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Figueroa, D.;  Galicia, L.;  Lastra, M.S. Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 20 June 2024).
Figueroa D,  Galicia L,  Lastra MS. Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 20, 2024.
Figueroa, Daniela, Leopoldo Galicia, Manuel Suárez Lastra. "Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 20, 2024).
Figueroa, D.,  Galicia, L., & Lastra, M.S. (2022, August 06). Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate. In Encyclopedia.
Figueroa, Daniela, et al. "Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate." Encyclopedia. Web. 06 August, 2022.
Latin American Cattle Ranching Sustainability Debate

The significance of Latin America (LA) in the global food supply is large and prominent. The livestock sector at this time faces social-ecological challenges that will be accentuated in the future and will be incredibly challenging for small and medium producers. It is important to understand the role of LA cattle ranching in the current sustainability debate. In addition, researchers identified the main components of cattle ranching social-ecological systems and evaluated the institutional and ecological interactions of livestock studies by identifying spatial and temporal scales. The complexity and dynamism of cattle ranching in LA make it necessary to address sustainable planning from a systemic approach to guide viable transformations through spatial scales.

livestock ecosystem services multifunctionality collective action

1. Trends in Livestock Research in Latin America

Livestock research in LA increased during the 21st century. Livestock included ruminant species, namely cattle (Bos taurus and Bos indicus), sheep (Ovis aries), goats (Capra hircus), and buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), and non-ruminant species, namely pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus) and chickens (Gallus domesticus). However, 95% of the livestock studies analyzed address cattle production, processing, sale, distribution, or consumption issues—the remaining 5% study represented other livestock species. The current debate mainly focuses on cattle ranching systems; therefore, researchers will use the words livestock and cattle ranching as synonyms. Studies in just four countries accounted for 50% of all the articles reviewed: Mexico (17%), Colombia (12%), Brazil (12%), and Argentina (9%) (Figure 1a). These countries account for 70–80% of the production of the principal livestock species in LA [1], so it is not surprising that they are the countries where livestock research is strengthened.
Figure 1. (a) Spatial distribution of livestock research in Latin America between 2000 and 2020 where sustainability is mentioned and measured; (b) Spatial distribution of livestock research in Latin America between 2000 and 2020 where a conceptual framework of SES is mentioned and applied.
Researchers identified a disconnection between recognizing and measuring the approaches and concepts that are key to encouraging sustainability and the notion and quantification of sustainability in formal livestock research. Although cattle research mentioned sustainability in most LA countries (Figure 2a), its measurement was weakly explored. In this regard, the significant conceptual advance was recognizing the sustainability (83% of the studies mentioned the concept); however, only 4% of the studies applied a method to quantify sustainability, most of them in Mexico (Figure 3).
Figure 2. Proportions (blocks) and percentages (values) of mentions and measurements of critical approaches and concepts in the study of cattle ranching in LA.
Research from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina mentioned the integrative SES approach and recognized its usefulness for systematically studying cattle ranching (Figure 1b). The SES concept was mentioned in 16% of the studies. However, less than 1% of them (only one study) applied SSE theory to examine through a framework the relationship between local social-ecological components and livestock management (Figure 1b and Figure 2) [2]. The inclusion of the SES framework in livestock research was incipient, possibly because the diversity of people, interests, and power asymmetries involved throughout the agri-food system in LA (production, processing, marketing, and consumption) make it challenging to plan the sector holistically, as is the case with the study of soft systems [3].
MF was mentioned in 8% of the documents but was explicitly measured in less than 1% of papers (Figure 2). Lack of understanding of MF has already been reported for SES research, just as a comprehensive treatment of multi-scale systems containing closely interdependent components within SES is still lacking [4]. ES were mentioned in 48% of the reviewed studies but were quantified or mapped in only 5% (Figure 2). The results support that livestock is an essential driver of most rural landscapes and economies in emerging countries [5], where certain benefits derived from cattle ranching are recognized. On the other hand, the various ES that livestock systems provide to society, beyond food production, are often overlooked and rarely quantified or mapped [6]. Steering livestock towards sustainability involves improving the provision and quantification of all types of ES, as well as ensuring communication of their importance for improving ecosystem conservation, making the existing cultural and spiritual relationships visible, and moving towards profitable and productive management with less environmental impact [6].
CA was recognized in 14% of the documents reviewed but was included in a conceptual framework in only 1% of them (Figure 2). The scarce mention and measurement of CA processes in LA livestock contexts visualize a primary challenge for cattle breeding and marketing in the region, as CA has the potential to strengthen governance and improve the livelihoods of farmers living from livestock production [7]. This is essential, as the fragility that results from poor governance and weak cooperation and organization among people is compounded throughout the supply chain and amplified across scales, problems that hinder the development of the sector and that have been reported in other poor regions of the world [8][9]. The inequities in power relationships based on the governance of the supply chain highlighted potential points of entry and exclusion for smallholders [10]. Moreover, along with inequalities, systemic traps that maintain the status quo in the hands of the powerful undermine sustainability [11]. An improvement to one part of the supply chain, say for instance production, without concomitant interventions in better processing and marketing capacity, could lead to higher production without an adequate market outlet, further depressing prices for smallholders [10].
Including CA in community and private livestock management would promote the sector’s sustainability. Specific strategies of organization and cooperation between producers and institutions can orient cattle production and trade towards sustainability [7]. Current strategies (e.g., the market orientation of production systems, combined with appropriate incentive policies that achieve the establishment of systems with less environmental impact) [12] and future strategies must consider the many market failures in the form of high transaction costs, information and power asymmetries, limited organizational capacity, externalities, regulatory deficiencies in LA where smallholders often have little bargaining power [10]. About 43% of the documents used qualitative methods; 26% used quantitative methods; and the remaining 31% combined qualitative and quantitative approaches, thus reflecting and supporting the predominance of studies at levels of institutional analysis so far this century. Among the documents reviewed, 66% were research articles; 27% were review articles; and 7% were book chapters.

