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Livestock Rearing: Its Extent and Health Effects

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Humans depend upon animals for food and related by-products, work and a variety of other uses (see table 1). To meet these demands, they have domesticated or held in captivity species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and arthropods. These animals have become known as livestock, and rearing them has implications for occupational safety and health. This general profile of the industry includes its evolution and structure, the economic importance of different commodities of livestock, and regional characteristics of the industry and workforce. The articles in this chapter are organized by occupational processes, livestock sectors and consequences of livestock rearing.

Table 1. Livestock uses



By-products and other uses


Fluid and dried milk, butter, cheese and curd, casein, evaporated milk, cream, yoghurt and other fermented milk, ice cream, whey

Male calves and old cows sold into the cattle commodity market; milk as an industrial feedstock of carbohydrates (lactose as a diluent for drugs), proteins (used as a surfactant to stabilize food emulsions) and fats (lipids have potential uses as emulsifiers, surfactants and gels), offal

Cattle, buffalo, sheep

Meat (beef, mutton), edible tallow

Hides and skins (leather, collagens for sausage casings, cosmetics, wound dressing, human tissue repair), offal, work (traction), wool, hair, dung (as fuel and fertilizer), bone meal, religious objects, pet food, tallow and grease (fatty acids, varnish, rubber goods, soaps, lamp oil, plastics, lubricants) fat, blood meal


Meat, eggs, duck eggs (in India)

Feathers and down, manure (as fertilizer), leather, fat, offal, flightless bird oil (carrier for dermal path pharmaceuticals), weed control (geese in mint fields)



Hides and skins, hair, lard, manure, offal

Fish (aquaculture)


Fishmeal, oil, shell, aquarium pets

Horse, other equines

Meat, blood, milk

Recreation (riding, racing), work (riding, traction), glue, dog feed, hair

Micro-livestock (rabbit, guinea pig), dog, cat


Pets, furs and skins, guard dogs, seeing-eye dogs, hunting dogs, experimentation, sheep herding (by the dog), rodent control (by the cat)



Recreation (bull-fighting, rodeo riding), semen

Insects and other invertebrates (e.g.,
vermiculture, apiculture)

Honey, 500 species (grubs, grasshoppers, ants, crickets, termites, locusts, beetle larvae, wasps and bees, moth caterpillars) are a regular diet among many non-western societies

Beeswax, silk, predatory insects (>5,000 species are possible and 400 are known as controls for crop pests; the carnivorous “tox” mosquito
(Toxorhynchites spp.) larvae feeds on the dengue fever vector, vermicompositing, animal fodder, pollination, medicine (honeybee venom
to treat arthritis), scale insect products (shellac, red food dye, cochineal)

Sources: DeFoliart 1992; Gillespie 1997; FAO 1995; O’Toole 1995; Tannahil 1973; USDA 1996a, 1996b.

Evolution and structure of the industry

Livestock evolved over the past 12,000 years through selection by human communities and adaptation to new environments. Historians believe that goat and sheep were the first species of animals domesticated for human use. Then, about 9,000 years ago, humans domesticated the pig. The cow was the last major food animal that humans domesticated, about 8,000 years ago in Turkey or Macedonia. It was probably only after cattle were domesticated that milk was discovered as a useful foodstuff. Goat, sheep, reindeer and camel milk were also used. People of the Indus valley domesticated the Indian jungle fowl primarily for its egg production, which became the world’s chicken, with its source of eggs and meat. People of Mexico had domesticated the turkey (Tannahill 1973).

Humans used several other mammalian and avian species for food, as well as amphibian and fish species and various arthropods. Insects have always provided an important source of protein, and today they are part of the human diet principally in the world’s non-western cultures (DeFoliart 1992). Honey from the honey bee was an early food; smoking bees from their nest to collect honey was known in Egypt as early as 5,000 years ago. Fishing is also an ancient occupation used to produce food, but because fishers are depleting wild fisheries, aquaculture has been the fastest growing contributor to fish production since the early 1980s, contributing about 14% to the total current production of fish (Platt 1995).

