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Trade-offs in sustainable intensification of smallholder livestock systems: Balancing benefits for farmers and stakeholders

Man milking cow in Senegal

Improved food and nutritional security from better utilisation of dairy cattle breed-types types in Senegal. (photo credit: ILRI/Karen Marshall)

A new study exploring how to achieve trade-offs—the balance of factors which may otherwise not be attainable at the same time—in livestock intensification calls for stakeholders to have an open mind to stakeholder perspectives.

According to the study, the attainment of a common ground is realized by recognizing the diverging views of stakeholders and the basics of decision-making in complex systems. This way of thinking ought to be a part of everyday practice, rather than an add-on or after-thought by the stakeholders involved in decision making on sustainable intensification interventions.

Understanding trade-offs from this point of view is significant where livestock production fulfils several objectives which cannot be fully achieved simultaneously. Such objectives may include the need to produce food for home consumption and the need to obtain income from sale of the livestock products.

The study looked at how trade-offs for livestock development are likely to affect decision-making in farms and households, which is where most decisions on intensification are taken. It focused on trade-offs whose decision-making has ramifications on smallholder profit improvements, environmental gains, gender equity, human nutrition and food security, food safety and zoonotic diseases; cultural acceptance and multifunctional livestock values as well as risks in livestock production in low- and middle-income countries.

Livestock production systems in many of these countries are developing towards more intensive practices in response to a growing demand for livestock products. Even so, when assessing the benefits of various intensification pathways, awareness and understanding of trade-offs by stakeholders is essential and contributes to efficient decision-making.

Measuring milk in Senegal market

Improved food and nutritional security from better utilisation of dairy cattle breed-types types in Senegal. (photo credit: ILRI/Karen Marshall)


One of the main incentives for small-scale livestock producers to move towards more intensified systems is to achieve higher income or to reduce risk, especially where land or labour are scarce.

This means that producers are increasingly needing to make complex decisions that are determined by factors such as income, assets, social symbols, the needs of other stakeholders and the agricultural development sector in general.

The research shares findings from a (partial) trade-off analysis on the household level of dairy cattle enterprises in Senegal which compared different levels of intensification, such as choice of livestock breed and management input.


The study was conducted by researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Supporting Evidence Based Interventions project at the University of Edinburgh.

Download the full paper which is authored by Gareth Salmon, Nils Teufel, Isabelle Baltenweck, Mark van Wijk, Lieven Claessens, Karen Marshall.

Edited by Paul Karaimu.

2 thoughts on “Trade-offs in sustainable intensification of smallholder livestock systems: Balancing benefits for farmers and stakeholders

  1. What does “sustainable intensification” mean? If it means raising livestock in crowded, indoor conditions, how is this sustainable – when this method has been shown to be just the opposite in so many places? Does this not mean more disease. the need for more antibiotics, etc? This article does not seem to address these concerns. Thank you!

    • To realise food security for the rapidly growing populations and to increase incomes of rural households in low and middle-income countries farmers are going to have to produce more food, more efficiently (i.e. intensify production). The concept of sustainable intensification originally focused on increasing food production whilst reducing associated negative environmental impacts. However, such a focused approach, ignoring the complexities of agricultural systems, did often result in negative outcomes and has received criticism. With this in mind the definition of sustainable intensification is now broadening in definition and considerations to include economic, human health and social aspects; with added appreciation of the trade-offs in intensifying production systems (hence the writing of our paper describing some of these likely trade-offs).

      Rearing livestock in crowded indoor conditions, where disease and antibiotic use is more common, could be considered intensification; but not a step toward sustainable intensification. Sustainable intensification should mean increasing the amount of food we get from the resources we have, whilst not preventing future generations in doing the same. What constitutes sustainable intensification will be different for every production system. For example in a low and middle-income country it may involve housing animals to be able to improve management of their health, thus both increasing yields and reducing reliance on antibiotics. Whilst in another scenario it could mean continuing to graze animals on pastures, but improving quality of pasture or changing animal breed types for improved performance or even improving quality of pasture. In fact, the case study presented in the paper suggests that the most productive breed might not be the best option for sustainable intensification in that system. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for sustainable intensification, but with consideration of agriculture’s nuances (as presented in the paper), appropriate interventions can be made to increase and maintain food security.

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