Developmental Agriculture: Livestock

This week our Wednesday insight into developmental agriculture focuses on the important roles of livestock in providing both labour and food. The author, Christine Freak, is a keen policy and practical developmental agriculture and economics aficionado with her own blog Grass Ceilings.


With all the talk about the stock market, we thought we better take a look at it – Livestock that is! Livestock are at the heart of developmental agriculture. They form the vehicle for agricultural growth in developing countries, whilst also being vital for social, economic and environmental systems.

Why are livestock so important?

1.3 billion people depend on livestock to support their livelihoods, which includes 600 million poor farmers.  The roles of livestock include:

  • Source of agricultural growth and income
  • Household consumption
  • Draught power for improved productivity
  • Manure production for fertiliser
  • Method of transportation to improve market access
  • Cultural identity
  • Store of wealth, form of collateral and economic safety net

The size of the beast

Livestock account for one-third of global agricultural GDP, and forms the largest single land usage globally! In fact, feed crops to support this sector account for one-third of arable land globally. The FAO also estimates that 80% of total agricultural land is dedicated to producing animal feed. This has many implications: animal feed demand, intensified production, market concentration in supply chains, farm incomes, land use, and human nutrition.


The sector is one of the fastest growing sectors of global agriculture – mostly driven by demand growth in emerging economies. In 2013, the livestock sector was estimated to consist of 1.6 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs, 2 billion sheep and goats, and 23 billion poultry birds.

Animal products account for 16% of total calories, 31% of dietary protein, and also contain essential micronutrients (iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A) which helps overcome public health concerns even in developed countries.

The growth of the livestock sector isn’t solely attributable to intensification of production. In India, for example, milk production increased from 78million tonnes (1999) to 116million tonnes (2009) with average herd sizes being only 3.3 head.

Livestock for Poverty Alleviation

Livestock provide both continual, seasonal and one-off sources of income for much of the world’s poor. The steady supply of by-products such as milk ensures short-term food security in local communities, which can enable people to be nutritionally able to seek employment. Ownership of livestock as a symbol of wealth has also been linked to increased employment and social standing. The sale of fertiliser, rental of draught power and by-products such as fuel also provides a continual stream of income. In the long term, sale of meat and hides spikes household incomes, presenting opportunities for re-investment.

Financially, livestock are a store of wealth, acting as a safety-net in times of extreme hardship. This is particularly essential in rural areas with limited access to banks and financial services. Livestock also act as collateral, enabling the poor to access small loans to begin larger investments for long-term poverty alleviation. In the most impoverished nations, animal traction enables mechanisation without draining foreign exchanges from importing machinery such as tractors from industrialised nations.

With mixed-method farming, livestock have multiple roles for intensification, diversification, mechanisation and expansion. This is from fertilisers increasing yields and market-value, improved soils, draught-power mechanisation, transportation for market access, weed control, and collateral to invest in technologies such as irrigation. Increased production leads to increased incomes, which in turn leads to increased consumption, creating a cycle of poverty alleviation.


Livestock (and livestock rearing programs) also present a number of challenges for the world’s poor: social stigma and wealth distribution, inappropriate technology transfers, access to markets, risk of disease, and a lack of knowledge transfer and extension services.

Livestock rearing also has costs globally: environmental degradation, deforestation, GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, costs of producing feed, and reduced water availability.

These costs must be considered alongside the benefits of livestock for both developed and developing communities. It is worth noting FAO estimates that 75% of animal feed is non-edible to humans. Ensuring these costs are minimised is vital to reaping the full benefits of the sector in the future.

Future Projections

Rapid growth in meat/dairy demand, particularly in Asia, presents opportunities and challenges for the livestock sector and poverty alleviation. Livestock provides an avenue out of poverty for many of the world’s poor (particularly small holder farmers), and provides increased and more stable incomes, more nutrient rich consumption patterns, increased productivity, employment opportunities and financial access.

Christine Freak

Sustainable agriculture and food security

With a population projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, feeding the world through sustainable agriculture is vital. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this growth will require global agriculture to increase in volume by 60% from 2005-07. So how can we do it?

Check out our weekly update and insight into developmental agriculture by GrassCeilings founder Christine Freak.

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Agricultural Development is defined by the FAO as “agricultural development that contributes to improving resource efficiency, strengthening resilience and securing social equity/responsibility of agriculture and food systems in order to ensure food security and nutrition for all, now and in the future”. This extends to food availability, access, utilisation and stability. Some predictions suggest the challenge of meeting rising demand for food will not be one of quantity, but of distribution and access.

