The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) recently wrote two blog posts about one of their papers called “The Roles of Livestock in Developing Countries“, in which their authors argue that the livestock sector needs to be studied and assessed in a much more disaggregated manner in order to acknowledge the roles and impacts of livestock around the world – for better or for worse. Now, the motto of ILRI is “Better Lives through Livestock”, so I was originally hesitant whether they were really in a position to produce a reliably balanced account, but I was impressed both by the depth of their analysis and by their recommendations.
The first blog post assembled some of the recently published scholarly facts about livestock production and its importance particularly in developing countries. It is a fascinating read, so head on over if you have time, but I highlighted a couple of points that stood out for me below:
- Nearly 80% of poor Africans and 40 – 66% of poor people in India and Bangladesh keep livestock; overall in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, around 1 billion people who live on less than 2$ a day own livestock.
- Almost two-thirds of this billion livestock owners are women; livestock is an asset that is easier to acquire for women and more equitably distributed than land or other financial assets, and thus important for women’s independence. However, women still have less access to technology, extension services and training that would be required to make their production more efficient.
- In the developing world, livestock contributes on average to 33% of mixed-crop household income and 55% of pastoral incomes.
- The paper argues that livestock, as a relatively energy-dense and nutrient-rich food source, as well as a source of cash income from the sale of livestock products, is a major contributor to food and nutrition security.
- On the other hand, keeping livestock around may lead to more infectious diseases, which is still a major cause of illness and death in developing countries. This is especially true for zoonoses, diseases which are passed on from animals to humans, and food-borne diseases, which are particularly common in animal-source food. Currently, one new disease emerges every four months, and 75% of these originate in animals.
- Livestock in the developing world contributes 50 – 65% of total greenhouse gas emissions of livestock worldwide.
- While livestock production systems emit much more greenhouse gas emissions per kilocalorie than for example grains, the paper argues that “the potential for the livestock sector to mitigate such emissions is very large (1.74 Gt CO2-eq per year, Smith et al. 2007), with land-use management practices representing over 80% of this potential (Smith et al. 2007) and with most of the mitigation potential (70%) lying in the developing world (Smith et al. 2007).“
- While animal manure is seen as a dangerous waste product in the developed world, it is actually essential as a fertilizer in developing countries, where farmers have to manage very nutrient-poor soils and have little financial access to chemical inputs. Manure contributes to 12 – 24% of nitrogen input in crop cycles in developing countries.
The second post takes up these facts and the authors’ ideas and summarizes their recommendations that the livestock sector be perceived in a disaggregated form, though this may be more complicated and less convenient for blanket statements:
The sector is large. There are 17 billion animals in the world eating, excreting and using substantial amounts of natural resources, mostly in the developing world, where most of the growth of the sector will occur. The roles of livestock in the developing world are many . . . . [L]ivestock can be polluters in one place, whereas in another they provide vital nutrients for supporting crop production.
Some of their recommendations are as follows:
- Acknowledge the inequities inherent in whether or not to eat meat. I like the phrasing of the article which speaks of “poor food choices vs. the food choices of the poor” – it should be possible to advocate for less meat consumption in societies where this consumption is causing both public health and environmental damage and still keep in mind that meat is an important nutritional source in other communities.
- Begin to support efficient and market-oriented smallholders, rather than large-scale consolidated farms, as engines to feed the world. The paper mainly talks about ineffective market economies as reasons that consolidation is not the best solution, but I would add the environmental and human (employment! self-sufficiency!) aspect of supporting smallholders.
- Add livestock keepers as targets for environmental service payments. Rangelands can be important contributors to the working of agro-ecosystems, and a proper management of these lands and grazing rights can both mitigate the environmental damage and preserve the livelihood of pastoralists – making payment for ecosystem services an interesting option to motivate people to comply with such management practice.
- Help small-scale livestock farmers and herders to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
- Adapt extension services and market structures to the needs of smallholders, particularly to women who have until now been excluded from many of these structures.
In conclusion, the authors wrote the following:
Livestock’s roles are simply not the same everywhere.
The roles, whether good or bad, need to be accepted by the scientific community.
Research agendas need to use the livestock bads as opportunities for improvement, while continuing to foster the positive aspects. These are essential ingredients for society to make better-informed choices about the future roles of livestock in sustainable food production, economic growth and poverty alleviation.
I find that a convincing stance; while the so-called “livestock revolution” (the increased demand for animal products in the future, particularly in the developing world) does seem to put a huge strain on our resources, the authors also stress that it is not an unchangeable trajectory – and that on the other hand, we shouldn’t be too quick to reject the increase of livestock production in areas where its benefits outweigh the costs. A thought to mull over, for sure.
What do you think?
[Edited to add: Turns out some of those figures might be contentious. Check out my follow-up post More Facts About Livestock for details!]