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Leveraging Livestock Production Systems for Human Nutrition in Developing Countries

Written By

Ditty Maria Dominic and Hans Ram Meena

Submitted: October 5th, 2021 Reviewed: October 26th, 2021 Published: April 14th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.101399

Animal Husbandry Edited by Sándor Kukovics

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Animal Husbandry [Working Title]

Prof. Sándor Kukovics

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Livestock farming is a key sector that promotes socio-economic development in developing countries with around 600 million smallholders relying on it for livelihood. The multi-functionality of livestock production in the livelihoods of smallholders, from an income and input generating asset to a source of food and nutrition, is well known but less acknowledged. Though the concept of leveraging agriculture for nutritional goals is gaining importance, the evidence on the impact of nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions is sparse particularly in one of the major subsectors in agriculture like livestock. The current chapter discusses the potential of livestock farming systems to tap nutritional outcomes in developing countries where multiple forms of malnutrition are highly prevalent due to over-reliance on starch-based diet and other socio-economic and cultural factors. Thus, the chapter highlights the importance of animal source foods (ASF) in human nutrition, the pathways linking livestock and nutrition, the sustainability issues related to livestock production systems, and the way forward to exploit these systems as a tool for tackling malnutrition in the developing world.


  • livestock
  • nutrition
  • smallholders
  • developing countries
  • nutritional security
  • malnutrition

1. Introduction

Livestock, the world’s fastest-growing agricultural subsector is also a key sector that aids economic and social growth in developing countries. It has been a major livelihood strategy for more than 600 million smallholder farmers in these countries [1]. They consider livestock keeping as an important asset that not only contributes to income generation but also accounts as a major source of animal source food (ASF), agriculture input like manure, traction, and also a safety net during emergency situations or lean agricultural seasons. Along with livelihoods, livestock supports the food and nutrition security of around 1.3 billion smallholders and contributes about 40% of the global value of agricultural output in developing countries [2]. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions and studies have gained momentum in the past years though the impact evidence is scarce particularly in the livestock subsector. Various systematic literature reviews have acknowledged that livestock interventions have not yet effectively considered nutritional outcomes and that the number of studies assessing impact is even scarcer [3, 4, 5]. Considering its contribution to global gross domestic product (GDP), as well as being constituted by five of the 10 highest value commodities, the livestock sector can be used as an efficient tool for poverty elimination and achieving food and nutrition security in developing countries [6, 7]. Moreover, half of the world’s poor people rely on the sector for subsistence, as well as income, insurance, and food, hence increasing food security and nutrition without emphasising on livestock would be a missed opportunity [8, 9].

Around 1 billion people, which accounts for one seventh of humanity, in Africa and Asia depend on livestock production and marketing for livelihood [10]. Further, the potential of livestock production systems to achieve food and nutritional security is evident from the fact that 34% of protein and 18% of calories consumed globally is supplied from livestock production [11], and livestock production allows food production on 57% of the earth’s land that cannot be used for crop production [12]. Livestock can act as a transformative tool in the lives of the poor. It is a potential solution to tackle food and nutritional insecurity as well as poverty. Income generated from livestock can provide education, health, and other serviced necessary for the enhanced livelihood of the poor. But the challenge is to balance the positive and negative aspects of livestock production systems so that the advantages are fully realised while the negative effects on health and the environment are mitigated. This chapter elaborates on the potential of livestock for achieving improved human nutrition outcomes and its linkages to nutritional and health status by doing a critical analysis of the available literature on the topic.


2. Methodology

Considering the relevance of the topic, a thorough analysis of previous studies and works was done to obtain a comprehensive summary on the topic. The literature review surveyed research articles, books, short communications, conference papers, and other internet sources on the topic.


3. Animal source foods (ASF) and human nutrition

The main direct link of livestock to nutrition is through animal source foods (ASF), which are the inimitable source of high-quality proteins as well as bioavailable critical vitamins and minerals. This can be imperative in the diets of people in developing countries, which typically is carbohydrate dense and nutrient deficient and as evidence, these countries have the highest prevalence of anaemia in women [13]. The deficiency of micronutrients of which the ASF are abundant, like vitamin A, iron, iodine, zinc, B12, and folic acid, are very scarce in the diets of children and pregnant women and this causes poorer growth, cognitive disability, perinatal problems, and an increased risk of incidence and death. [14, 15]. Consumption of even relatively small amounts of animal-sourced foods contributes substantially to ensuring dietary quality [16]. For example, a woman would only have to eat about one eighth and over one third time as much liver and beef respectively as spinach to meet her daily iron needs [17]. Studies also report that animal-sourced diets are indeed the finest sources of essential nutrient-rich diet for children aged 6 months to 1 year [18]. Compared to plant foods, ASF provides more bioavailable vitamin A, vitamin D3, iron, iodine, zinc, calcium, folic acid, and necessary fatty acids, as well as higher quality protein [19, 20].


4. Evidence on the impact of ASF on human nutrition

Studies conducted worldwide provide strong evidence of the potential of ASF in improving nutrition especially in low-income and developing countries. Stunting and underweight which are indicators of chronic and acute malnutrition were reduced by 47–74%, respectively, in a randomised controlled experiment in Ecuador [21]. A study on children aged 6 months to 1 year from 49 countries found strong links between stunting and a generic ASF consumption indicator and concluded that consuming ASF was strongly related to child stunting [22, 23]. Supplementation of basal diets of Kenyan schoolchildren with small amounts of meat or milk increased their cognitive skills, leadership behaviour, physical activity, and initiative [24]. Iron-containing complementary foods like meat are especially important among infants who have insufficient iron stores or inadequate intake, as concluded in a recent systematic review [25]. Deficiencies of nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin A, iron, zinc, docosahexaenoic acid, and iodine, which are critical for neurological development are present in ASF, have been associated with brain-related disorders, including low-intelligence quotient, autism, depression, and dementia [26]. Dairy consumption improves bone health during childhood and adolescence and reduces the risk of osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes [27]. Though studies have clearly reported strong evidence on the positive impact of ASF on human nutrition, its consumption is not adequate in developing countries. Hence, more effort needs to be taken to promote its consumption.


5. Consumption pattern of ASF in developing countries

In developing countries, people consume a low amount of ASF which leads to developmental abnormalities, anaemia, decreased cognitive abilities, and weaker motor development as ASF is the only natural source of vitamin B12 [28]. According to WHO, low-income countries consume a lesser amount of ASF than developed nations. Inadequate access to animal-sourced foods is a major problem in developing countries. This is coupled with other factors like unavailability of ASF, lack of awareness about their prominence in the diet; as well as poverty, gender dynamics, taboos, and other socio-cultural factors. Unawareness of the importance of ASF in diets is an issue majorly among rural poor wherein diets are aimed at eradicating hunger rather than meeting nutritional requirements. This scenario is aggravated by the unaffordability of diets by the poor. According to the study conducted by researchers (for example, see [29]) in India, the milk consumption by rich households are around 7 and 3.3 times higher than poorer and poor households respectively. Also, the prices of ASF are higher than plant-based foods making it less affordable for the poor. In Ethiopia, the prices of ASF like egg, meat, and milk increased by 30% in the last decade compared to plant-based foods like tubers, roots, and cereals as per the findings of the study conducted by [30]. Religious and other social taboos further contribute to low consumption of ASF like most of the Hindus in India do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork due to religious beliefs. Some believe that if lower caste people eat ASF, animal productivity will decrease [31]. Studies [32] also report that gender bias in food allocation is another undeniable factor in low ASF consumption in developing countries. As per the meat consumption per capita and stunting rate estimates in different countries by OECD (for example, see [33]), there is a decreasing trend in the proportion of stunted children in various countries across the world with increasing per capita consumption of meat and developing countries had low per capita consumption of meat compared to developed countries. Although the ASF food consumption is generally low in developing and other low-income countries when compared to developed ones, studies predict that overall there will be a hike in per capita consumption of livestock products compared to other agricultural products and this change will be more evident in developing countries [34].


