Benefits of sustainable livestock production


It is well known that global population is still growing and it is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that this will increase the demand for high quality protein such as meat.

Livestock sector is the largest user of natural resources with 80% of all agricultural land used for grazing or animal feed production and 8% of the global water use.

The European Union (EU) has to address a challenge due to it is necessary to produce larger quantities of high quality and affordable meat in response to an increasing global demand while making that production systems are sustainable from environmental, social and economic points of view.

The EU livestock sector is the largest in the world and it accounts for 48% of total EU agricultural activity with an estimated €130bn output value annually and creates employment for almost 30 million people. Moreover, the livestock sector supports the livelihoods in rural areas.

Sustainable livestock farming

Sustainable development is the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.


An environmental sound livestock system is one that should address to:

  • Adoption of practices and technologies for more efficient use of natural resources per unit of animal food produced whilst maintaining or increasing production.
  • Improve environmental impacts including emission intensity of greenhouse gas via improved production efficiency and decrease air, water and soil pollution.
  • Use efficient grazing systems and maintaining or enhancing biodiversity.

The social responsibility component of sustainability includes:

  • Improving and maintaining the societies and communities where livestock food products are produced.
  • Safeguarding the health, well-being and social rights of workers, farm managers and their families.
  • Guaranteeing food safety and public health and improving animal health and welfare.

Farm animals depend on human care and it is society’s responsibility to respect their welfare. According to the Five Freedoms the ideal state to strive for is that farm animals should be free from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury and disease, fear and stress and they should be free to express normal behaviour.

Reducing losses due to animal mortality and morbidity could greatly improve the supply and access to animal protein. Currently, 20% of annual livestock production is lost because of animal diseases. Animal health plans should address prevention, control, treatment, and eradication of existing and emerging diseases.

Food production must be economically viable: farmer and other food chain stakeholders must be able to prosper and to sustain investment, while consumers need access to quality food that is affordable. From an economic point of view, sustainable livestock farming systems are characterised by:

  • Enabling economically viable food production along the food chain.
  • Ensuring farm operations obtain a fair share of the profits achieved in the food chain.
  • Supporting the ability of livestock producers to invest in sustainability improvements.

There are different pathways to more economically viable livestock production. From incentives that foster innovation adoption, to consolidation strategies, increasing productivity efficiencies, a fair distribution of profits along the food chain, economies of scale, focus on producing high quality, value-added products as well as production insurance.

Policy recommendations

A sustainable livestock system cannot be implemented without constant innovation and it can also not be implemented in isolation but should bring together the views of policymakers and relevant stakeholders while being supported by informed consumer choices. It must also be noted that policy choices should seek for balance among the different pillars of sustainability. The following policy actions are recommended in order to achieve more sustainable livestock farming systems:


  1. Improve the impact of livestock on the environment and climate
    • Support the adoption of best practices and innovative tools for improving resource efficiency and reducing environmental impacts.
    • Focus EU efforts in regions with the most nitrogen and phosphorus surplus to further improve environmental impacts and share best approaches.
    • Effectively implement current EU legislation and improve coherence among different food-related policy instruments, taking into account the three pillars of sustainability.
  2. Foster innovation in R&D, policy, and at the farm, as well as a knowledge-based livestock sector:
    • Maintain and increase public-private partnerships for R&D and investment in the livestock sector.
    • Set up an enabling and predictable policy environment, including science-based decision-making for the assessment and adoption of innovation, including emerging technologies in livestock production.
  3. Improve and sustain animal health and welfare
    • Encourage EU-wide implementation of comprehensive animal health and welfare plans on the farm.
    • Safeguard pan-European access to a wide range of veterinary medicines to keep animals healthy, minimise losses due to disease, and for better viability of animals.
  4. Maintain high living standards for farmers and the livestock supply chain while keeping animal protein products affordable for consumers
    • Stimulate the attractiveness of livestock farming and help guarantee good working conditions, positive financial prospects, and access to resources, training and education.
    • Develop policies to make food production viable for farmers and affordable for consumers through the use of research, innovation, investment, capacity-building and knowledge transfer.
    • Enhance the competitiveness of the EU livestock sector on the world market.
  5. Enable consumers to make sustainable choices
    • Work with stakeholders and consumer representatives to co-develop and validate scientifically reliable easy-to-understand information on food and nutrition security, as well as, sustainability and innovation in livestock production.
    • Partner with international organisations and all relevant stakeholders to enhance knowledge an understanding of welfare related practices in livestock production.
    • Set up a structured and continuous dialogue between policymakers and stakeholders, including consumers, on identifying ways for improving the sustainability of livestock

This post is a summary from the policy paper: “Sustainable livestock production in Europe: A question of food security, climate and innovation” (

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