Sustainable livestock systems: making informed decisions using environmental indicators

Better measures are needed to support a shift towards more sustainable livestock systems in low-and middle-income countries. Where can we begin?

By Frances Ryan

Livestock systems and their related emissions are popular topics in the climate change discourse. We know livestock production in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) can become more efficient and generate fewer emissions, per unit of meat, milk and eggs. We also know that such production should be equitable and fair for the people involved. Good data can help us assess the state of livestock systems and monitor the transition towards more sustainable livestock systems. And while a wide array of environmental indicators already exist to track progress towards sustainability in agriculture and other sectors, these may not be suitable for providing an understanding of sustainable livestock systems in LMICs. Consequently, to demonstrate this transition, the way we produce and use livestock and environment data may need to change.

Why measure sustainability in livestock systems?

Agricultural systems place multiple pressures on our climate and contribute to environmental concerns such as air and water pollution, biodiversity and land degradation. Globally, food systems contribute to over a third of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if the whole supply chain such as transportation is considered. At the agricultural level, livestock contributes to about 14.5 percent of all human-induced GHG emissions. At the same time, agriculture, including livestock systems, is highly vulnerable to climate impacts such as droughts, floods and extreme heat.

At the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021, countries set targets, plans and pledges for mitigating agricultural emissions and adapting food systems. Countries have pledged (but not yet fully paid) $USD 100 billion of climate finance to support the transition to ‘net-zero’ in all sectors of the economy including agriculture. However, the livestock sector in LMICs face hurdles in accessing these funds.

In order to truly reflect the environmental status of the livestock sector, whether to funders, governments, or UN bodies, it is important that environmental indicators can identify needs and measure impact. These indicators can help contribute to a clear rationale of how the livestock sector can operate sustainably and adapt.

Current metrics do not best reflect livestock systems in LMICs

Emissions from the livestock sector have dominated current environmental discourse, but these arguments are mainly rooted in data from high-income countries .Livestock systems in LMICs have been largely neglected in discussions. But there are vast differences in emissions depending on production systems and species type.

Global average emissions intensities (Ei) for different livestock products
Global average emissions intensities (Ei) for different livestock products (a), and regional variation (b & c). SR = small ruminants. CO2 eq stands for carbon dioxide equivalents; a measure of total GHGs using the functionally equivalent amount of
carbon dioxide Data from FAO modelling using GLEAM15. Source: Salmon et al. 2018.


Globally, proteins and nutrients from animal sources play a significant role in sustaining human health and nutrition, especially in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), where animal sourced products can provide micronutrients not bioavailable through cereals. Despite this, sustainability indicators do not usually acknowledge the critical importance of livestock to incomes or the critical provision of protein and micronutrients for human nutrition that is provided by livestock in LMICs.

For LMICs, unlike higher income countries, livestock also play a meaningful role in societies and livelihoods, for example for traction, savings, investment and cultural ceremonies, although these uses are not typically valued under GDP. These wider benefits are also not incorporated into standard emissions calculations at present. Furthermore, livestock sustainability indicators use GHG emission factors that are not representative of LMIC systems.

Consequently, mainstream sustainability measures and indicators may misrepresent the environmental impact of livestock systems in LMICs. Going forward, how can we best use livestock and environment data to help provide an understanding of the environment in LMICs?

Better indicators for low-and middle-income countries

How do we start to measure progress towards more sustainable livestock systems in LMICs? There is a bewildering array of environment indicators and there are even journals dedicated to Ecological and Environmental Sustainability. International bodies, government and research groups currently use environmental indicators to measure changes in climate and air quality, water, soil biodiversity and land use. To date, more attention has been given to the assessment of crops rather than livestock, and so broader progress is needed to help understand the implications for livestock and the environment in LMICs.

A big challenge is how to demonstrate or quantify the interactions between livestock systems and the environment in response to an intervention. This challenge is multiplied within systems that are also in flux and facing environmental change. For example, livestock efficiency can be improved but at the same time, livestock heat stress (exacerbated by climatic change) can affect the health and productivity of animals themselves, reducing the feasible production and also incomes. As another example, it has been found that for GHG livestock interventions there can be confounding challenges where these interventions occur alongside each other.

With change comes trade-offs: how do we balance the different effects? We need indicators to make more informed decisions about sustainability, but it is tricky to devise and populate metrics that appropriately capture the scene. As it is impossible to measure each and every change on the ground, we need to make smart choices about what can we model or assume.

Next Steps

This is a work in progress. We know that environmental indicators play a key role in helping us benchmark, provide context and direction. However, we also know that there are environmental trade-offs and the focus on one dimension of environmental sustainability could unintentionally neglect other system impacts. Going forward, SEBI-Livestock is exploring the landscape of indicators to better understand the utility of indicators to the livestock community.

Environmental indicators could be ‘contextual’ and account for livestock and the general space in which the livestock exists, for example: changes in land use and ecosystem pressures at a national level. Other environmental indicators can evaluate specific localised, system changes and project interventions. As a starting point, these could specifically measure a system, using production indicators (input-output) as an environmental measure for example. Any indicators used would need to be mindful of the environmental trade-offs and other implications for the livestock sector. The climate crisis has given rise to the development of ‘climate indicators’, which are a branch of environmental indicators that reflect physical changes. This further enlarges the number of indicators that are potentially available to assess livestock systems. However, there is a fine balance between getting the optimum number and measuring wider sustainability in a robust manner. Given this challenge, we continue to work on this—watch this space!

Further reading

Dr Frances Ryan is a Researcher with SEBI-Livestock, based at the University of Edinburgh. SEBI-Livestock facilitates the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) network

Header photo: Scientists studying livestock and climate change collect gas samples at the Mazingira research facilities at ILRI in Kenya. Photo: S. Kasyoka (ILRI) (source)