6. Pathways linking livestock and human nutrition

The agricultural nutrition impact pathway has been a subject of a study recently, one of the prominent frameworks is put forward by [35, 36]. Pathways specific to livestock and nutrition were put forward by Randolph et al.[37], and the risks in the pathways were identified by [38]. Also, Dominguez et al.[39] elaborated on a broad conceptual framework (see Figure 1) for hypothetical linkages between livestock keeping and human nutrition. According to the below framework, animal/livestock ownership has both beneficial and negative links to human health and nutrition. Role of livestock in sustaining rural economy: Roles and contributions of livestock can be classified into production function which is the direct production of food and non-food items; non-production function which is mainly as input provider; asset function wherein it acts as a source of income in an emergency situation; and sociocultural functions.

Figure 1.

Diagram of impact pathways through which livestock can affect nutrition. Pathways identified during the workshop ‘Livestock, livelihoods and human nutrition’, Senegal, November 2014. Adapted from Dominiguezet al.[39].

6.1 ASF pathway

It is regularly quoted that ‘livestock products provide one-third of humanity’s protein intake’; this broad estimate, based on FAOSTAT23 data, came from [40]. ASFs also offer a resilient source of nutrition during seasonal or climatic fluctuations in the availability of plant-sourced foods. As ASF are income elastic, the consumption of ASF by rural poor usually is supplied from their own production [41], and some studies done in Africa showed that livestock keepers are more likely to eat ASF than non-livestock keepers [42], although it is not always necessarily own-produced. For any effective intervention in improving nutrition through livestock, it is essential to thoroughly look into the linkage pathways between the two. Considering the positive links between livestock and human nutrition, the major linkage pathways are an increase in income, increased availability and accessibility of ASFs, provision of inputs like manure, traction, etc., and women empowerment. The direct pathway through which livestock contributes to human nutrition is by providing ASFs that improve the diets of livestock rearing households. The role of ASF in human nutrition and its importance in diets are clearly discussed in the previous sections.

6.2 Income pathway

The contribution of livestock to household income ranges widely, from 2% to more than 33% in a number of developing countries [43]. It is assessed that more than 80% of poor Africans and up to 66% of poor people in India and Bangladesh keep livestock [44]. Thus, livestock as a source of income and employment is one of the other major impact pathways. According to studies [44], ASFs are income elastic, which means their consumption increases with an increase in income. ASFs are normally associated with wealth as higher income households eat more ASF than poor households [45]. Income from livestock can be through sale, employment, and insurance. Livestock is generally called the savings bank on hooves of smallholder farmers. Livestock function as insurance policies and bank accounts in many parts of the developing world [46]. The capitalisation of underutilised family labour, assets like manure, draft power that can be either used or sold also contributes to the income in an indirect way. As per the data of the international labour organisation, the livestock sector contributes to 60–70% of employment in developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. Thus, being a potential sector that provides employment to a larger section of society livestock sector enhances the income provides security in emergency situations through insurance, which eventually improves the diets of people by positively influencing their dietary choices and other medical and educational needs.

6.3 Women empowerment pathway

Another major pathway from livestock to nutrition is through women empowerment. Gender bias in food and nutrition security is a much-researched topic recently. Women in households are more prone to food and nutrition insecurity than men, which ultimately causes them nutrient deficiency and non-communicable diseases like anaemia [47]. Studies show that, globally, malnourished people decrease by 100–150 million with women’s access to inputs and services. Women’s income is found to be spent on their family’s nutrition [48]. In developing countries, poultry and small ruminants are often owned by women, the income from which makes them more empowered and their families more nutritionally secure [49]. Women play a critical role in livestock rearing in developing countries, they are often the ones responsible for feeding and care and are the guardians of livestock diversity. Improving women’s access to inputs and services has the potential to reduce the number of malnourished people in the world by 100–150 million [50, 51]. Being a non-seasonal source of income and considering the higher involvement of women in this sector, livestock keeping has undisputable potential to empower women as it gives them access to resources and choice of better diets and health practices [52]. Thus, women’s empowerment through livestock is important for their as well as future generations’ empowerment in nutrition.

