Skip to main content

Sustainable Cattle Ranching in Practice: Moving from Theory to Planning in Colombia’s Livestock Sector


A growing population with increasing consumption of milk and dairy require more agricultural output in the coming years, which potentially competes with forests and other natural habitats. This issue is particularly salient in the tropics, where deforestation has traditionally generated cattle pastures and other commodity crops such as corn and soy. The purpose of this article is to review the concepts and discussion associated with reconciling food production and conservation, and in particular with regards to cattle production, including the concepts of land-sparing and land-sharing. We then present these concepts in the specific context of Colombia, where there are efforts to increase both cattle production and protect tropical forests, in order to discuss the potential for landscape planning for sustainable cattle production. We outline a national planning approach, which includes disaggregating the diverse cattle sector and production types, identifying biophysical, and economic opportunities and barriers for sustainable intensification in cattle ranching, and analyzing areas suitable for habitat restoration and conservation, in order to plan for both land-sparing and land-sharing strategies. This approach can be used in other contexts across the world where there is a need to incorporate cattle production into national goals for carbon sequestration and habitat restoration and conservation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. The MBSCR project is funded by the Global Environment Facility and the Departament of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of Great Britain, and coordinated by the World Bank. The Government of Colombia manages the project and the cattle association, Fedegan, leads the project, with technical assistance from The Nature Conservancy, CIPAV, and Fondo Acción, a Colombian NGO.


  • Angelsen A (2010) Policies for reduced deforestation and their impact on agricultural production. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:19639–19644. doi:10.1073/pnas.0912014107

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Angelsen A, Kaimowitz D (eds) (2001) Agricultural technologies and tropical deforestation. CABI, Wallingford

    Google Scholar 

  • Broom DM, Galindo FA, Murgueitio E (2013) Sustainable, efficient livestock production with high biodiversity and good welfare for animals. Proc R Soc B Biol Sci 280:20132025. doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.2025

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Calle Z, Murgueitio E, Chará J et al. (2013) A strategy for scaling-up intensive silvopastoral systems in Colombia. J Sustain For 32:677–693. doi:10.1080/10549811.2013.817338

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chazdon RL, Harvey CA, Komar O et al. (2009) Beyond reserves: a research agenda for conserving biodiversity in human-modified tropical landscapes. Biotropica 41:142–153

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohn AS, Mosnier A, Havlík P et al. (2014) Cattle ranching intensification in Brazil can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by sparing land from deforestation. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111:7236–7241. doi:10.1073/pnas.1307163111

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • de Moraes Sa JC, Lal R, Cerri CC et al. (2017) Low-carbon agriculture in South America to mitigate global climate change and advance food security. Environ Int 98:102–112. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2016.10.020

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DeFries R, Rosenzweig C (2010) Toward a whole-landscape approach for sustainable land use in the tropics. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107:19627–19632. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011163107

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Departamento Nacional de Planeacion (DNP) (2015) Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2014–2018. Bogotá DC

  • Etter A, McAlpine C, Pullar D, Possingham H (2006) Modelling the conversion of Colombian lowland ecosystems since 1940: Drivers, patterns and rates. J Environ Manage 79:74–87. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2005.05.017

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • FAO (2016) El Estado de los bosques del mundo 2016. Los bosques y la agricultura: desafíos y oportunidades en relación con el uso de la tierra. Rome, Italy

  • Fedegan (2012) Logros, legados y derroteros: Balance de gestión 2011-2012. Bogotá DC

  • Fedegan (2015) Análisis del inventario ganadero colombiano 2014: Comportamiento y variables explicativas. Bogotá DC

  • Fedegan (2006) Plan Estratégico de la Ganadería Colombiana 2019. Bogotá DC

  • Fedegan (2016) Ganadería Colombiana Sostenible. Accessed 16 Jul 2016

  • Fischer J, Abson DJ, Butsic V et al. (2014) Land sparing versus land sharing: Moving forward. Conserv Lett 7:149–157

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fischer J, Brosi B, Daily GC et al. (2008) Should agricultural policies encourage land sparing or wildlife-friendly farming? Front Ecol Environ 6:380–385

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fischer J, Stott J, Law BS (2010) The disproportionate value of scattered trees. Biol Conserv 143:1564–1567. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.03.030

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Foley JA, Ramankutty N, Brauman KA et al. (2011) Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478:337–42. doi:10.1038/nature10452

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Garnett T, Appleby MC, Balmford A et al. (2013) Sustainable intensification in agriculture: premises and policies. Sci Mag 341:33–34. doi:10.1126/science.1234485

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Gerber, PJ, Steinfeld, H, Henderson, B, et al. (2013) Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy, pp. 1–115

  • Gobierno de Colombia (2016) Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (iNDC)

  • Godfray HCJ, Beddington JR, Crute IR et al. (2010) Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327:812–8. doi:10.1126/science.1185383

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Grau R, Kuemmerle T, Macchi L (2013) Beyond “land sparing versus land sharing”: Environmental heterogeneity, globalization and the balance between agricultural production and nature conservation. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 5:477–483

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Green RE, Cornell SJ, Scharlemann JPW, Balmford A (2005) Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science 307:550–555. doi:10.1126/science.1106049

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Gutiérrez-Vélez VH, DeFries R, Pinedo-Vásquez M et al. (2011) High-yield oil palm expansion spares land at the expense of forests in the Peruvian Amazon. Environ Res Lett 6:44029. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/6/4/044029

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herrero M, Havlík P, Valin H et al. (2013) Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110:20888–93. doi:10.1073/pnas.1308149110

