Livestock production is growing faster than the capacity of nations to safely and responsibly manage it, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
In the latest edition of its flagship report, "The State of Food and Agriculture," the FAO says that while the rapid growth of the livestock sector is helping to improve human diets, it is also posing a threat to poor farmers, the environment and human health.
People in developing countries today are consuming nearly twice as much milk, more than three times as much meat and five times as many eggs as they did five decades ago, according to the FAO report. Meanwhile, consumption of cereals and root crops has been fairly flat. The higher intake of livestock products, the report says, is the result of rising population, urbanization and increasing affluence in many parts of the world.
Weak institutions, inadequate regulations
Livestock help improve human nutrition, provide income and serve as a safety net for many poor farmers. But the industry's expansion has come at a cost, according to FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
"In many parts of the world," he says, "the rapid growth and transformation has occurred in a setting of weak institutions and inadequate regulations. This has given rise to systemic risks affecting livelihoods, the environment as well as human and animal health."
The FAO report points to the growth of large-scale, industrial operations that have pushed some small producers and pastoralists to the margins. Bigger livestock herds are putting greater pressure on land resources and disrupting some ecosystems and the animals generate significant amounts of water and air pollution, including methane, a climate-changing greenhouse gas. Furthermore, livestock diseases, as well as food-borne and human diseases, are also mounting.
Problems beyond the developing world
The problems have not been limited to developing countries. Take, for example, the outbreaks of mad cow disease in Europe and swine flu in the United States. But Nicholas Minot at the International Food Policy Research Institute notes that these countries have relatively well-established regulatory systems to oversee livestock health, meat processing and food safety.
"The same problems exist in developing countries, but the institutional development of regulatory agencies lag[s] behind. And I think particularly given these high-profile disease outbreaks there is a tremendous interest in strengthening the diseases control and monitoring programs."
The FAO report says developing countries will need to strengthen disease control regulations, as well as improve environmental controls and minimize the dislocation of small farmers as the livestock industry continues to grow and concentrate into large-scale enterprises.
Finding the right balance
But FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem cautions that government regulators need to weigh the full spectrum of economic, environmental, social and health issues associated with livestock production.
"For example," he says, "if you're only looking at the economic aspects of livestock production, that might lead to producing in ways that are harmful to the environment or harmful to health. It's obvious. On the other hand, if you only look at the environmental impact, you can hurt people's livelihoods."
Ghanem says that as the demand for livestock products continues to grow, governments need to consider these competing objectives and find the right balance.