Opinion

Is agricultural diversification necessary for achieving global food security?

Philippe Lhoste

Combining agriculture and livestock secures livelihoods

The diversification of farming through mixed crop and livestock systems is a viable method for increasing farmer’s nutritional and financial security. Within a mixed system, both crops and livestock are integrated into a single production unit. According to FAO, “Mixed farming systems produce 90% of the world’s milk supply and the majority of the world’s meat supply (54%)”. They are also the most frequently used farming method amongst small livestock and crop farmers in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, shepherds often become agro-pastoralists, while crop farmers are increasingly diversifying into livestock to reduce risk and protect their family finances.

The combination of crop and livestock farming creates synergies between the two, for instance:

  • Animal feed is produced by growing of crops (e.g. grazing on weeds, harvest residues, forage crops, etc.);
  • Fertilising by-products from livestock (e.g. manure, droppings) can be utilised on the fields;
  • Draught and herd animals can ease the manual labour of crop farming through animal traction (ploughing, seeding, weeding, farrowing, etc.) and through the transportation of goods (agricultural products, harvests, etc.);
  • The income from crop sales (cotton, peanuts, cereals, vegetables, fruits, etc.) allows the farmer to purchase more livestock and the income from animal products (milk, eggs, meat, etc.) finances the purchase of agricultural inputs and equipment.

These mixed systems thus create improved security for farming families. If farmers have a poor harvest one season, they can fall back on the income and food provided by their livestock and if their livestock are hit by disease they still have their crop harvest to get them through the rough patch. The multiple benefits of such systems are explained in more detail below:

Diversification of production and the reduction of economic risk

The combination of livestock and crops leads to a greater range of outputs and sources of revenue for the family business. Small-scale livestock farming can therefore play a very important economic role (especially ruminants and small livestock).

Optimisation and facilitation of labour

The addition of working livestock generally leads to new combinations of human/animal labour and a significant reduction in difficult manual work. This point alone is often sufficient justification for turning to animal labour, but animal-powered traction also has significant advantages in terms of the efficiency and quality of work in the fields, faster working and better “yields” (with the help of animal-drawn transport, for example). Overall, it is human productivity which can be significantly improved through these methods.

Improvement of family finances, cash management and food security

Over time, the addition of livestock allows for a diversification of revenue sources for the farm, and it is often the day-to-day cash flows that benefit significantly through animal products such as eggs, poultry, milk and small livestock. The family’s consumption of certain products (milk, small livestock etc.) is a significant positive contribution to the nutrition (highly nutritious proteins) and household food security. These animal products also add an increased flexibility and security of income for the household.

Optimisation of natural resources

The introduction of livestock onto the farm allows for an optimisation of a whole range of products and outputs, such as harvest residues and domestic, industrial and manual by-products. Herbivores play a specific role in this process as, thanks to their mobility, they are able to benefit from the often poor grazing provided by pathways, fallow and cultivated areas, as well as from the harvest itself (weeds, waste and by-products).

A significant increase in the use of these mixed systems has been observed, notably due to increases in population densities in rural areas. The growth in farmers employing this method of agricultural diversification increases the autonomy and viability of mixed farming processes, and results in greater food security for both the families and countries in question.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.