Fact Check 1: Livestock and Livelihoods

Full Citation

Salmon, Gareth. 2018. Fact Check 1: Livestock and Livelihoods. Livestock Fact Check. Supporting Evidence Based Interventions (SEBI), University of Edinburgh. 

Do livestock support the livelihoods of around one billion poor people globally?

Numerous publications refer to ‘one billion’ poor people whose livelihoods depend on livestock. In the majority of cases, the fact gives scale to the importance of livestock to the world’s poorest populations1-3. However, the fact is often quoted without clear provenance1, or with reference to another source using the fact, rather than the original calculating source2

Where does the fact originate? 

The commonly quoted ‘one billion’ can be traced back to a figure calculated in 1999 by a group called ‘Livestock in Development’, they estimated 987 million smallholder farmers were dependent on livestock1. This calculation was based on global livestock keeper agroecological distribution, reported by Seré and Steinfeld in 19964, and poverty statistics from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 19975. Seré and Steinfeld had based livestock keeper distributions on 1991-93 data from AGROSTAT, now called FAOSTAT6; whilst the UNDP poverty statistics used a composite measure of poverty, with information cited as “correspondence on the Gini coefficient” from the World Resources Institute in 1996. No further information about this correspondence could be ascertained.

Is the fact up-to-date and relevant? 

Effectively, the ‘one billion’ figure is based on an 19-year-old calculation, using information from 22-year-old publications, which refer to statistics up to 27 years old. Since 1999 the global population has grown from 6.1 to 7.6 billion6; with growth, concentrated in Low to Middle Income countries, unlikely to slow anytime soon7. In addition, the global definition of ‘poor’ is dynamic. For instance the World Bank’s dollar-a-day indicator, tracking the “the share of individuals that have to live on less than an absolute minimum”, has been adjusted three times since its conception in 19908. Therefore, any recalculation is unlikely to give the same ‘one billion’ as calculated in 1999.

Have there been updates and can we see any trends? 

It is unlikely that in 2018 the actual number of poor people who rely on livestock to support their livelihood is ‘one billion’. Populations are constantly changing (mainly increasing), as is the definition of ‘poor’. There are more recent estimates of the number of poor people whose livelihoods are supported by livestock. For instance, when attempting to determine the geographic location of poor livestock keepers, both Thornton and co-authors in 20029 and Robinson and co-authors in 201110 provided population numbers. Respectively, they suggested figures of 556 million9 and 766 million10 poor livestock keepers. 

Notably, both these estimates had some basis on the original Livestock in Development calculations; however, their data sources, thresholds for the definition of poverty and broader methodologies varied. For this reason, it would be inappropriate to infer any temporal trends for the number of poor livestock keepers.

The future of this fact 

It may be informative to have a more dynamic estimation of this figure. However, the demand and urgency for such an undertaking depends largely on the application of such information. Generally, the figure is used to make a strong statement on the importance of livestock, where precision matters less than the implications of a big number.


  1. Livestock in Development. 1999Livestock in Poverty-Focused Development, by Ashley, S., Holden, S. & Bazeley, P., Crewkerne, Somerset, UK. 
  2. Thorne, P. & Conroy, C. 2017. Research on Livestock, Livelihoods, and Innovation. Agricultural Systems (Second Edition): Agroecology and Rural Innovation for Development. Academic Press. 
  3. FAO. 2009. The State of Food and Agriculture: Livestock in the balance. The State of Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 
  4. Sere, C. & Steinfeld, H. 1996. World livestock production systems: Current status, issues and trends. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. 
  5. UNDP. 1997Human Development Report 1997. United Nations Development Programme, New York, USA. 
  6. FAOSTAT. 2017. FAOSTAT: Food and Agriculture Data. FAO. 
  7. Gerland, P., Raftery, A. E., Sevcikova, H., Li, N., Gu, D., Spoorenberg, T., Alkema, L., Fosdick, B. K., Chunn, J., Lalic, N., Bay, G., Buettner, T., Heilig, G. K. & Wilmoth, J. 2014. World population stabilization unlikely this century. Science, 346, 234-237. 
  8. Klasen, S., Krivobokova, T., Greb, F., Lahoti, R., Pasaribu, S. H. & Wiesenfarth, M. 2016. International income poverty measurement: which way now? The Journal of Economic Inequality, 14, 199-225. 
  9. Thornton, P. K., Kruska, R., Henninger, N., Kristjanson, P., Reid, R. S., Atieno, F., Odero, A. N. & Ndegwa, T. 2002. Mapping Poverty and Livestock in the Developing World, Nairobi, Kenya, International Livestock Research Institute. 
  10. Robinson, T. P., Thornton, P. K., Franceschini, G., Kruska, R. L., Chiozza, F., Notenbaert, A., Cecchi, G., Herrero, M., Epprecht, M., Fritz, S., You, L., Conchedda, G. & See, L. 2011. Global livestock production systems. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Rome. 

Header photo: University of Glasgow (SEBI project)