Some anthropologists hypothesise that we probably wouldn’t be the sophisticated, technology-driven society we are today, if our ancestors had not started to eat meat. Meat is high in protein, vitamins and minerals which we now understand are critical for developing brains, plus it was easier to obtain a large supply of nutrients from 1 animal than by gathering the equivalent nutrients in plants. Thus hunter-gatherers would have needed to spend less time procuring their food. In the 21st century many individuals and societies don’t eat meat (vegetarian) or even any animal products (vegans) and are healthy and intelligent, because for them, “procuring food” to achieve a balanced diet is usually a case of going to a shop. However, the desire to eat meat remains high for most people and as incomes increase, the global demand for meat, milk and eggs is increasing more rapidly than demand for other agriculture products. The combination of reduced “need” for meat coupled with rapidly growing demand is driving increased concern about the ethical basis and the sustainability of livestock systems.

The seven papers in the special edition provide a variety of insights into how livestock systems affect the three pillars of sustainability: human health and well-being, the environment and global economics. One paper argues for a fourth pillar, one-health, to recognise the close interdependence of human health and animal health. Collectively the papers illustrate benefits and disbenefits of livestock systems. They contribute evidence to help guide those making choices about diet and for those directly involved in evolving livestock systems to be more closely aligned with the priorities of today’s societies.

The seven papers illustrate that much is known that can guide decision making today. They also illustrate that the diversity and complexity of the impacts of livestock production should not be looked at in isolation but as part of agriculture more broadly if food production is going to respond appropriately to the altered economic and social drivers of twenty first century societies. They also highlight the urgent need for deeper and broader understanding of the issues and the routes to mitigation of disbenefits.


These seven papers included in the Special Topic are as follows:

Review: Use of human-edible animal feeds by ruminant livestock

M. Wilkinson, M. R. F. Lee


Review: Optimizing ruminant conversion of feed protein to human food protein

A. Broderick


Review: Feed demand landscape and implications of food-not feed strategy for food security and climate change

P. S. Makkar


Review: Dairy foods, red meat and processed meat in the diet: implications for health at key life stages

I. Givens


Review: Animal health and sustainable global livestock systems

D. Perry, T. P. Robinson, D. C. Grace


Roles of instrumented farm-scale trials in trade-off assessments of pasture-based ruminant production systems

Takahashi, P. Harris, M. S. A. Blackwell, L. M. Cardenas, A. L. Collins, J. A. J. Dungait, J. M. B. Hawkins, T. H. Misselbrook, G. A. McAuliffe, J. N. McFadzean, P. J. Murray, R. J. Orr, M. J. Rivero, L. Wu, M. R. F. Lee


Closing the phosphorus cycle in a food system: insights from a modelling exercise

R. J. van Kernebeek, S. J. Oosting, M. K. van Ittersum, R. Ripoll-Bosch, I. J. M. de Boer


The full editorial:

Livestock production evolving to contribute to sustainable societies

Gill, J. P. Gibson, M. R. F. Lee


Photo credit: Greentumble

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