Somewhat paradoxically, most of the world’s hungry are actually smallholder farmers themselves. Three quarters of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for income and livelihoods.

Adequate food has now been declared as a human right, and is central to Sustainable Development Goal 2 to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

Food security involves the triple burden:

  1. Malnutrition – as measured by dietary energy intake, and estimated to affect 792 million people worldwide;
  2. Micronutrient deficiencies – particularly iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc, which is estimated to affect two billion people;
  3. Overnutrition – which now affects more people than malnutrition!

Sustainable agriculture has been improved on a scientific level through the Green Revolution, with developments in high-yielding varieties (including drought resistant crops), improved irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides.  Alongside these benefits, the movement has also been met with a number of challenges, including biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, social inequalities, changing land prices, and the necessary skills not being transferred to the farmers themselves. This means an integrated approach is needed between farmers, consumers, governments, scientists and communities.

But the problem isn’t just quantity of food, but quality. On top of an adequate calorie intake, crop diversification is necessary to ensure proper nutrition, and micronutrient intake. This recognises “hidden hunger”, emphasising abilities of people to meet both energy and nutritional needs. In many parts of the Asia-Pacific, efforts are turning away from rice as a staple crop to varieties such as millets, sorghum and beans. Genetically modified crops, such as the bio-fortified sweet potato and ‘Golden Rice’ with high-levels of beta-carotene have been warmly welcomed to address vitamin A deficiencies in many parts of the world. But these efforts must also be met on the consumption side, with need to educate consumers on nutritional needs, and ensuring market access, availability and affordability.

This shows that agriculture has a vital role across the globe, which extends beyond farmers to scientists, policy-makers, economists, communities and everyday consumers of food like ourselves!

I want to be a farmer but I have no experience…

Sam Marwood is the Co-founder and Managing Director of Cultivate Farms. A service matching aspiring farmers to their dream farm.

The farming dream is lying dormant in thousands of Australian’s hearts. We know this because we have heard from these aspiring farmers who sit at their computers looking out onto concrete daydreaming of open spaces, dirt and grass.

But squashing that beautiful dream into the lonely corner of their minds are harsh realities that are scary, overwhelming and persistent.

In reality, these realities can be easily over come and we want to promote and shout and announce that FARMING CAN BE A REALITY FOR ANYONE.

Perspectives that need changing

  • I need >$1m
  • I need to have grown up on a farm
  • I need to know everything about farming
  • I don’t know where to start

I need >$1m

Not anymore you don’t. Farms are expensive and they will stay that way. But it doesn’t mean that you need to fork up all the cash. You can align with someone who has the money but they don’t have the skills or passion to run the farm.

Someone like an investor.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of people and organisations looking to buy farms everyday. Their need is to put someone on it that is clever and passionate. This person looks and sounds a lot like you.

We recommend you throw in some of your own cash as equity so it shows that you are dedicated to the cause, but it is no-where near the millions that most people think they need to get started.

I need to have grown up on a farm

Not anymore you don’t. This attitude implies that the only way you can own a farm is if you inherit. See the point above for that answer.

Therefore, if capital is no longer a barrier, then what is? Skill, passion, hard work and energy. These are open to anyone.

We can’t wait for the day that we start poaching baristas, butchers, builders and bankers as farmers. We want to place the best people in Australia onto the land. The best might be kids from the farm, but they could be from any walk of life.

There are heaps of courses and people that can help you get farm ready, build your skills, build your practical knowledge. With time and patience you can be just as good as any aspiring farmer out there.

Now that you know you don’t need the cash or the bloodline, you should start working on how you get your skills up to scratch. Maybe a few after work online courses or better use of your holidays on farms learning the trade.

I need to know everything about farming

You need to know a bit; not everything. Every farm we help to match we will ensure there are advisors helping you the whole way. Sure you need to have skills that will make the farm thrive, but you will also have the best along side you the whole way to make this path easier.

See the point above about getting your skills up – we highly recommend this – but also know that you should pick the field of farming that you are passionate about and learn all you can and get all the practical skills you can so that you will be more likely to be picked onto your dream farm.

I don’t know where to start

It’s a good point. Do you just drive into a country town and ask at the pub? That would actually be a good place – a bit intimidating – but it could work.

