Tackling the tragic divorce of livestock from agriculture

by Stefano Prato | Livestock systems generate key challenges in the intersection of livelihoods, health and environmental concerns. Under the forces of globalization, sustainable mixed crops-livestock food farming systems are increasingly being transformed into specialized and distinct intensive industrial systems of livestock production and crop production, driving or aggravating multiple intertwined crises. The CFS endorsed a set of policy recommendations to helps countries tackle these challenges, though the agenda remains unfinished. Urgent follow-up is required to protect pastoral and smallholder mixed systems from predatory economic pressure while also addressing the profound environmental and health externalities of industrial systems.


Livestock systems have often been neglected within policy debates on agriculture, yet these systems generate key challenges in the intersection of livelihoods, health and environmental concerns.

Traditionally, livestock and agriculture have been two sides of the same coin. However, two decades of structural adjustment programmes, so-called economic reforms and the most recent pattern of economic globalization have all sought to transform sustainable mixed crops-livestock food farming systems to specialized and distinct intensive industrial systems of livestock production and crop production, either driving or aggravating the multiple intertwined crises of food, water and energy. Policies and plans, rather than redressing this growing divide, are often aggravating the situation, under the guiding star of narrow-minded concepts of productivity that do not values circular economies and leave out most of what matters when seeking to make development truly sustainable and people-centred.[1]

Livestock as key battlefield between opposing visions of agriculture

Livestock production has therefore become one of the key battlefields between two opposed visions of agriculture. On one side, the corporate model that views food as commodity and understands production as a highly-specialized process that can be delocalized anywhere the resources to maximize narrowly-defined productivity can be found. It is based on the privatization of the commons, and increasingly on its financialization, as well as extensive use of biotechnologies. Its uniformed products are horizontally and vertically integrated in global value chains and its business model is based on minimizing the externalities it is obliged to cater to while seeking the lowest possible labour intensity by applying mechanization, robotics and information technologies. This homogenizing and hegemonic model is leading the capture of agriculture by large-scale and intensive industrial production, vertically integrated with industrial food transformation and large distribution channels.

On the other end of the spectrum are local community responses based on small-scale production, unfortunately often trapped into subsistence farming, which view food as a fundamental human right and regard food consumers as fellow citizens and rights-holders. This approach views production as a highly-diversified process which is inherently localized and integrated with territorial needs, traditions and ecosystems. It is based on traditional and locally-adapted genetic resources, minimal external input and a holistic concept of productivity, which maximizes synergies among a wide variety of product lines, through crop rotation and mixed crop-livestock systems. It is inherently labour intensive and biocentric, as minimizing externalities and enhancing biodiversity means preserving the ecosystem where communities are located and on which their future livelihood depends. It is also based on collective rights and access to the commons and is supported by a vast array of knowledge(s), including traditional and indigenous knowledge.[2]

Some believe these two visions can co-exist. Considering that the livestock sector currently uses 80 percent of land resources, cohabitation is not easy to imagine and the notion of sustainable intensification is simply an oxymoron. Under the grand narrative of feeding the planet, the march of the industrial livestock systems to increase production is nothing else that a crusade to exterminate smallholder production and grab its land resources. The dairy and poultry crises, where entire small and medium size sectors have been wiped out by predatory competition practises, offers illustrative tragic examples of this reality.

CFS Recommendations: Timid steps in the right direction?

Over the past three years, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) undertook initial steps in tackling these challenges by developing policy guidance to national governments and international agencies to build greater coherence of their strategies for sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition in the context of the progressive realization of the human right to adequate food and nutrition. Indeed, no United Nations’ space could be more legitimate for such a task, given the uniqueness of the CFS as the foremost inclusive intergovernmental body where UN Member States can build policy coherence and convergence to address key issues related to food security and nutrition with the active participation of small scale food producers, as the primary contributor to food security, and other civil society constituencies.

A set of policy recommendations on “Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock?” have been endorsed at the CFS 43 in October 2016, following a process of policy convergence between UN Member States, civil society and the private sector. The process was primed by the report on the same subject elaborated by the High-Level Panel of Experts, as per normal operating modalities of the CFS.[3]

The recommendations included important positive elements. They expose the need to “recognize, respect and protect those traditional production systems, including pastoral systems and their mobility strategies, that use ecosystems sustainably and contribute significantly to the FSN of their communities and associated ways of life”. They also call for strengthening the integration of livestock with crops, promoting the sustainability of intensive farming, re-affirming animal sourced food (ASF) workers’ rights and labour standards, and advancing animal welfare, including working animals and drought power. However, the negotiation process also exposed the complexities and political economies of the livestock sector. As a result, no clear policy guidance emerged to how to favour those smallholder mixed systems which are inherently sustainable and capable of addressing the multiple livelihoods, health and ecological crises that the world confronts. And attempts to curb the devastating effects of industrial systems were too timid to be of any policy significance. No single policy recommendation addresses the dairy and poultry crises, among others. Nevertheless, important first steps were taken which offer a favourable starting point for further follow-up.