2. The Components of Cattle Ranching in LA

Understanding the sustainability debate depends on the interactions between internal components (e.g., social, ecological, or economic) and external factors (e.g., global environmental problems, political conflicts) [13][14]. Livestock systems represent a potential pathway out of poverty for many smallholder farmers in the developing world; however, understanding their social, economic, and ecological components in a disaggregated manner can help identify opportunities for real-life environmental and social justice improvements. The identified components are part of cattle ranching systems that use land in LA. They are managed by small and medium producers who face problems of unsustainability (e.g., degradation of pastures, soil fertility and erosion problems, loss of biodiversity, etc.) in contexts of high vulnerability [15][16][17].
Ecosystems establish the biophysical conditions necessary to maintain MF at high levels, ensure ES, and sustain livestock management strategies as viable livelihoods over time [18][19][20][21]. The ecological components identified include biotic and abiotic factors of ecosystems. Abiotic factors are non-living physical and chemical components (e.g., soils, water, rocks). In contrast, biotic factors are the living components of an ecosystem (fauna, flora, and their interactions). Ecological components within cattle ranching SES are analyzed on local-regional spatial scales over days and months of studies, usually in experimental designs (Figure 3). However, many ecosystem processes occur over hundreds and thousands of years (e.g., soil formation, altered climatic regimes) and change within long/slow adaptive cycles, often overlooked in livestock research. These components shape two primary management practices used in LA to produce beef, milk, or both: extensive pastures (EP) and silvopastoral systems (SPS) (Figure 3). EP uses extensive areas of natural vegetation where only herbaceous plants are grown for use as forage, along with rudimentary facilities to house cattle and store production-related materials [22][23]. In the EP, the removal of tree cover and low density of cattle per unit area highlights the inefficient conversion of energy into animal products typical of production in tropical regions of LA. In contrast, SPS includes trees and shrubs associated with grasses to form a landscape of multi-layered vegetation for forage [24]; they also include forage banks and living fences to delimit individual pastures and provide additional wood and forage [25]. SPS also retains or includes shrubs and trees that increase the capacity of the system to convert solar energy into biomass and enhance the complexity of the habitat [26]. There is broad academic support for SPS in terms of environmental benefits. However, there has been little exploration of their role in the household economy in LA, where there are no differentiated value chains to commercialize what is produced in lower environmental impact livestock management systems [10].
Figure 3. Ecological (green box) and socioeconomic components (purple box) integrate the cattle ranching SES in LA in interaction with external factors (blue box) identified in the papers reviewed. In addition, it shows the spatial and temporal scales at which these components and factors are usually analyzed.
Researchers also recognized through the review critical socioeconomic components that are most frequently analyzed in livestock research in LA at local and regional spatial and temporal scales that include months and years: producers, supply chains (shorts and longs), income, institutions (governmental and non-governmental institutions), infrastructure, jobs generated, and the ecosystem services they provide (Figure 3, but which change within short/fast adaptive cycles. The current way of trading cattle means that producers remain dependent on conventional channels based on intermediaries and are monopolized by large companies that control the distribution of meat and milk. In this sense, the value chain approach thus provides a framework to analyze the nature and determinants of competitiveness in value chains where small farmers can participate. It also provides the basic understanding needed for designing and implementing appropriate development programs and policies to support market participation [10].