What you should do is get on your computer and Google. Trawl Facebook, twitter and Instagram. Read stories of farms, farmers and farm issues. Find out what you are passionate about and find out who you agree with in their farm practices and values. Then reach out to them. You have plenty of hours between 6pm and 2am to trawl the whole agriculture industry.

While you’re at it Google courses that you want to start. A great place to look is on TAFE websites but also The Farm Table

Also reach out to Cultivate Farms. We want to hear from you and back you all the way onto your farm. It might take 1-5 years to get you on your farm, but if you have passion it will definitely happen.

Edible Fuel. Who would have thought?

Sorghum – the new late night servo. Fill up your car and get a feed at the same time.

There are few people in history credited with saving billions of lives. Perhaps Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin or Marie Curie discovering X-Rays and their use in medicine to diagnose injuries, tumours and for irradiating cancers. Another man, Norman Borlaug is credited with preventing the death of over a billion people in Africa, avoiding severe famine and widespread malnutrition. He managed to accomplish this by manipulating the genetics of wheat, increasing its resistance to a disastrous disease called rust and by reducing the height of the plant with dwarfing genes. The dwarf varieties were more robust and higher yielding, owing to their stature and the reallocation of nutrients into the grain rather than the useless stem and leaves.

Now genes can be manipulated in a number of different ways. In our own bodies for example, carcinogens (cancer causing substances) such as asbestos, smoking and radiation exposure can damage the DNA within cells and cause detrimental mutations. The mutations cause the cell to rapidly divide and result in a cancerous tumour.

However, mutations are the fundamental component of evolution. Without random changes in the genetics of an organism and consequently the change in the observed characteristics there is no change in the survival rate. Now obviously beneficial mutations are incredibly rare but are present nonetheless.

Many plant breeders go in search of these benevolent mutations by applying plant-specific carcinogens or radiation doses to large numbers of seeds or plants. Seedless watermelons are one indirect example using a chemical that interrupts cell division and hence the number of genes in the seed. Atomic Gardening is another example of mutation breeding, whereby a strongly radioactive source (typically cobalt-60) is raised out of the ground and irradiates a whole orchard of trees or plants for a short period of time. Large chunks of DNA are mutated and eventually they managed to find a change with potentially marketable or beneficial characteristic. These products are all labeled GMO-free.

Of course the genetic make-up is also created by the mix of genes from the parent. That’s why we look half like our mum/dad, a quarter like our siblings and one eighth like our 1st cousins. The same goes for plants too. Plant breeders find wild types of the same species and incorporate traits such as hardiness, early vigour or disease resistance into the old line of plants.

Now on a brief side note, I’m sure many of us will appreciate that sweet taste that often accompanies chewing white bread. Now that is the remnant of an ancient virus that infected our ancestors when we were in a period of environmental change. Our diet was changing from tree based to open savannah and grain based foods with lots of starch. Those infected with the virus, known as an endogenous retrovirus, were able to pre-digest the starches and hence had an improved survivability than those without, even in the face of an infection. The viral DNA, like all endogenous retroviruses incorporated itself into the human genome and remains there today – digesting starch in the mouth into sugars, otherwise known as salivary amylase. Fun fact – rats are the only other mammal to also have salivary amylase. So why does this matter?

Well in plant breeding this concept of endogenous retroviruses is also used. Agrobacterium, a bacteria (not a virus but the principle remains) specific to plants is able to incorporate itself into the genome (in a modified fashion – a little like a vaccine), without disrupting the plant too much at all. In fact, much of plant DNA is made up of Agrobacterium DNA owing to the co-development arms race of plant and pathogen. This means that scientists can take advantage of this natural carrier and incorporate particular genes that are transferred into the cells and rearrange themselves into the DNA. Plant geneticists are able to insert really specific portions of DNA as opposed to the mass mutation in the prior example. They know exactly what is being adjusted and can observe the exact effect of any such change.

These insertions or deletions have paved the way for up to 95% reductions in pesticide usage in the Australian cotton industry, and within the next year or two we will be able to grow plants capable of producing highly potent omega three fatty acids, industrial-grade machine and hydraulic oil, and the co production of food and biofuel! All these discoveries are patented by the CSIRO too – not large chemical, or biotechnology companies. These plants will be able to mitigate the impacts of climate change, prevent further removal of fossil fuels whilst also providing us with nutritious energy and food. So if you had the option of digging up farming land for coal, destroying the seabed and high risk of oil spill or growing a field of yellow flowering plants (with the option of using chemicals or just tillage) producing both food and oil, which one would you choose?