An unfinished agenda: three clusters of vital issues

Three broad clusters of key issues remain to be addressed. Firstly, the significant tension between production systems and the increasing challenges posed on smallholder systems – today’s primary contributors to food security -  by the hegemonic and homogenizing growth of the industrial systems. This also means addressing key issues such as the increasing market concentration leading to buyer power abuse which threatens the realization of the right to food; the subsidies to animal feed production that increasingly push smallholders to the margins; and, the unacceptable working conditions of animal sourced foods (ASF) workers and the exploitation of migrant ones, including in industrial slaughterhouses. Secondly, the lack of recognition of the inherent sustainability and resilience of smallholder systems against the devastating environmental footprint of the industrial ones, including the continued underestimation of the importance of agroecology with its holistic approach to all dimensions of sustainability, having evolved for over millennia and hence being in tune with and sensitive to the ecosystems in which it thrives. Thirdly, the health implications of the continued expansion of industrial production, including the promotion of excessive consumption of animal sourced foods and the emerging plague of antibiotic resistance.

An engagement and advocacy agenda

Following the CFS process, the following engagement and advocacy agenda could offer a possible pathway for social movements and civil society organizations:

The tension between production systems requires explicit policy interventions than unambiguously protect and support pastoral and smallholder mixed systems. As industrial systems pose threats to smallholder agroecological approaches to achieving food security and nutrition, the space of the latter needs to be protected and expanded by public policies, programmes and investments, while the former needs to be regulated and contained. As no further intensification in land use is possible, responsible tenure governance in accordance to CFS’s Tenure Guidelines[4] is essential to secure access to resources by smallholders. Furthermore, increasing global competition for crop acreage between rising biofuels' and meat demand--exacerbated by financial speculation--is causing a rise in agricultural market volatility that needs to be address through reestablishment on strategic grain reserves, and curtailment of financial speculation in commodity markets;

It essential to reclaim healthy diets as public goods. The reduction of overconsumption of animal sourced foods in some populations and social groups needs to be promoted, to allow contraction and convergence of ASF consumption and improve food security and nutrition. At the same time, the quality of food produced by different systems needs to be taken into full account: the nutritional value of food produced through free-range and organic systems with slower growing breeds and natural diets are shown in research to be of a higher nutritional value than ASF from industrial farming;

Agricultural workers, including migrant and temporary ones, need to be brought under the spotlight. So far, millions of agricultural workers around the world remain invisible, susceptible to exploitation, and provide an enormous, unacknowledged and unfair subsidy of cheap labour to global agribusinesses;  

Excessive corporate concentration and buyer power abuse need to be curtailed. The concentration of corporate power, especially obvious with megamergers, threatens the realization of the Right to Food. Furthermore, corporate concentration exercise undue influence on public policy making, which needs to be protected with robust safeguards against conflicts of interests.

The corporate capture of food governance

However, reclaiming public policies and investments to tackle the challenges of livestock production requires legitimate public policy spaces. This means to stop and reverse the current trend to establish multi-stakeholder platforms that overtly and covertly erode the capacity of public normative spaces to take decisions in the public interest. In this respect, the jury is out to establish the extent to which the continued expansion of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock may offer obstacles to advancing progressive normative agendas in the FAO and CFS context. Furthermore, it is essential to establish robust safeguards against conflicts of interest, by protecting the integrity of the policy process, by ensuring the trustworthiness of the knowledge and evidence that supports policy making, and ensuring the financial independence on public policy spaces.

Reconciling the tragic divorce of livestock and agriculture is still possible. To find the proper pathway, policy makers only need to appreciate from smallholders how livestock and agriculture are indeed made for one another. Public policies and investment that unambiguously support pastoral and smallholder mixed system can still recover such broken relationship and heal the health and environmental injuries that such divorce caused.


This article builds on the outcomes of the CFS 43 side event on “Livestock, Livelihoods and Food Security: Civil society responses to pressing equity, ecological and public health crises” organized by the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) of the CFS.

[1] Well described in the Indian context in “Understanding Livestock in context of Food Sovereignty: Challenges and Action” by Dr Sagari R Ramdas, Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements, 2013.

[2] See Prato, S. “SDG 2: Facilitating corporate capture or investing in small-scale sustainable agriculture and agroecology?”, Spotlight on Sustainable Development, 2018 https://www.2030spotlight.org/en/book/1165/chapter/2-facilitating-corporate-capture-or-investing-small-scale-sustainable-agriculture

[3] The CFS policy recommendations and the HLPE report can be downloaded from the CFS website: http://www.fao.org/cfs/home/products/en/

[4] Voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security (VGGT), CFS, 2012 http://www.fao.org/cfs/home/products/en/o.org/cfs/home/products/en/

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