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From livestock smallholders to ‘smartholders’: Nurturing development with animal-source foods


Scientists from across the globe gathered at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on 29–30 Mar 2017 to discuss ways to improve nutrition through animal-source foods in some of the most impoverished regions in the world.

Chronically affecting 24 per cent of the world’s children, roughly 159 million in 2014, malnutrition is responsible for almost half of all child deaths worldwide.

Jimmy Smith, director general of ILRI, was one of the keynote speakers at the opening of the Global Nutrition Symposium, the theme of which was ‘Nurturing development: Improving human nutrition with animal-source foods’.

Download Smith’s whole presentation
(scientific references for the facts stated here appear in the notes):
The role of livestock in food and nutrition security

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems, whose project coordinator is former ILRI scientist Saskia Hendrickx, convened at this conference the best and brightest minds tackling malnutrition through animal-source foods. The purpose: To find ways to better integrate science and field experiences to create more effective intervention strategies.

Speakers at the conference included eminent researchers at leading US and UK universities and international research organizations, as well as representatives of donor and development organizations such as the United Stages Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the World Bank and Heifer International.

The keynote presentation by Jimmy Smith of ILRI, on the role of livestock in food and nutrition security, begins with a review of livestock and global food security issues.


Five of the six highest-value agricultural commodities, Smith noted, are produced by livestock. If economic growth and development is around value creation, he said, livestock must play a central role.

The central importance of livestock in the developing world is going to continue, Smith explained, because per capita consumption of animal-source foods there is still low. Consumption of meat in Africa, for example, is just 13 kg per person per year, while here in North America, it’s closer to 100 or more kg.

Even so, as incomes rise, people diversify their diets and include more animal-source foods. The figure above, with data projected to 2050, shows the difference between changing levels of consumption of animal-source foods in high-income countries, where demand for these foods has mostly stabilized, and in low- and middle-income countries, where the blue line here denotes rising egg consumption; the green line, rising milk consumption; the red line, rising pork consumption; and the orange line, rising consumption of poultry.

So we see that as incomes rise, as they are in developing countries, demand for animal-source foods is rising steeply.

The opportunity here is not only for animal-source foods to contribute to food and nutritional security but also to enhance incomes. That’s because, as the figure above indicates, most of the production in the developing world remains in the hands of smallholders. This means that we have a great opportunity to link work on food and nutritional security with poverty reduction.

The livestock sector contributes about 40 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) in low- and middle-income countries. The figure above shows the percentage of ODA disbursements that agriculture gets—4.5 per cent, and the share that livestock gets of that agricultural ODA—again just 4.5 per cent. So the livestock sub-sector of agriculture gets a minuscule amount of ODA, despite the fact that the livestock sub-sector makes up 40 per cent of agricultural GDP in developing countries.


Someone has already said that less than a third of the world are well fed and nourished. The slide below shows that another third of the world’s people are either hungry (about 850 million people) or stunted, or subsisting on insufficient nutrients to lead a healthy and productive life. And another third of the world’s people are overweight or obese and face the health challenges that attend overconsumption of food.

So less than a third of us are well fed and nourished.

The figure above shows income levels in low-, middle- and high-income countries in relation to micronutrients and energy deficiencies. Note that as incomes rise, malnutrition and energy deficiencies are reduced but obesity and its attendant health problems increase. These nutritional disparities are related to income disparities not only across countries but also within countries. The solutions to these very different nutritional problems differ as well, as noted in the three bubbles.


Livestock play many different roles in contributing to the many different aspects of food and nutritional security. Livestock contribute much to global food and nutritional security not only by ensuring that enough food (crops as well as meat, milk and eggs) is produced, but also by helping to balance nutrient consumption and to diversify diets. Here’s some of what we know.

  • We know that animal-source foods provide high-density levels of macro- and micro-nutrients.
  • We know that animal-source foods contain a wide range of essential micro-nutrients, such as iron and zinc, that are difficult to obtain from other foods in sufficient quantities for good nutrition.
  • We know that animal-source foods are a rich source of vitamins, including vitamin A, whose deficiency leads to blindness.
  • We know that animal-source foods are the only natural food source of vitamin B12, whose deficiency can lead to anaemia and permanent nerve damage.
  • We know that animal-source foods provide micronutrients in highly ‘bioavailable’ forms that encourage absorption by the body and thus have active effect.
  • We know that animal-source proteins are more digestible and have higher ‘biological value’ than plant proteins, with their amino acid profile better matching human needs.
  • We know that animal-source foods contain lower levels of anti-nutritional compounds that interfere with the body’s absorption of nutrients.
  • We know that lack of animal-source foods can lead to all the dangers of ‘hidden hunger’.

We know also that livestock-derived foods greatly particularly enhance the nutrition of mothers and of infants in the first one thousand days of their lives.

  • We know that milk improves child growth and that lack of milk in the diets of children can irreversibly stunt their growth.
  • We know that including meat in children’s diets improves their long-term cognitive ability.

These are just some of the many nutritional virtues of animal-source foods.

But although livestock interventions in poor countries can—through improved livestock-based production, incomes and expenditures—improve human diets and nutrition, particularly the overall nutritional status of women and children, we must also be aware that the global burden of food-borne diseases caused by consuming contaminated meat, milk and eggs is heaviest among children under five and pregnant women.

Farm animals also bring about more indirect benefits to the food and nutritional security of the poor. There is, of course, the income as well as manure and traction for ploughing that animals provide, all of which contribute directly to crop production, which of course is also part of the food and nutritional equation in poor countries.

