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A Sustainable Future Requires Healthy Animals

The FAO estimates livestock emissions could fall by 30% through wider adoption of existing technologies and best practices in animal health and husbandry. Only by taking a holistic food-systems approach that includes sustainable livestock can we make meaningful progress toward Sustainable Development Goals around hunger, poverty and climate action.

Tackling a crisis as complex and interconnected as climate change is anything but simple. Throw in global food insecurity and it’s even harder. But the world is losing ground in the fight to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, so that’s where we are.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s latest State of Food and Nutrition report, nearly 670 million people – or eight percent of the world’s population – will still be undernourished in 2030, especially in the Global South; the United States Department of Agriculture finds that 34 million people in the US, including 9 million children, don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The increasing need for affordable, nutritious food — combined with the fact that demand for animal protein sources will increase 50-70 percent by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing population — means that we cannot approach climate change without an eye towards the sustainable production of meat, milk and eggs.

These foods, rich with essential vitamins and micronutrients, not only play a critical role in feeding our world but also in supporting economic stability. In the Global South, livestock supports the livelihoods of almost 1.3 billion people; in the US, the beef industry directly and indirectly accounts for more than 1.4 million full-time jobs and more than $188 billion in output to the national economy.

There is ongoing debate over whether conventional livestock agriculture has a place in a healthy economy on a thriving planet. But healthy animals and responsible farming practices can contribute to economic stability, hearty nutrition and a healthy environment. In fact, livestock agriculture holds great and still untapped potential in fostering soil fertility, biodiversity and increased carbon sequestration; and farmers across the globe are already cultivating innovative and nature-positive approaches to livestock management — the most essential of which is animal health. It's simple: Healthier animals optimize resources — which, in turn, reduces food-related impacts on the environment. And the best way to ensure healthy animals is to ensure access to veterinary care, vaccines, labs, and testing. Unfortunately many rural and remote areas around the world lack access to such care, leaving their livestock extremely vulnerable.

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The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt focused on implementing the commitments made at COP26, with strong calls for food to be an integral part of the climate discussions. The historic Loss and Damage Fund coming out of the negotiations put agriculture onto the agenda of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for the first time; but they failed to adequately address the role of livestock in securing a sustainable future. It is critical that countries integrate animal health into these plans — plans which must include strengthening veterinary services at a national level and implementing large investments in livestock-focused actions, such as national vaccination campaigns. Unfortunately, only 14 of 148 countries that submitted climate action plans in 2021 that specifically included animal health — underscoring the underutilized potential for animals to help mitigate climate impacts.

The lack of veterinary care faced by communities across the globe will become even more devastating to animal health, farmer livelihoods and the environment as extreme weather and rising global temperatures caused by climate change wreak havoc on livestock health in the coming years. Warmer temperatures not only increase risks of food and water shortages, but also vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, bluetongue, lumpy skin disease, and infections such as an increased occurrence of mastitis in dairy cows. Climate change is projected to cost cattle producers up to $40 billion in financial losses annually by the end of this century; 20 percent of which is linked to disease.

Efforts are being made to advance quality animal care. Over the past five years, through our African Livestock Productivity and Health Advancement (ALPHA) initiative (launched in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) we have seen firsthand the impact that access to quality veterinary medicines and services, diagnostic laboratory networks and veterinary training can have in Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of introducing veterinary livestock products to the region including vaccines, parasitic treatments and medicines; providing access to operational serology labs where diagnostic testing can be performed; and getting more farmers, veterinarians and para-veterinarians trained, we have seen 128 million animals receive quality prevention and treatment for disease — thereby ensuring healthier animals produce the meat, milk and eggs the region needs.

Significant strides are also being made in developed countries where livestock care is already advanced. Here, increased sustainability in beef and dairy farming is improved by genomic testing, which is helping livestock farmers and ranchers make informed predictions about whether an animal will be more susceptible to disease — allowing producers to make strategic operational decisions that help animals stay healthier longer. In addition, precision animal health technologies help provide livestock farmers access to the data they need to manage their animals more efficiently — helping to prevent disease and treat sick animals. But further development and access to these technologies is needed to help cattle producers predict, prevent, detect and treat even more diseases.

The FAO estimates that livestock emissions could fall by as much as 30 percent through wider adoption of existing technologies and best practices in animal health and husbandry. All stakeholders — from private and public, to corporations and governments — must consider the role healthy animals play in sustainable nutrition and climate-change mitigation, and find ways to expand access to preventative care in emerging markets and prioritize animal health as a pathway for emissions reductions. Only by taking a holistic food-systems approach that includes sustainable livestock as part of the solution can we make meaningful progress in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals including Zero Hunger, No Poverty and Climate Action.