Beyond the value chain approach, it is necessary to consider the socio-ecological interactions arising from the injustice in which livestock buyers and consumers develop the sector and the severe consequences for long-term sustainability. However, tracking the components and understanding their relationships alone will not achieve the changes needed to move toward sustainability. Working with organizations—people who are persuaded to undertake some activity or change some operation—can help. Organizations might be considered “political cauldrons” where different and shifting coalitions emerge to get things accomplished. Understanding who has power (in its different forms) is key to making changes [27].
A short food supply chain can be any marketing strategy based on a maximum of one intermediary between a producer and a final consumer. In contrast, a long supply chain involves more than one intermediary [28]. Cattle producers frequently use EP with limited financial and social capital, modest infrastructure, and few opportunities to diversify their livelihoods beyond cattle ranching. They are isolated from urban centers and government institutions, often segregating them from trade routes, subsidies, and other incentives [29]. In general, the lack of financial capacity to access technological improvements, scarce government support, little training on alternative production strategies, non-existence of special competitive supply chains, and excess of intermediaries that retain a percentage of the profit and poor governance [30][31] hinder the sustainability of livestock in LA. Although it is not possible to establish a single profit threshold for intermediaries along livestock product supply chains, it is known that the percentage they retain depends on three factors: (i) the contribution of intermediaries to the generation of total value added in the chain (which sometimes damages product quality), (ii) the value-added captured by the intermediary as a percentage of total value added in the chain, and (iii) whether or not the intermediary’s income is generated to the detriment of producers’ income and capacity building [30]. The cattle ranching systems are characterized by long supply chains featuring great distances, numerous phases of weight gain and feeding regimes, many levels of traders and transactions, a multitude of steps and stages of processing, and various employment-creating services and expense generators [10].
Despite commercial constraints, the trade and consumption of animal products reduce the vulnerability of households to seasonal shortages of food and income for producers, workers, intermediaries, and butchers and improve food security and the nutritional status of the most vulnerable population [16][32][33]. It is essential to increase jobs in the agricultural sector and improve hiring conditions and the income of producers and workers in livestock production systems to reduce the vulnerability of rural families in LA [34]. In addition, it is a priority to guarantee from government institutions that farmers have access to inputs, capital, infrastructure, technological improvements, technical information, and awareness to sustain management strategies with less environmental impact over time [35] associated with higher investment costs [36][37].
The cattle ranching in the LA region is related to factors external to bovine SES analyzed predominantly on a global scale and time scales of years and decades: international markets, global increase in income, demographic growth, use of freshwater, changes in land use, dietary transitions with more significant preferences for livestock products and the contributions to climate change, primarily associated with the deforestation of forests [33][38][39][40][41] (Figure 3). Some of these factors change within short/rapid cycles (e.g., changes in land use, dietary transitions) and others within long/slow adaptive cycles (e.g., climate change). Other critical features include the changes in land use and freshwater use, as livestock production takes up about 70% of the total agricultural area (farmland and EP) worldwide [42], and its processes consume large volumes of freshwater (~8% of the global water supply) [43]. International markets (especially meat) are external factors stemming from a telecoupled world that maintains long-distance social, economic, and environmental interconnections among livestock production, processing, trade, and consumption [44][45][46]. On the other hand, population growth, increases in income, dietary transitions, and climate change [47][48] can trigger changes at regional and local scales and affect social and economic systems.