Humans also domesticated many mammals for use for draught, including the horse, donkey, elephant, dog, buffalo, camel and reindeer. The first animal used for draught, perhaps with the exception of the dog, was likely the goat, which could defoliate scrub for land cultivation through its browsing. Historians believe that Asians domesticated the Asian wolf, which was to become the dog, 13,000 years ago. The dog proved to be useful to the hunter for its speed, hearing and sense of smell, and the sheepdog aided in the early domestication of sheep (Tannahill 1973). The people of the steppe lands of Eurasia domesticated the horse about 4,000 years ago. Its use for work (traction) was stimulated by the invention of the horseshoe, collar harness and feeding of oats. Although draught is still important in much of the world, farmers displace draught animals with machines as farming and transportation becomes more mechanized. Some mammals, such as the cat, are used to control rodents (Caras 1996).

The structure of the current livestock industry can be defined by commodities, the animal products that enter the market. Table 2 shows a number of these commodities and the worldwide production or consumption of these products.

Table 2. International livestock production (1,000 tonnes)








Beef and veal carcasses







Pork carcasses







Lamb, mutton, goat carcasses







Bovine hides and skins







Tallow and grease







Poultry meat







Cow’s milk




























Freshwater fish







Egg consumption (million pieces)







Sources: FAO 1995; USDA 1996a, 1996b.

Economic importance

The world’s growing population and increased per capita consumption both increased the global demand for meat and fish, the results of which are shown in figure 1. Global meat production nearly trebled between 1960 and 1994. Over this period, per capita consumption increased from 21 to 33 kilograms per annum. Because of the limitations of available rangeland, beef production levelled off in 1990. As a result, animals that are more efficient in converting feed grain into meat, such as pigs and chickens, have gained a competitive advantage. Both pork and poultry have been increasing in dramatic contrast to beef production. Pork overtook beef in worldwide production in the late 1970s. Poultry may soon exceed beef production. Mutton production remains low and stagnant (USDA 1996a). Milk cows worldwide have been slowly decreasing while milk production has been increasing because of increasing production per cow (USDA 1996b).

Figure 1. World production of meat and fish


Aquaculture production increased at an annual rate of 9.1% from 1984 to 1992. Aquaculture animal production increased from 14 million tonnes worldwide in 1991 to 16 million tonnes in 1992, with Asia providing 84% of world production (Platt 1995). Insects are rich in vitamins, minerals and energy, and provide between 5% and 10% of the animal protein for many people. They also become a vital source of protein during times of famine (DeFoliart 1992).

Regional Characteristics of the Industry and Workforce

Separating the workforce engaged in livestock rearing from other agricultural activities is difficult. Pastoral activities, such as those in much of Africa, and heavy commodity-based operations, such as those in the United States, have differentiated more between livestock and crop raising. However, many agro-pastoral and agronomic enterprises integrate the two. In much of the world, draught animals are still used extensively in crop production. Moreover, livestock and poultry depend upon feed and forage generated from crop operations, and these operations are commonly integrated. The principal aquaculture species in the world is the plant-eating carp. Insect production is also tied directly to crop production. The silkworm feeds exclusively on mulberry leaves; honeybees depend upon flower nectar; plants depend upon them for pollination work; and humans harvest edible grubs from various crops. The 1994 world population totalled 5,623,500,000, and 2,735,021,000 people (49% of the population) were engaged in agriculture (see figure 2). The largest contribution to this workforce is in Asia, where 85% of the agricultural population rear draught animals. Regional characteristics related to livestock rearing follow.

Figure 2. Human population engaged in agriculture by world region, 1994.


Sub-Saharan Africa

Animal husbandry has been practised in sub-Saharan Africa for more than 5,000 years. Nomadic husbandry of the early livestock has evolved species that tolerate poor nutrition, infectious diseases and long migrations. About 65% of this region, much of it around desert areas, is suitable only for producing livestock. In 1994, 65% of the approximately 539 million people in sub-Saharan Africa depended upon agricultural income, down from 76% in 1975. Although its importance has grown since the mid-1980s, aquaculture has contributed little to the food supply for this region. Aquaculture in this region is based upon pond farming of tilapias, and export enterprises have attempted to culture marine shrimps. An export aquaculture industry in this region is expected to grow because Asian demand for fish is expected to increase, which will be fuelled by Asian investment and technology drawn to the region by a favourable climate and by African labour.