6.4 Adverse pathways

Livestock can also have an effect on food security by spreading diseases to people via carriers such as biting flies and contaminated animal source foods; these diseases reduce people’s productivity by limiting their capacity to produce food or labour to earn money to buy food. With 13 major zoonotic illnesses killing 2.2 million people per year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries [53], livestock has a considerable impact on human nutrition and health. Livestock keeping may also increase the probability of zoonotic disease or indirectly affect human health through contamination of water bodies which are the negative influences. Some of the most common diseases in humans, such as measles, influenza, and diphtheria, have always been transferred by the animals they owned, a phenomenon is known as the ‘fatal gift of livestock’ [54]. Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED)—an important risk factor for stunting—is associated with chronic inflammation in the intestines of young children and asymptomatic infections by diverse enteric pathogens including those present in livestock manure [55].

In developed and developing countries alike, antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, often associated with the intensification of production systems, are commonly found in animals, animal food products, and agro-food environments [56]. Additionally, women are more at risk of zoonotic diseases because they are more likely to be exposed and maybe particularly vulnerable [57]. Much of the existing burden and danger may indeed be reduced if better disease control technology and institutions were used, as well as investments in zoonosis control innovations. Increased consumption of animal-derived foods, on the other hand, may increase the risk of food-borne illness or the emergence of chronic diseases, both of which would have a detrimental influence on human nutrition. Overconsumption of foods of animal origin can have a negative influence on human health and well-being, affecting both entire societies and households. Overeating fatty red meats and hard cheeses, which contain more saturated fats, can cause cardiovascular disease, while excessive eating of processed meats like bacon and ham has been linked to several cancers [58]. Increased intake of high-energy meat, milk, and eggs contributes to global obesity as well. The physical activity in livestock rearing is much higher causing higher energy expenditure and ultimately affecting nutrition and health. Other than this competition of natural resources like land, water, and other agricultural products are other factors that can negatively influence nutrition. Recently the lack of sustainability of livestock production systems is also been widely discussed considering the ill effects on the environment. But facts need to be checked before de-promoting livestock production and consumption of ASF based on the sustainability criteria. This is discussed in the below section.


7. Livestock production and sustainability

The sustainability of livestock production systems is questioning the potential of livestock production systems for nutrition in recent times. Researchers have called for reducing the environmental cost per unit of livestock considering the current damage caused by the drastic growth in livestock production [59, 60]. Livestock manure produces 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Livestock account for 37% of all human-induced methane production—and the warming effect of methane is 23 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Sustainability valuation of livestock food systems is generally based on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But to get a clear picture of the GHG emission scenario we need to thoroughly examine the sector-wise contribution to GHG emission globally. The world emits around 50 billion greenhouse gases each year. According to the data of World Resources Institute, over three quarters of emissions originate from energy usage, nearly one fifth from agriculture and land use (which rises to one quarter when we examine the entire food system—including processing, packaging, transport, and retail), and the rest 8% from industry and waste [see Figure 2]. GHG emission is 12–18% from the animal source foods production systems wherein the benefits offered by whole livestock production systems in agriculture, nutrition, health, and other sectors are completely ignored. The overlooked fact is that these benefits counterpoise the greenhouse gas emissions, which have declined over the years due to the improved livestock management practices [61].

Figure 2.

Sector-wise GHG emissions. Source: Climate Watch, World Resources Institute, 2016.

