Animals in the Nexus
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Nexus Blog // Animals in the Nexus

Solutions should meet consumption needs, but do so in an environmentally sustainable way.

Animal production requires large amounts of natural resources and has an important role in food security. It is one of the hotspots in the water, energy and food security nexus. But technological solutions solely aimed at increasing production per unit of input run the risk of missing the fact that animals are breathing, living, sentient creatures and that livestock is an important source of livelihoods for millions.

Global animal production is a key freshwater user and requires about 2,422 Gm3 of water per year, mostly for the production of feed. An estimated 12% of the global consumption of groundwater and surface water for irrigation is for feed, not for food, fibres or other crop products. Per tonne of product, animal products generally have a larger water footprint than crop products. Water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses. For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than for pulses. The projected increase in the production and consumption of animal products is likely to put further pressure on the globe's freshwater resources.

Animal production also has an important role in food security, both positive and negative. On the one hand, animal products are rich sources of protein and of micronutrients. Conversely, and according to the latest 2011 figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), one third of the global production of cereals and as much as 65% of coarse grains is to feed livestock, particularly in rapidly expanding industrial animal production systems. A recent report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security highlights the significant expansion in the production of animal products and its associated demands on cereal stocks and freshwater reserves, particularly in industrial production systems. It recommends, notably in developed countries, that the consumption of livestock products should be questioned and the external costs of industrial agriculture be further researched.

Livestock has a huge potential to lift people out of poverty, as the experience "Operation Flood" in India demonstrates. The sector employs 1.3 billion people and about 1 billion of the world's poorest people depend on animals for food, income, transport and financial security. But the path of intensification in livestock production in the last decades has not always been a good deal for the planet's resources, livestock keepers, consumers and the animals themselves. According to the Red Cross, the world now has more people dying of obesity than malnutrition. The FAO confirms that we have enough food to feed the current population but we fail to achieve food security. The issues are more to do with what we use crops and land for, and access and distribution rather than increasing yields per se. to feed the world and lift people out of poverty.

Scientific research shows how development of more intensified livestock production is leading to high levels of animal ill health (such as lameness and respiratory disorders) and the prevention of basic animal behaviours such as exercise, the ability to forage for food or even to stretch their wings (in the case of laying hens confined in battery cages) or turn around (in the case of breeding pigs).

Policy implications

The fate of farm animals is inextricably linked to the fate of the planet and livestock keepers. That is why the welfare of animals should be included all discussions related to the future of food and farming. This means putting animal welfare at the heart of the Commission on Sustainable Development's (CSD) policy recommendations and work programme, before, during and after the Rio +20 events. The World Society for the Protection of Animals is taking four recommendations to Rio +20.

~Develop policies for sustainable food supplies

~Manage the challenges of growth in demand for farm animal products and support producers in transition to humane systems

~ Promote research and development to support humane and sustainable agriculture

~Phase out subsidies and investment for unsustainable, inhumane systems and encourage those that enable the development of humane sustainable agriculture

Vicki Hird

is a leading analyst and strategist on food, agriculture and environment policy. She advises WSPA on its farm animal welfare project and provides specialist advice to other global and UK NGOs. Contact: {}

Sofia Parente

is Programmes Manager, Humane and Sustainable Agriculture, at WSPA. She is currently coordinating research to support making the case for animal welfare in the big food debates of our time such as climate and environment and the ability to feed the world. Contact: {}

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