The Importance of Livestock in Creating Sustainable and Equitable Food Systems

This is one of a series of blogs written by our Youth in Data delegates who participated in the 2020 CGIAR Convention on Big Data in Agriculture. The global event was held virtually 19-23 October, 2020.

The subject of livestock and its connections to sustainability is a trending topic and could be considered one of the most highly discussed issues at present time. The work we, citizens of the world, do to create more resilient and equitable food systems must be ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable. In other words, as Padmakumar Varijakshapanicker, Research Management Coordinator of CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), said during the 2020 One CGIAR virtual convention on Digital Dynamism for Adaptive Food Systems: “economic development at the cost of ecology does not last; therefore, it is critical to harmonize ecology with development.”

After being selected to participate from the 2020 Youth in Data Bootcamp and attending the first One CGIAR virtual convention, I want to share my key takeaways of the current global situation of livestock, the actions being taken for creating sustainable food systems, and how can we move forward achieving an equitable future.

Livestock – the present

The current livestock sector has severe negative impacts on the environment, including land degradation, atmosphere and climate change, water use and pollution, as well as biodiversity. Additionally, this sector results in between 14.5% and 18% of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. According to Giuseppe Bizarri’s publication on The Role of the Dairy Sector in a Low-Carbon Future, these discharges are a result of “physical, chemical, and biochemical processes.” In fact, methane is considered one of the most harmful emissions, which is a result of both manure and enteric fermentation–the digestive process by which carbs are broken down in the animal’s body.

Furthermore, the impact of water and food use on the environment and food security has been an issue for the last decades. As stated by Amy Martin in her article on Meat’s Large Water Footprint: Why Raising Livestock and Poultry for Meat Is so Resource-Intensive, the total amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is approximately 1,799 gallons of water; for pork, it’s 576 gallons of water. That is much higher than other agricultural products! For example, it costs 216 gallons of water for a pound of soybeans and 108 gallons for a pound of corn. This significant disparity is due to the amount of water that goes into feeding the animals, the immense scale of meat production, among other factors.

However, livestock–or animal agriculture– is currently crucial to the economic and physical wellbeing of many individuals and communities. Mario Herrero and Philip Thorton published an article stating that livestock contributes to 33% of the protein in diets worldwide while providing livelihood for many in both agrarian and industrialized societies. In fact, livestock contributes to the livelihoods of over two thirds of the world’s rural poor.

A sustainable future

As a result, it is crucial that we find ways to make livestock ecologically sustainable in a way that promotes equity, meets the nutritional (eg. protein) needs of the community, and maintains financial stability for farmers and other stakeholders, all while meeting the needs of our growing population. These goals are guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which include “zero hunger by 2030” and “increased production of food while conserving available land, water, and available resources and reducing GHG emissions by 2050”.

Initiatives towards achieving food sustainability

The CGIAR Community of Practice (CoP) on Livestock Data is working to create sustainable and resilient food systems that will promote food security and reduce poverty through research. Its objectives include “reducing the environmental footprint of livestock production,” “improving livestock health,” and “increasing livestock nutrition”. 

A part of this research program is the Livestock and the Environment flagship, which is working to “reduce the environmental footprint of livestock production across both rapid and fragile growth trajectories, while ensuring that livestock systems in developing countries are able to adapt to global environmental changes.” The goals of this flagship include promoting the role of livestock in food security and poverty reduction, while reducing the environmental footprint to stay within environmental boundaries. The CoP also hopes to use their research to contribute to evidence-based policy and other decisions.

One of the program projects is an initiative created to develop a stronger pig value chain in Uganda, maximizing profit for farmers while hoping to prioritize animal health, feeds and forages, the environment, and genetics intervention. The CoP’s is also working to share knowledge on sustainability through smart platforms.

An equitable future

It is important that we work to create equitable food systems by empowering marginalized communities, including low socio-economic status households –generally farmers– and women.

Aashana Singh, Co-Founder & COO of MoooFarm, was able to connect with us during the One CGIAR conference and spoke to the attendees of how the organization is working to support farmers. MoooFarm is an online community that provides farmers with many of the tools they don’t have– connection to veterinarians, information, and problem resolution through its online community, insurance and financial services, access to medicine and feed, and cattle trading. This support has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had negative economic effects on the rural economy in Punjab, where MoooFarm is active.

The goal for equity in the food system includes the fight for women’s empowerment. This is the primary goal for the gender flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock, which researches inequity issues along the ladder, identifies policy barriers, assess the role of livestock in transforming social constructs including gender, and determines how to enable those in the livestock sector in order to empower women and their communities. Najjar and Frija published a promising study on gender and climate change in which researchers examined the inequities between men and women as a result of climate change and how women can be empowered to participate in the decision-making process and be involved in more projects.

How can we move forward to achieve food sustainability?

We will need the work of Singh, Najjar and Frija, and many other global initiatives to meet the goals set out by the United Nations and promote human, environmental health, and wellbeing through equity as well as sustainability. To solve these complex global issues, we will need more than research and data management: we need an interdisciplinary approach in which researchers collaborate with policy makers, community members, activists, and others with diverse ranges of knowledge. We must understand that sustainability, equity, and nutrition are all factors to health and an unsustainable and inequitable planet cannot house healthy people.

I truly believe that if we shift our priorities, we will have the capacity to feed the world while taking care of each other and Earth.


Salma Said is from Raleigh, North Carolina, US and is currently a Bachelor Degree candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She expressed her gratefulness for the opportunity to have been a CGIAR Youth in Data delegate since it allowed her to gain an understanding of the complexities of the issues faced in the food system, and how people from all disciplines and parts of the world can work together to solve them.

At the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, we believe that if we are to achieve a sustainable food future, it is vital that today’s youth are able to access the agricultural research sector and that pathways are provided for them to contribute to the transformation needed.

As a part of that commitment, the BIG DATA Platform hosts an annual Youth in Data workshop to engage participants on  important themes around digital agriculture and  big data approaches to agricultural development. Click here for more information about this workshop and our other youth initiatives.

Featured photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

November 20, 2020

Salma Said

2020 Youth in Data Delegate
CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture
Vancouver, British Columbia Canada


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