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Herrero M, Thornton P, Notenbaert A (2010) Smart investments in sustainable food production: revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems. Science 327:822–824. doi:10.1126/science.1183725

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Herrero M, Thornton PK, Bernués A et al. (2014) Exploring future changes in smallholder farming systems by linking socio-economic scenarios with regional and household models. Glob Environ Chang 24:165–182. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.12.008

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herrero M, Thornton PK, Gerber P, Reid RS (2009) Livestock, livelihoods and the environment: understanding the trade-offs. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 1:111–120

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • IDEAM (2010) Republica de Colombia: Segunda Comunicación Nacional Ante la Convención Marco de las Naciones Unidas Sobre Cambio Climático. Bogotá DC

  • Kaimowitz D, Angelsen A (2008) Will livestock intensification help save Latin America’s tropical forests? J Sustain For 27:6–24. doi:10.1080/10549810802225168

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MADR (2013) Incentivo a la Capitalización Rural-ICR. Accessed 10 Jul 2016

  • MADS (2012) Estrategia Colombiana de Desarrollo Bajo en Carbono. Bogotá DC

  • McGroddy ME, Lerner AM, Burbano DV et al. (2015) Carbon stocks in silvopastoral systems: A study from four communities in southeastern ecuador. Biotropica 47:407–415. doi:10.1111/btp.12225

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Murcia C, Guariguata MR (2014) La restauración ecológica en Colombia: Tendencias, necesidades y oportunidades. Documentos Ocasionales 107, Centro para la Investigación Forestal Internacional (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia

  • Murgueitio E, Calle Z, Uribe F et al. (2011) Native trees and shrubs for the productive rehabilitation of tropical cattle ranching lands. For Ecol Manag 261:1654–1663. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.09.027

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Murgueitio E, Cuellar P, Ibrahim M et al. (2006) Adopción de Sistemas Agroforestales Pecuarios adoption of agroforestry systems for animal production. Pastos y Forrajes 29:1–17

    Google Scholar 

  • Nepstad D, McGrath D, Stickler C et al. (2014) Slowing Amazon deforestation through public policy and interventions in beef and soy supply chains. Science 344:1118–23. doi:10.1126/science.1248525

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Perfecto I, Vandermeer J (2010) The agroecological matrix as alternative to the land-sparing/agriculture intensification model. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:5786–91. doi:10.1073/pnas.0905455107

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Peters M, Herrero M, Fisher M et al. (2013) Challenges and opportunities for improving eco-efficiency of tropical forage-based systems to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Trop Grasslands-Forrajes Trop 1:156. doi:10.17138/TGFT(1)156-167

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Phalan B, Balmford A, Green RE, Scharlemann JPW (2011a) Minimising the harm to biodiversity of producing more food globally. Food Policy. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.008

  • Phalan B, Onial M, Balmford A, Green RE (2011b) Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: Land sharing and land sparing compared. Science 333:1289–1291

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Rao I, Peters M, Castro A et al. (2015) LivestockPlus - The sustainable intensification of forage-based agricultural systems to improve livelihoods and ecosystem services in the tropics. Trop Grasslands-Forrajes Trop 3:59. doi:10.17138/TGFT(3)59-82

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Renting H, Oostindie H, Laurent C et al. (2008) Multifunctionality of agricultural activities, changing rural identities and new institutional arrangements. Int J Agric Resour Gov Ecol 7:361. doi:10.1504/IJARGE.2008.020083

    Google Scholar 

  • Rudel TK, Paul B, White D et al. (2015) LivestockPlus: Forages, sustainable intensification, and food security in the tropics. Ambio 44:685–693. doi:10.1007/s13280-015-0676-2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scherr S, Shames S, Friedman R (2012) From climate-smart agriculture to climate-smart landscapes. Agric Food Secur 1:12. doi:10.1186/2048-7010-1-12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. (2006) Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy, pp. 1–377

  • The Montpellier Panel (2013) Sustainable intensification: A new Paradigm for African agriculture. London

  • Thornton PK (2010) Livestock production: Recent trends, future prospects. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 365:2853–67. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0134

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tilman D, Balzer C, Hill J, Befort BL (2011) Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:20260–4. doi:10.1073/pnas.1116437108

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Tscharntke T, Clough Y, Wanger TC et al. (2012) Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biol Conserv 151:53–59

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van Ausdal S (2009) Pasture, profit, and power: An environmental history of cattle ranching in Colombia, 1850-1950. Geoforum 40:707–719. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2008.09.012

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vanegas Pinzon S, Ospina Arango OL, Escobar Nino GA, et al. (2015) Plan nacional de restauración: Restauración ecológica, rehabilitación y recuperación de áreas disturbadas. Bogotá DC

  • von Wehrden H, Abson DJ, Beckmann M et al. (2014) Realigning the land-sharing/land-sparing debate to match conservation needs: Considering diversity scales and land-use history. Landsc Ecol 29:941–948. doi:10.1007/s10980-014-0038-7

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • WRI (2015) Initiative 20x20. Accessed 29 Jul 2016

Download references


The authors would like to acknowledge the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation for funding related to this article, to the Agricultural Synergies Project of Princeton University, and to the diversity of actors in Colombia who have been working on sustainable cattle ranching, including those at CIPAV, CIAT, Corpoica, and Fedegan, the Colombian Agricultural and Environmental Ministries, and the National Planning Department. Additionally, the authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Amy M. Lerner.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lerner, A.M., Zuluaga, A.F., Chará, J. et al. Sustainable Cattle Ranching in Practice: Moving from Theory to Planning in Colombia’s Livestock Sector. Environmental Management 60, 176–184 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: