Livestock contribute to the livelihoods of 70% of the world’s poor, including farmers, traders and labourers. The next food revolution will dramatically expand production and consumption of animal products in the developing world. This revolution, however, also threatens the livelihoods of these poor livestock keepers. Public international research can mitigate this threat and thus contribute to addressing broad developmental goals of sustainable poverty reduction, food security and enhanced livelihoods. The ‘livestock revolution’ can provide tremendous opportunities to relieve poverty and hunger worldwide, and could increase the ability of millions of poor people to move out of a subsistence existence and to join the market economy. But the competitive advantages of the smallholder farmer may be lost to largescale commercial producers, should public international research not place these concerns high on the world agenda. This shift in competitive advantage is associated with a range of forces driving change, including population growth, globalisation, and growing concerns with zoonoses and food safety. This paper discusses the impact of this livestock revolution on smallholder systems and the capacity of these systems to contribute to social and economic development. It then examines the role public research can play in enhancing the competitiveness of smallholders by addressing the technical, institutional and policy issues that put them at a disadvantage. Finally, the paper explores the funding position for such global public goods research, showing how benefits of such research will accrue to developed countries as well as to developing nations, thus supporting the rationale for North–South cooperation in this endeavour.