Livestock can support economic and food security, professor argues

By Richmond Frimpong

October 8, 2019

Massive investment is needed to bolster the livestock sector in developing countries, says Dr. Max Rothschild of the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University.

Nearly 1.3 billion people are estimated to depend directly on livestock for their livelihoods, including 1 billion rural poor. Additionally, more than 3.5 million children annually die from under-nutrition across the globe. There is growing evidence that babies need access to animal-source foods to achieve adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, prompting Rothschild’s urgent call for accelerated investment in the livestock sector in developing countries, particularly Africa.

He is worried per capita consumption of livestock in developing countries is only one-third that of developed countries, in part due to “woefully inadequate” investment that is hastening the decline in livestock production on the African continent.

It is important for aid agencies and NGOs to fully understand the role livestock play in nutrition, economic development and gender engagement in these countries and contribute towards it, Rothschild said. They are a crucial asset and safety net for the poor, especially for women and pastoralist groups.

Progress in these areas is crucial to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, he said, and it is incumbent upon the world to consider allocating more funds toward the livestock sector in developing countries.

The veteran animal professor made the call during a recent presentation to the Cornell Alliance for Science 2019 Global Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University.

Rothschild revealed that the market value of Africa’s animal-source foods could grow from about US$37 billion in 2019 to some US$151 billion by 2050 — if governments and the private sector are committed to making that a reality.  However, he noted that developing countries have to embrace modern methods of animal breeding, including genetic engineering, if they are to meet their citizenry’s growing demand for animal-source food.

Modern animal genetics involve a mixture of modern animal breeding and molecular genetics, including selection, crossbreeding, gene mapping and identification, marker assisted selection and genomic prediction.

Rothschild, who is also a co-leader of the Global Food Security Consortium, urged leaders of developing countries to first take stock of the value of livestock to their economies and to the health of their people, and then invest in the sector.

Touching on why donors are not willing to support investment in the livestock sector, he described the problem as a complex one. Many donors have limited resources for agriculture, which they tend to mostly direct toward crop production because they think that is the fastest way to feed people.

But if leaders of developing countries prioritize livestock production, he said, it would go a long way toward achieving food and economic security and ensuring better nutrition, as well as improving value chains that will further strengthen the economy.

“We all know the significant contribution the livestock sector plays in our economies, yet there is no political will by the leaders of these countries and no interest is also shown by investors and donors,” Rothschild said.

Livestock could also produce manure for crops and power in rural areas. However, he identified bad roads and poor transport system as a major challenge underpinning the livestock markets in the developing world.

In Ghana, the New Patriotic Party has taken a gigantic approach to revolutionize the ailing livestock sector by distributing 40,500 sheep and goats, 38,000 pigs, 258,000 cockerels and over 660,000 guinea fowls to livestock farmers and would-be farmers throughout the country.

That effort notwithstanding, the whole livestock sector needs a holistic approach, with a common goal of resolving undernutrition and unemployment in the country.

Rothschild noted that the genetic and genomic revolution is the surest way for transforming the livestock industry in developing countries. He argued that genomic evaluation has dramatically changed dairy cattle breeding in America and other developed countries.

Richmond Frimpong is a Ghana journalist and 2019 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow.