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Livestock and sustainability – challenges and opportunities

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Livestock and sustainability – challenges and opportunities for New Zealand

Livestock may provide one-third of the value of global agricultural production, but it comes at a big cost for the planet. Livestock uses 80 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, putting pressure on water resources and biodiversity and emitting 14.5 per cent of the planet’s greenhouse gases.

The benefits, risk, trade-offs and consequences are complex and policy makers are always looking for guidance. Now, new guidelines have been developed by the Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). The Committee’s report Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock? was launched last week at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome

Massey University’s College of Health Professor Barbara Burlingame, a member of the High Level Panel of Experts Project Team for the next report on Nutrition and Food Systems, attended the launch.

She says the report bridges the gap between science and policy, addressing emerging livestock issues.

“Many of the issues have had decades-long awareness in New Zealand, but have only recently received media attention in other countries, with greenhouse gas emissions related to climate change, anti-microbial resistance and animal welfare identified as major issues.”

Speaking at the launch, Patrick Caron, Chair of the High Level Panel of Experts’ Steering Committee, said livestock has been classified as a “big challenge topic” for illustrating the dynamics of sustainable agricultural development, both positive and negative.

“Fundamental changes are needed for sustainable agricultural development, for both production and consumption, with context-specific pathways to address local dynamics and global challenges.” Mr Caron went on to explain all farming systems need to transform, not just livestock.

Wilfrid Legg, leader of the HLPE Project Team stressed, that, “Business as usual” is not a sustainable option and many actions need to be undertaken at both farm and policy levels. He went on to describe the five typologies of farming systems used in this report and the opportunities for addressing sustainability challenges. Although New Zealand is often characterised as having “commercial grazing systems,” much of the country’s animal product falls into the “intensive livestock systems” category.

Professor Burlingame says New Zealand features in several places in the report, including a full-page on New Zealand’s sheep meat sector. The data shows New Zealand sheep farmers are implementing practices directed at environmental improvement and sustainable production. Methane emissions have decreased continuously since the 1990’s.

“Many of the queries raised by member states related to the role of livestock in human nutrition. This topic will certainly be addressed in depth in our Panel’s report next year,” Professor Burlingame says.

The full report can be found on the FAO website here.
The webcast of the launch can be found here.

Image: Massey University Professor Barbara Burlingame and leader of the High Level Panel of Experts, Wilfrid Legg, at the launch of the Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock? report, in Rome, Italy.


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