It’s little known or appreciated that today’s developing-country mixed crop-and-livestock farmers, most of them small in scale, supply a large proportion of the world’s production of both cereal and livestock foods. At least half of the cereals in the world, for example, are produced in these mixed crop-plus-animal farming systems. And there are many co-benefits for food and nutritional security that accrue from livestock production being intimately integrated with crop production. These so-called ‘mixed farming systems’ still dominate developing-country agriculture worldwide. (Some 23 to 38 per cent of the soil nitrogen necessary for crop production comes from livestock manure, the higher figure being for Europe.)

So we must remember that crop and livestock production are closely intertwined in the global food security equation.

Income, as I’ve said, is important for helping low-income households to ensure their food and nutritional security. Income from animal enterprises is paying huge dividends for poor households, which spend some of that livestock income on buying food. By 2050, the value of animal-source foods in Africa alone is estimated to reach USD151 billion. We’re working to help ensure that much of the benefits derived from this growth will accrue to small-scale agents in transition to medium-sized livestock enterprises. And we should not forget the important role livestock play in employment, with some 700,000 poor people employed in the dairy sector of Kenya alone.

The livestock sector also offers major opportunities for addressing the ‘youth bulge’ in poor countries, with Africa’s 19–25-year-olds, for example, comprising a large percentage of the continent’s total population. How they will all find employment is very important.

I remind you of Ernst Engel’s economics law of 1857, which is, ‘As income rises, the proportion of income spent on food falls, even if absolute expenditure on food rises’. Great disparities still exists between those of us living in eight countries spending less that 10 per cent of our household incomes on food (Australia, Austria, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, UK and USA) and others living in nine other countries spending more than 40 per cent of their household incomes just to try to meet their basic food and nutritional needs (Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Guatemala, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines). The options for each group are very different.

The above graphic from Washington State University makes this point well. The colours of the circle represent the extent of malnutrition: the darker the colour the greater the level of malnutrition. The malnutrition levels are correlated with the percentage of annual income spent on food. We can see in the darker coloured countries a high correlation between people who spend a large proportion of their incomes on food and those that suffer from malnourishment.


We at ILRI are proud champions of today’s more than 750 million smallholder livestock producers, who comprise a large part of the world’s private sector. But we are very aware that many of these smallholders are in transition and that all will not (and should not) continue to be in this sector in future. It’s been estimated that about a third of today’s small-scale livestock producers will begin to transition out of livestock livelihoods in the coming years. Another third are doing pretty well now and will do even better over time. And the future of the final third is up for grabs—these people will either leave the sector or become more market-focused.

At ILRI,  we believe we must do more to help men, women and young people in particular to grasp opportunities to help meet the rising demand for animal-source foods.

We believe must do more to encourage the ‘middle third’ to transition from smallholders to ‘smartholders’, running thriving as well as more sustainable and equitable livestock enterprises and operating as part of a more vibrant, productive and resilient global food system.

We hear over and over that it takes hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and many thousands of kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef. Take note: Those figures are taken from feedlot systems, most of which are located in rich, industrialized  countries. And furthermore, feedlot systems make up just 17 per cent of the total livestock systems of the world. The vast rest of the world’s livestock systems represent very different forms of livestock production.

I draw your attention to the circle on the left in the figure above. Just 14 per cent of material fed to livestock could also have been eaten by people. The rest of the world’s livestock feed comes from such human inedible biomass as pasture grasses and cereal stover and other crop residues after the grain has been harvested for human consumption.

On the right, we see that of the entire area put to agriculture, just over half is used for livestock, and of that 51 percent of land used for livestock and livestock feed production, most comprises land unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption.

What this tells us is that high opportunity costs are not incurred by producing livestock over crops.

When we sum the more accurate global figures researchers have recently produced, we find that the amount of human-edible food fed to animals to produce 1 kilogram of boneless meat is just 2.8 kg for ruminants and 3.2 kg for pigs and poultry.

So the two bottom lines are, first, that production of livestock and animal-source foods in the developing world right now is not in serious competition with production of food crops.

And, second, that much of the world’s animal-source food comes from converting grasses, crop residues and other materials inedible by humans into high-quality protein for humans.

But we must start by raising smallholder livestock productivity and efficiency in the developing world, where production levels are still very low. When African cows now producing 2–3 litres of milk per day start producing 10 litres a day, the level of greenhouse emissions they generate per unit of milk they produce will drop significantly. What will help raise livestock productivity while reducing emissions are today’s many scientific advances in such fields as livestock genetics, breeding, feeding and nutrition.

Let me end with a moral point.

The livestock sector is under pressure at the moment from those in the North who say that to that save our planet we must get rid of livestock, and/or that to save our health, we must stop eating meat.

Some of us probably do consume too much meat as well as sugars, fats and highly processed foods. I have no argument with those advocating not over-consuming such foods in rich countries and communities.

I do argue strongly against those who say that those who eat so little meat should eat even less.

I believe there is no moral equivalence between those who make bad food choices, and consume too much animal-source food, and those many hungry people who, with no food choice at all, consume far too little.

View the whole of Smith’s presentation on ILRI Slideshare here: The role of livestock in food and nutrition security.

For context, read the whole article: University of Florida hosts international symposium for Global Child Nutrition Month, 29 Mar 2017.

Watch the conference presentation by Jimmy Smith (Smith’s starts at 1:38:43) and others here.

Read a Jul 2016 report from a UN high-level panel of experts—Sustainable Agricultural Development for Food Security and Nutrition: What Roles for Livestock—which recommends the following three areas for urgent action.

  1. Improve resource-use efficiency in small-scale livestock production systems
  2. Strengthen the resilience of poor and vulnerable livestock-keeping communities
  3. Improve livestock development outcomes that enhance social equity

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