Asia and the Pacific

In Asia and the Pacific region, nearly 76% of the world’s agricultural population exists on 30% of the world’s arable land. About 85% of the farmers use cattle (bullocks) and buffaloes to cultivate and thresh crops.

Livestock rearing operations are mainly small-scale units in this region, but large commercial farms are establishing operations near urban centres. In rural areas, millions of people depend on livestock for meat, milk, eggs, hides and skins, draught power and wool. China exceeds the rest of the world with 400 million pigs; the remainder of the world has a total of 340 million pigs. India accounts for over one-fourth of the number of cattle and buffaloes worldwide, but because of religious policies that restrict cattle slaughter, India contributes less than 1% to the world’s beef supply. Milk production is a part of traditional agriculture in many countries of this region. Fish is a frequent ingredient in most people’s diet in this region. Asia contributes 84% of the world’s aquaculture production. At 6,856,000 tonnes, China alone produces nearly half of the world production,. Demand for fish is expected to increase rapidly, and aquaculture is expected to meet this demand.


In this region of 802 million people, 10.8% were engaged in agriculture in 1994, which has decreased significantly from 16.8% in 1975. Increased urbanization and mechanization have led to this decrease. Much of this arable land is in the moist, cool northern climates and is conducive to growing pastures for livestock. As a result, much of the livestock raising is located in the northern part of this region. Europe contributed 8.5% to the world’s production of aquaculture in 1992. Aquaculture has concentrated on relatively high-value species of finfish (288,500 tonnes) and shellfish (685,500 tonnes).

Latin America and the Caribbean

The Latin American and Caribbean region differs from other regions in many ways. Large tracts of land remain to be exploited, the region has large populations of domestic animals and much of the agriculture is operated as large operations. Livestock represents about one-third of the agricultural production, which makes up a significant part of the gross domestic product. Meat from beef cattle accounts for the largest share and makes up 20% of the world’s production. Most livestock species have been imported. Among those indigenous species that have been domesticated are guinea pigs, dogs, llamas, alpacas, Muscovy ducks, turkeys and black chickens. This region contributed only 2.3% to world aquaculture production in 1992.

Near East

Currently, 31% of the population of the Near East is engaged in agriculture. Because of the shortage of rainfall in this region, the only agricultural use for 62% of this land area is animal grazing. Most of the major livestock species were domesticated in this region (goats, sheep, pigs and cattle) at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Later, in North Africa, water buffaloes, dromedary camels and asses were domesticated. Some livestock raising systems that existed in ancient times still exist today. These are subsistence systems in Arab tribal society, in which herds and flocks are moved seasonally over great distances in search of feed and water. Intensive farming systems are used in the more developed countries.

North America

Although agriculture is a major economic activity in Canada and the United States, the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture is less than 2.5%. Since the 1950s, agriculture has become more intensive, leading to fewer but larger farms. Livestock and livestock products make up a major proportion of the population’s diet, contributing 40% to the total food energy. The livestock industry in this region has been very dynamic. Introduced animals have been bred with indigenous animals to form new breeds. Consumer demand for leaner meats and eggs with less cholesterol is having an impact on breeding policy. Horses were used extensively at the turn of the nineteenth century, but they have declined in numbers because of mechanization. They are currently used in the race horse industry or for recreation. The United States has imported about 700 insect species to control more than 50 pests. Aquaculture in this region is growing, and accounted for 3.7% of the world’s aquaculture production in 1992 (FAO 1995; Scherf 1995).

Environmental and Public Health Issues

Occupational hazards of livestock rearing may lead to injuries, asthma or zoonotic infections. In addition, livestock rearing poses several environmental and public health issues. One issue is the effect of animal waste upon the environment. Other issues include the loss of biological diversity, risks associated with animal and product importation and food safety.

