Flexibility in livestock systems—More from less

Options Magazine, Summer 2011:

High quality feed, improved breeding, and reduced disease significantly improve production.

(c)ILRI / S. Mann

(c)ILRI / S. Mann

With the demand for meat and other livestock-related food expected to grow by more than 50% over the next 20 years, finding the land and other resources to support additional animals in an increasingly crowded world will, under current production practices, mean more deforestation and higher prices both for livestock and crops.

But it is possible, according to new research based on IIASA’s GLOBIOM model, to increase the amount of animal protein available for consumption while at the same time limiting the amount of land needed to raise more livestock and slowing the expected price increases.

In a partnership with the Sustainable Livestock Futures Programme at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, IIASA researchers with the Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM) found that allowing livestock production systems to freely adapt to future conditions by making investment capital more accessible can result in a 57% increase in livestock protein production with only 10% more animals. And this can be done on 1.3% less land than was being used for livestock production in 2000, the baseline year for the study.

That increased efficiency results from improvements in the way much livestock production is currently done, says IIASA agricultural economist Petr Havlik. Getting more productivity out of less land comes from using higher quality feeds, improving the breeding of the animals, and doing more to limit disease, he says. “One of the key factors in the productivity of any animal is disease,” Havlik said. “In the developing world it is a serious problem because imagine what it means if you lose half of your herd every season. It means you have to double the size of your herd and feed twice as many animals because you know you’re going to lose so many of them.”

Livestock operations take up about 30% of land globally, and much agricultural land expansion, particularly land for pasture and for growing soybeans for livestock, comes at the expense of forests. That is especially true in tropical regions, Havlik said, and as a result livestock is a substantial contributor to climate change and biodiversity losses.

To understand the impact of future livestock production, IIASA researchers used GLOBIOM, a bottom-up model of the global agriculture and forest sectors. The researchers expanded the standard model with a module containing livestock production data, much of it provided by ILRI. Two scenarios were fed into the GLOBIOM; one allowing production systems to shift and adapt to future economic drivers, and the second locking livestock production into the systems as they were in 2000.

The model looked at different livestock production systems, including rangeland-based, mixed land fed by rain, mixed land irrigated, and urban. The land types were also categorized by climate, including arid, semi-arid, humid, temperate, and tropical. Feed types, such as crop residues, grains, and grass from grazing, were also entered. The livestock included buffalo, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry.

“We developed a matrix of input and output parameters to define correctly every production system for every species involved in every region,” Havlik said. “For the output we looked at the different productivities and feed ratios for each system.”

The model found that in many regions if livestock production systems are allowed to switch to more intensive mixed production systems, as researchers describe them, then as breeding and feed types improve, the world’s protein demands can be met with significantly fewer livestock resources. But the model also shows that some regions, such as many grass lands in Africa, won’t sustain more efficient crops like soybeans and corn, so should be simply left for livestock grazing.

Although the research shows there is an efficient, resource-conserving path to high livestock production, following that path will be difficult, Havlik said. Beyond getting livestock producers to change practices that have been used for decades, changing production systems typically costs money.

“So if you look at the model and see that it is more efficient to be flexible in your production system, then you face the barrier of investment,” Havlik said. “You realize it will be profitable in the long run, but if you don’t have the money for the initial investment, or the payback is 10 or 20 years away, then it will never happen,” he said.

The research, he said, shows there is a way to move forward, “so now we’re interested in the policies and how to overcome these barriers.” That will require a study all of its own, he concluded. 

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Last edited: 28 August 2012


Petr Havlik

Research Group Leader and Principal Research Scholar Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

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