3. Institutional and Ecological Interactions across Spatial Scales

Despite the broad range of spatial scales and aggregation levels of livestock research in Latin America, 76% of the studies analyzed it at the institutional level, and 24% reported ecological analyses. However, the number of studies on cattle ranching and the number of documents, including ecological analyses, increased since 2015 (Figure 4), thus reflecting a growing concern about the environmental implications of cattle production and commercialization from LA. Institution-level studies focused on understanding yield improvements and the export potential of LA to meet the growing demand in other continents [1]. Studies including ecological analyses characterized production systems [17][49] and the impacts of livestock on ecosystems, particularly about climate change (greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land-use change), soil degradation (nutrient depletion, soil erosion), and pollution caused by the use of fertilizers supplying nitrogen and phosphates [31][36][50][51][52].
Figure 4. Levels of analysis reported in studies on livestock in Latin America and ecological/socioeconomic components and external factors identified within different levels in constant interaction. The color indicates the types of levels (institutional or ecological), and the size of the bubble indicates the number of studies reported for each year of analysis.
The results reflect that socioeconomic components and external factors were analyzed mainly at institutional levels (producer level, household, municipality, state, region, country, countries, continents, and global) and to a lesser extent at ecological levels (plot, production system, ecosystem, landscape, and biome) for the consideration of ES and the estimation of GHG emissions (Figure 4). For their part, ecological components (biotic and abiotic) were studied almost strictly within ecological levels of analysis (animals, species, plots, production systems, ecosystems, landscapes, and biomes) (Figure 4). This approach to livestock from a purely disciplinary view highlighted the socio-ecological disconnect within biological studies with potential implications for sustainability management. In other words, the evaluated ecological studies on cattle ranching in LA were predominantly reductionist because they did not connect the social and economic dimensions that largely shape ecosystems. The study of cattle in LA during the first two decades of the 21ST century was consistently promoted by government and academic institutions to understand management strategies that improve yields and animal welfare [53]. Nevertheless, it rarely focused on analyzing its impact on ecosystems, landscapes, and climate, which makes the lack of a holistic perspective explicit. The complexity and socioeconomic and environmental dynamism of the cattle ranching SES in LA make it necessary to address sustainable planning from a systemic approach to guide viable transformations.
Insight into the scales and their interactions in space and time remains a challenge for SES management and for informing policy [54]. The primary role of humans in the configuration of ecosystems implies that the interpretation of sustainability in SES depends on the environments created by humans [55]. Although agriculture and livestock have radically altered natural landscapes with multiple social-ecological effects [50][52][56][57][58], the issue of spatial scales in the SES theory has been little explored [55][59]. The poor understanding of the linkages between the processes of social-ecological change at different scales leads to errors in estimating impacts and the design of public policies for land-use planning and adaptation [60]. Therefore, this research contributes to reducing the scalar gap. Considering the current trend in livestock production and consumption, researchers are facing an unprecedented challenge in sustainability throughout the agri-food system [61], so exploring the viability of SPS within the ecological, social, and economic dimensions represents a priority for the region. Sustainable solutions will have to be constructed by combining personal and political actions that guide the transformation and ensure ecological, social, and economic benefits that can last over time [62] and strategically amplify across space and sustained over time.


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