Water and air pollution

Animal wastes pose potential environmental consequences of water and air pollution. Based upon US annual discharge factors shown in table 3, major livestock breeds discharged a total of 14.3 billion tonnes of faeces and urine worldwide in 1994. Of this total, cattle (milk and beef) discharged 87%; pigs, 9%; and chickens and turkeys, 3% (Meadows 1995). Because of their high annual discharge factor of 9.76 tonnes of faeces and urine per animal, cattle contributed the most waste among these livestock types for all six United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) regions of the world, ranging from 82% in both Europe and Asia to 96% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Table 3. Annual US livestock faeces and urine production

Livestock type


Waste (tonnes)

Tonnes per animal

Cattle (milk and beef)








Chicken and turkey




Source: Meadows 1995.

In the United States, farmers who specialize in livestock rearing do not engage in crop farming, as had been the historical practice. As a result, livestock waste is no longer systematically applied to crop land as a fertilizer. Another problem with modern livestock raising is the high concentration of animals into small areas such as confinement buildings or feedlots. Large operations may confine 50,000 to 100,000 cattle, 10,000 pigs or 400,000 chickens to an area. In addition, these operations tend to cluster near the processing plants to shorten the transportation distance of the animals to the plants.

Several environmental problems result from concentrated operations. These problems include lagoon spills, chronic seepage and runoff and airborne health effects. Nitrate peculation into the groundwater and runoff from fields and feedlots are major contributors to water contamination. A greater use of feedlots leads to concentration of animal manure and a greater risk for contamination of groundwater. Waste from cattle and pig operations is typically collected in lagoons, which are large, shallow pits dug into the ground. Lagoon design depends upon the settling of solids to the bottom, where they anaerobically digest, and the excess liquids are controlled by spraying them onto nearby fields before they overflow (Meadows 1995).

Biodegrading livestock waste also emits odorous gases that contain as many as 60 compounds. These compounds include ammonia and amines, sulphides, volatile fatty acids, alcohols, aldehydes, mercaptans, esters and carbonyls (Sweeten 1995). When humans sense odours from concentrated livestock operations, they can experience nausea, headaches, breathing problems, sleep interruption, appetite loss and irritation of the eyes, ears and throat.

Less understood are the adverse effects of livestock waste upon global warming and atmospheric deposition. Its contribution to global warming is through the generation of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. Livestock manure may contribute to nitrogen depositions because of ammonia release from waste lagoons into the atmosphere. Atmospheric nitrogen re-enters the hydrologic cycle through rain and flows into streams, rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Nitrogen in water contributes to increased algae blooms that reduce the oxygen available to fish.

Two modifications in livestock production offer solutions to some of the problems of pollution. These are less animal confinement and improved waste treatment systems.

Animal diversity

The potential for rapid loss of genes, species and habitats threatens the adaptability and traits of a variety of animals that are or could be useful. International efforts have stressed the need to preserve biological diversity at three levels: genetic, species and habitat. An example of declining genetic diversity is the limited number of sires used to breed artificially females of many livestock species (Scherf 1995).

With the decline of many livestock breeds, and thus the reduction of species diversity, dominant breeds have been increasing, with an emphasis on uniformity in higher production breeds. The problem of a lack of dairy cattle-breed diversity is particularly acute; with the exception of the high-producing Holstein, dairy populations are declining. Aquaculture has not reduced pressure on wild fish populations. For example, the use of fine nets for biomass fishing for shrimp food results in the collection of juveniles of valuable wild species, which adds to their depletion. Some species, such as groupers, milkfish and eels, cannot be bred in captivity, so their juveniles are caught in the wild and raised on fish farms, further reducing the stock of wild populations.

An example of a loss of habitat diversity is the impact of feed for fish farms on wild populations. Fish feed used in coastal areas affects wild populations of shrimp and fish by destroying their natural habitat such as mangroves. In addition, fish faeces and feed can accumulate on the bottom and kill the benthic communities that filter the water (Safina 1995).

