CGIAR / ILRI / Livestock Systems / Opinion piece / Pro-Poor Livestock / Research

Where distinctions matter: Differentiating global livestock systems and regions ‘essential’

For the November 2011 ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ event at ILRI, some senior ILRI staff were provoked to chime in on the need to differentiate research data, results and messages about livestock production systems …

Map of levels of meat consumed in the world

Map showing differences in the levels of meat consumed in the world (map by Worldmapper).

What set off ILRI’s staff are some recent publications—including one on livestock production systems in use around the world published by ILRI jointly with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Regarding the FAO-ILRI report Global Livestock Production Systems, which a piece posted earlier on this blog described with the title ‘Taking stock: Global livestock production systems are (finely and finally) differentiated’, ILRI systems analyst Mario Herrero takes issue with the blog title, saying: ‘Well . . . there’s still a long way to go to have them “finely and finally differentiated”, but this is an advance.’

What Herrero is pointing to is, until recently, a general disregard in the scientific literature covering livestock systems for the great diversity of those systems.

With no differentiation made between developed and emerging and developing regions, or between very different kinds of livestock systems, from factory farming to family farming, recommendations tend to be so generalized as to be of limited use,’ says Philip Thornton, a colleague of Herrero’s at ILRI.

Herrero says that to reduce poverty while increasing food supplies and maintaining functional ecosystems will require ‘differentiated and nuanced policies able to assess the trade-offs between agro-ecosystem services and human well-being. . . . [and] that governments and donors, together with scientists and other stakeholders, precisely target technological, investment, and policy options to suit different farming systems and regions. . . .’

Her’s a bit more on the need for ‘differentiation’ and ‘nuance’ in the livestock literature.

Jimmy Smith, director general of ILRI: ‘We should seek to make clear that there is difference between those who eat too much and those who eat too little. For development actors there is no moral equivalent between those who have no choice of food and those who make poor choices.’

ILRI director Shirley Tarawali: ‘I find that many scientific studies reporting on livestock issues fail to appropriately differentiate very different contexts. On the other hand, in our arguing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” way to produce livestock, we also have to make sure that we don’t end up with differentiation so complicated that it’s impractical! But much of what I read about how to feed the world appears unaware that many of those who are hungry are also those who are growing crops, raising animals and balancing a multitude of risks just to survive. Just producing more food will not ensure the hungry are fed. The contrast between those having choices and those who have none, as Jimmy Smith mentions, should not be underestimated. For the millions of the world’s smallholders, the trajectory that mixed crop-livestock systems (and some pastoral ones) will take in future is not yet determined—and herein is both our challenge and our opportunity.’

ILRI systems analyst Philip Thornton: ‘Global analyses that lump livestock production systems together may be useful if their object is to stimulate debate but they not very useful from a scientific perspective. Where we need to get to in this kind of work, I think, and where some ‘systems thinking’ groups at ILRI and elsewhere are headed, is to be able to answer questions such as: What specifically should governments and people be doing in specific places and circumstances? The decisions need to be guided by the specific costs and benefits of taking different approaches in different contexts. And those costs and benefits need to be analyzed in terms of, for example, macro- and micro-economic indicators, sustainability indicators, and food security indicators.’

ILRI systems analyst Mario Herrero: Many scientific papers from the global change community get developed without any input from livestock scientists or any differentiation of livestock systems in use around the world. The good news is that ILRI has managed to convince some of the biggest and most influential groups studying global change that such differentiation is essential, especially when it comes to livestock systems. Globally aggregated analyses are simply too coarse to tell us much. A series of papers on livestock and global change, soon to be published in a special issues of the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should go some way toward redressing this, with all the information reported being differentiated by type of livestock production, region and so on. Having said that, generating globally consistent datasets from different angles (biomass, nutrients, water, impacts of climate change, etc.) has taken far more time than we anticipated. Still, this special issue of PNAS is looking to be a landmark product, like a missing link.’

We’d like to know what you think. Give us your thoughts in the Comment box below this blog.

Find more on the topic of differentiation in the following publications.

Livestock Science: Pathways for sustainable development of mixed crop livestock systems: Taking a livestock and pro-poor approach, by Shirley Tarawali, Mario Herrero, Katrien Descheemaeker, Elaine Grings and Michael Blümmel, 139 (2011) 11–21: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.livsci.2011.03.003

Livestock Science: Sustaining intensification of smallholder livestock systems in the tropics, by John McDermott , Steve Staal, Ade Freeman, Mario Herrero and Jeanette Van de Steeg, 130 (2011) 95–109: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.livsci.2010.02.014

Global livestock production systems, by TP Robinson, PK Thornton, G Franceschini, RL Kruska, F Chiozza, A Notenbaert, G Cecchi, M Herrero, M Epprecht, S Fritz, L You, G Conchedda and L See, 2011, Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), 152 pp.

ScienceSmart investments in sustainable food production: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems, 12 Feb 2010, and a previous ILRI News Blog story about the Science paper: New investments in agriculture likely to fail without sharp focus on small-scale ‘mixed’ farmers, 12 Feb 2010.

Contributed by Mario Herrero, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Tarawali and Philip Thornton.


On 9 and 10 November 2011, the ILRI Board of Trustees hosted a 2-day ‘liveSTOCK Exchange’ to discuss and reflect on livestock research for development. The event synthesized sector and ILRI learning and helped frame future livestock research for development directions.

The liveSTOCK Exchange also marked the leadership and contributions of Dr. Carlos Seré as ILRI Director General. See all posts in this series / Sign up for email alerts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s