Striking the balance in sustainable livestock farming

Gepubliceerd op
4 mei 2017

Combining strong points from conventional and organic agriculture can make livestock production more sustainable in the future. This way existing livestock production systems can be improved and new ones developed, scientists from Wageningen University & Research found in a recent study.

An obvious advantage of conventional livestock husbandry is its high productivity. Per animal less labour is needed, output is higher, and land use is lower. A high productivity helps to achieve the food security that is necessary for the growing world population. But conventional livestock production systems also have disadvantages, which make them less sustainable in terms of animal welfare and local environment. Organic livestock husbandry has a lower impact on local biodiversity and a lower risk of bacteria becoming antibiotic resistant. Organic farmers also have lower building costs and a higher income per animal.

In-between systems
Combining the strong points of both types of livestock production systems often requires a precarious balance, the researchers argue. Animal housing and outdoor access for example can be balanced between animal welfare revenues, lower productivity, higher risk of microbiological infections, and the pleasure we humans take in seeing animals outside. Another example is the use of antibiotics, which should be minimal in general but available to sick animals to ensure their welfare. Also the researchers advocate more ‘in-between’ systems. For example, consumers of organic products are willing to pay higher prices. But there is also a market for more sustainably produced but not completely organic products, which have an added value for consumers while remaining affordable.

Analysing 183 studies
These are some of the findings in the report “Sustainability of livestock production Systems. Comparing conventional and organic livestock husbandry.” This literature study has recently been carried out by six different research groups at Wageningen University & Research. The scientists analysed 183 scientific papers which compared the performance of conventional and organic livestock production systems. They looked into economy, productivity, environment, animal welfare and public health, concerning the most common farm animals in Europe: dairy cattle, beef cattle, pigs, broilers, and laying hens. The study was made possible by a grant from Elanco to the University Fund.