Animal species that survive in abundance are those used as a means to human ends, but a social dilemma emerges from an animal rights movement that espouses that animals, especially warm-blooded animals, are not to be used as a means to human ends. Preceding the animal rights movement, an animal welfare movement started before the mid-1970s. Animal welfare proponents advocate the humane treatment of animals that are used for research, food, clothing, sport or companionship. Since the mid-1970s, the animal rights advocates assert that sentient animals have a right not to be used for research. It appears highly unlikely that the human use of animals will be abolished. It is also likely that animal welfare will continue as a popular movement (NIH 1988).

Animal and animal product importation

The history of livestock rearing is closely linked to the history of livestock importation into new areas of the world. Diseases spread with the spread of imported livestock and their products. Animals may carry disease that can infect other animals or humans, and countries have established quarantine services to control the spread of these zoonotic diseases. Among these diseases are scrapie, brucellosis, Q-fever and anthrax. Livestock and food inspection and quarantines have emerged as methods to control disease importation (MacDiarmid 1993).

Public concern about the potential infection of humans with the rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) emerged among beef-importing nations in 1996. Eating beef infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as mad cow disease, is suspected of leading to CJD infection. Although unproven, public perceptions include the proposition that the disease may have entered cattle from feed containing bone meal and offal from sheep afflicted with the similar disease, scrapie. All three diseases, in humans, cattle and sheep, exhibit common symptoms of sponge-like brain lesions. The diseases are fatal, their causes are unknown, and there are no tests to detect them. Britons launched a pre-emptive slaughter of one-third of their cattle population in 1996 to control BSE and restore consumer confidence in the safety of their beef exports (Aldhous 1996).

The importation of African bees into Brazil has also emerged into a public health issue. In the United States, subspecies of European bees produce honey and beeswax and pollinate crops. They rarely swarm aggressively, which aids safe beekeeping. The African subspecies has migrated from Brazil into Central America, Mexico and the Southeastern United States. This bee is aggressive and will swarm in defence of its colony. It has interbred with the European subspecies, which results in an Africanized bee that is more aggressive. The public health threat is multiple stings when the Africanized bee swarms and severe toxic reactions in humans.

Two controls currently exist for the Africanized bee. One is that they are not hardy in northern climates and may be restricted to warmer temperate climates like the Southern United States. The other control is routinely to replace the queen bee in hives with queen bees of the European subspecies, although this does not control wild colonies (Schumacher and Egen 1995).

Food safety

Many human food-borne illnesses result from pathogenic bacteria of animal origin. Examples include listeria and salmonellae found in dairy products and salmonellae and campylobacter found in meat and poultry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 53% of all food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States were caused by bacterial contamination of animal products. They estimate that 33 million food-borne illnesses occur each year, from which 9,000 deaths result.

The subtherapeutic feeding of antibiotics and antibiotic treatment of diseased animals are current animal health practices. The potential diminished effectiveness of antibiotics for disease therapy is a rising concern because of the frequent development of antibiotic resistance of zoonotic pathogens. Many antibiotics added to animal feed are also used in human medicine, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria could develop and cause infections in animals and humans.

Drug residues in food that result from medication of livestock also present risks. Residues of antibiotics used in livestock or added to feed have been found in food-producing animals including dairy cows. Among these drugs are chloramphenicol and sulphamethazine. Alternatives to the prophylactic feeding use of antibiotics to maintain animal health include the modification of production systems. These modifications include reduced animal confinement, improved ventilation and improved waste treatment systems.

Diet has been associated with chronic diseases. Evidence of an association between fat consumption and heart disease has stimulated efforts to produce animal products with less fat content. These efforts include animal breeding, feeding intact rather than castrated males and genetic engineering. Hormones are also seen as a method for decreasing fat content in meat. Porcine growth hormones increase growth rate, feed efficiency and the ratio of muscle to fat. The growing popularity of low-fat, low-cholesterol species such as ostriches is another solution (NRC 1989).



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