If we consider the nutrient-rich products derived from livestock production systems which are essential for human health and well-being, the problem of unsustainability like the generation of larger carbon footprints is well balanced [62]. Also, livestock systems contribute to global sustainability by providing various ecosystem services as reported by studies which found that grazing lands has lower greenhouse gas emission or more carbon sequestration than the same land converted for crop production [63] and net accumulation of soil carbon or sink of greenhouse gases was greatest when grassland was converted to silvo-pastures combining trees, forage, and livestock [64]. Furthermore, forage crops make land unfit for cultivation more productive as 57% of forage lands worldwide, are non-cultivable [65]. Also, livestock feeds 86% of products that are inedible by humans like industrial by-products, crop residues, and grasses or fodder, which is then converted into high-value ASF contributing to health and incomes with the bonus of evading environmental pollution from burning or dumping the residues and by-products [66]. Thus, the sustainability of livestock production systems needs to be analysed based on all these facts rather than a one-sided view.


8. Conclusion

Properly managed livestock can play a role in addressing malnutrition. Greater integration between the livestock and nutrition sectors is necessary to ensure livestock livelihoods and animal-sourced foods contribute to fighting malnutrition. The contribution of the livestock sector to a sustainable food system cannot be overlooked as it converts a significant million tons of useless by-products from agro-industrial sectors into livestock feeds, thus reducing waste and environmental pollution while contributing to food production alongside. These aspects are often overlooked in discussions about livestock and sustainability [67] that received global attention and unfortunately catalysed widely-circulated non-scientific media calling for less ASF consumption in order to save the planet [68]. This highlights the fundamental problem of advocating dietary change towards less ASF consumption [69] —it is an unbalanced view of sustainability that does not adequately address the needs of the most vulnerable. This emphasises the need for significant additional investments in research and development to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from livestock systems, particularly from the ruminant production systems that contribute the most emissions. Infectious diseases at the animal-human interface are highly dynamic and livestock are a major source of zoonotic diseases. Minimal success has been achieved in the control of these infectious diseases in developing countries especially, resulting in a high burden of human gastrointestinal disease [70]. The risks of zoonotic diseases like environmental enteric dysfunction (EED), antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, highlight the need for improved management practices to increase food safety and mitigate disease risks from livestock. Finally, overconsumption of certain ASF may increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes [71]. Thus, while efforts should be made to increase consumption of ASF among the poorest, the general goal needs to emphasise moderation in ASF consumption and adherence to recommended daily intakes [72].


9. Way forward

Though the importance of livestock in the human nutrition domain is a well-established fact, the major attention and focus have been on the adverse effect of livestock production in recent studies, which skews the current discussion. But the other side of the coin is that these studies focus on the livestock production systems in high-income countries that cater the overconsumption there. This neglects global attention on the outlook and necessities of a large number of undernourished people in developing and underdeveloped countries, among whom adequate ASF consumption could prevent malnourishment, health, and development problems. The impact of low ASF consumption on the lives and futures of nutritionally vulnerable people, women, and children, must be considered for the planet’s sustainability—a point of view that is sometimes overlooked or underrepresented in scientific studies or heated debates over the effects of livestock production on sustainability. What is also missing is an understanding of how low the consumption of ASF is among the poor, particularly in low to middle income country (LMIC), where starch-based diets are typical. Nutritional, genetic, health, and management measures have been developed by animal scientists to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30%. Hence, one of the important answers for guaranteeing the sustainability of animal production systems is to develop sustainable diets that are lucrative, ethically and socio-culturally appropriate, and ecologically responsible. Consequently, future research on sustainable ASF diets should focus on both animal physiology and farmer behaviours in order to establish a holistic, dynamic, and adaptable conceptual framework [73].



We thank the head of the department of dairy extension, ICAR-NDRI, and colleagues who provided insights and expertise that greatly assisted the completion of this chapter.


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Written By

Ditty Maria Dominic and Hans Ram Meena

Submitted: October 5th, 2021 Reviewed: October 26th, 2021 Published: April 14th, 2022