Minimising the environmental impacts of livestock diets

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The global production of meat is projected to double to 465 million tonnes by 2050[i]. This growth brings with it a host of opportunities to improve social and economic prosperity, particularly in underdeveloped countries where a greater portion of the population make their living from agriculture. However, this expansion is not without its fair share of challenges when it comes to mitigating the impact that livestock production has on the environment.

Minimising the environmental impacts of livestock diets

Central to these challenges is the need to improve the sustainability of livestock diets. At a global level, feed production and processing (including land use change) represents 45% of the total GHG emissions from the sector and 33% of the total arable land is being used to produce feed crops for livestock. This article sets out the key environmental challenges that come with feeding livestock and looks at some of the drivers and mitigation options to minimise the impact.

Farmed livestock is politically and socially very significant. Globally, it contributes 40% of agriculture’s GDP, employs 1.3 billion people and provides one third of people’s protein intake[ii].

It is also of considerable environmental significance. The livestock sector is estimated to already be responsible for 14.5% of global GHG emission, which is more than that from the entire transport sector[iii]. The livestock sector is also the largest anthropogenic (human activity) user of land, with grazing occupying 26% of the ‘ice-free’ land area of the planet and 33% of the total arable land being used to produce feed crops for livestockii.

With global targets set to reduce GHG emissions, eliminate deforestation / land degradation and growing competition for suitable productive land, it is clear that growth in this sector comes with a host of challenges. Governments, food and feed industry actors and consumers all have a role in ensuring the expansion of this sector is done responsibly.

One of the key issues in livestock production is the sustainability of the livestock diets, as feed production and processing (including land use change) represents 45% of the total GHG emissions from the sector[iv] and taking up a third of the world’s total arable land.  An increase in the feed demand from an expanding livestock sector will put further pressure on natural resources such as soils, water, biodiversity and land use, and affect the balance of land use between food, feed, fibre and fuel.  It also increases the risk of pollutant release such as greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide and nutrient loss.  The four key impact areas resulting from feeding livestock (climate change, water pollution, soil erosion and Land Use Change (LUC)) are shown in the diagram below (figure 1).

Figure 1: The four key environmental impacts of livestock diets.

Figure 1: The four key environmental impacts of livestock diets.

What needs to be done? 

The challenges that come with feeding an increasingly hungry livestock sector could make for pretty bleak reading, particularly for those involved in agriculture. However, such issues are rarely black and white.  

The livestock and agricultural sectors are economically, politically and socially very important. As such, there is a global appetite for effective, implementable and scaleable solutions towards more sustainable livestock diets. Some of the key work streams are briefly outlined below.

cow picture


Increasing feed efficiencies

Interventions to reduce GHG emissions in particular, are largely based on improving production efficiencies at an animal or herd level, in order to reduce emission intensities. For instance, adopting better feeds and feeding techniques for cows will reduce the methane (CH4) released from digestion as well as the amount of CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure. Whereas managing grazing land better can improve productivity and act as a carbon sink to offset livestock sector emissions. An example of the latest research in this area is the ADAS led project ‘Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products’ (MIN-NO) [v]. This project aimed to improve estimates of N2O emissions associated with production of major UK arable crops (cereals, sugar beet, oilseeds and pulses) and their products, in order to help improve estimates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reported in the UK’s inventory and in commercial GHG accounting (carbon footprinting) procedures.

Minimising feed waste

Waste occurs across the supply chain from production, ingredient processing, storage, transport and in the process of feeding. This waste is primarily due to dust, moisture loss, spillage and various pests (insects, rodents and birds). Minimizing feed waste makes good business sense, and in many cases, it can be accomplished with minor changes in management practices.

ADAS are currently involved in a research project to optimize grazing systems for beef producers, in order to reduce wastage of grass and maximise cattle growth rates[vi]. The output will be a validated blueprint for managing grass for beef cattle to reduce the cost of production and increase output per hectare.

Responsible sourcing of feed ingredients

Feed ingredients originate from a number of sources. In Europe 48% come from cereals (typically produced in the EU), 27.5% from oilseed meals (predominantly soybean meal largely imported from South America) and 11.5% from co-products from the food & bioethanol industry. It is vital to the successful growth of this industry that good land management practices are adopted on existing agricultural land, maximising yields and minimising environmental externalities. It is equally important that any expansion of agricultural land avoids any further deforestation or the loss of additional High Conservation Value (HCV) land.

Case study – Soybean meal


The EU depends on imports for 75% of its needs in protein-rich feed ingredients, mainly soybean meal, for which there is no viable alternative[vii]. Soy is one of the world’s most important and profitable agricultural commodities yielding more protein per hectare than almost any other crop. As such, it has an important role to play in feeding and fuelling a growing global population. However, the soy industry faces significant environmental and social challenges that are likely to intensify as production increases. Soy production is linked with massive forest loss, a decline in biodiversity, unsafe and excessive use of pesticides, violation of land rights and unfair labour conditions, which are now being addressed through platforms that promote responsible production.


Part of the future demand for soy can be met by increasing productivity, but such a rapid growth in demand will require more land for production. The livestock industry, particularly feed manufacturers are increasingly working with their supply chain to promote more responsible production. Platforms that have been established to promote the responsible production of soy include the Round table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) or existing certified procurement routes such as AIC’s Feed Materials Assurance Scheme’s Responsible sourcing module (FEMAS) or to the Universal Feed Assurance Scheme (UFAS). 

What will drive this change?

The three main drivers to change are; regulation, industry initiatives and market demand (buyer specification).

With regulatory backed targets set at a world level (Kyoto target, UN Sustainable Development Goals) down to specific national targets (Climate Change Act 2008) the regulatory drivers are coming into place. However, achieving these targets will require engagement from the whole of the agricultural community, from farmers to scientists.

There are a wide range of mitigation measures at the sector’s fingertips, many of which are seen as good practice and often have the additional benefit of being economically advantageous. The challenge is in supporting innovation and enabling knowledge sharing within and throughout the livestock sector

Impacts & Drivers image

An example of effective stakeholder engagement and knowledge sharing is through the Networks of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA)[viii]. Of which, ADAS acts as secretariat to the Animal Health and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Intensity Network. The aim of the Network is to bring together researchers from across the world to investigate links and synergies between efforts to reduce livestock disease and GHG emissions intensity reductions in order to meet objectives, which include:

  • Encouraging and facilitating a joined-up approach from fundamental science to strategic and applied research and research-into-use while avoiding overlaps and identifying gaps and opportunities for collaboration;
  • Establishing common agreement on priority issues and explore funding opportunities to address them, including links with more traditional animal health and agricultural and rural development programs; and,
  • Pursue synergies with stakeholders and other relevant initiatives in order to further strengthen global cooperation and networks.[ix]

How can ADAS help?

ADAS provides consultancy and training to stakeholders in the livestock industry on reducing the environmental impact of feeding livestock. ADAS conduct independent research to support policy decisions, risk assessments to understand key environmental impacts, data collection to support the development of key metrics performance monitoring and help implement effective mitigation strategies to meet targets.

Project Team

For further information contact or visit the ADAS website.


[i] Smedshaug (2010). Feeding the World in the 21st Century: A historical analysis of agriculture and society. Anthem Press, London.

[ii] Steinfeld, H. et al. (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Available at:

[iii] Bailey, R., et al (2014) Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Available at:

[iv] Gerber, PJ., et al . (2013) Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Available at:

[v] Sylvester-Bradley, R., et al (2015) Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products (MIN-NO). Available at:



[viii] Further information at: &



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