Soaring global demand for meat could send the growth of the livestock industry spiralling out of control unless better regulation is introduced, the FAO has warned.

In its State of Food and Agriculture 2009: Livestock in the Balance report, published this week, the FAO claimed that an absence of strong governance of the livestock sector had led to widespread environmental damage as well as threats to human health.

As livestock numbers increased, they were placing increased pressure on land, air, water and biodiversity.

The report also highlighted the recent emergence of the A(H1N1) influenza strain, which contained genetic material from human, swine and poultry viruses, as a serious health threat.

"There is an urgent need for strengthened governance of the livestock sector, supported by adequate levels of public and private investment," the report said.

The FAO called on governments, international institutions and other stakeholders to support an 'agenda for action'.

"The livestock sector requires a delicate balance of policy interventions and institutional innovations if it is to continue to meet the multiple, often competing, demands of society," it said.

Stakeholders should focus on increasing the sustainability of using natural resources and improving management of animal diseases, it added.

Members of the British livestock industry hit back at the FAO, claiming the UK was already making strides to tackle the issues highlighted by the report.

"We are very engaged in the topic and looking to make continual improvements," said head of marketing at Bpex, Chris Lamb, citing the recently published meat and dairy roadmaps as examples.

However, Western Europe should help developing nations make similar advances, he conceded.

The livestock sector contributes 40% to the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a billion people.