project had on enhancing productivity. These approaches also convey substantial co-benefits, including strengthening capacities to address climate adaptation as well as reducing emissions. Improving animal productivity, along with other system efficiencies (including a reduction in food loss and waste) can be a precursor to reducing the overall number of animals in the national herd and with it absolute emissions, as is the case in the United States.

A number of interventions that more directly target methane emissions may also be valuable.

Forty-four percent of all livestock sector GHG emissions come from enteric fermentation in the rumen, thus approaches that not only improve feed quality and promote a nutritionally balanced ration but also affect the rumen microflora and the amount of methane generated are the subject of considerable research and pilot testing (for example, Bovaer, a methanogenic feed supplement has recently been developed and licensed for use in a small number of countries). Incorporating methanogenic feed supplements is at an embryonic stage and is currently more feasible in developed livestock production systems with mature feed industries but this is a rapidly evolving research topic. The use and potential of such supplements was the subject of a review conducted by the Global Research Alliance for Greenhouse Gases.

Another direct way to reduce GHG emissions involves good manure management practices. This covers how manure is stored (including generation of biogas) as well as how it is used as an organic fertilizer. 

In addition to productivity-enhancing approaches, there are a range of options that address emission challenges through a food systems lens. These are described in more detail in FAO’s Five Practical Actions towards resilient, low-carbon livestock. In brief, these actions include boosting efficiency and resource use; intensifying recycling, minimizing losses and promoting circularity; capitalizing on nature-based solutions; developing a supporting policy environment; and promoting healthy, sustainable diets (this latter option is covered in greater detail in an earlier question and response). 

In summary, a package of interventions, tailored to specific production systems, implemented effectively, can cumulatively lead to substantial emission reductions, consistent with a 1.5 ℃ pathway.

There is not the scope in this response to consider how these interventions will be financed and the critical practicalities of implementation. It is, however, worth keeping in mind that solutions will be easier to take to scale where they provide a co-benefit to the livestock keeper and/or are pushed by a strong driver such as carbon payments to incentivize and promote change. Partnerships with the private sector will be particularly important to achieve system transformations.

(We have also not covered here how livestock production systems utilize land, result in land use change and how they can sequester carbon — critical issues when considering the balance between GHG emissions, carbon sequestration and the development of low-emission livestock production systems).

A final note: GHG emissions from the livestock sector are clearly important. There are, however, other domains of sustainability such as water use, fertilizers and nitrogen flows, impacts on land use change, biodiversity, emerging diseases as well as socioeconomic sustainability, all of which need to be considered. To be truly successful, we need to support the transformation of livestock systems that are sustainable across multiple dimensions, to advance in the right direction and to avoid unintended negative consequences. 

Further reading
Strategic Objective
Mitigation, Adaptation
Agriculture, Emissions, Digital technology, Food Security, Humanitarian Assistance, Mitigation

Andrew Bisson

Leslie Brooks

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