Livestock one of three ways to feed the growing world–Economist special report

Dairy cow looks out from her stall in a village in central Malawi

A dairy cow looks out from her stall in central Malawi. Can such ubiquitous backyard livestock farming in the developing world feed the growing world? (picture credit: ILRI/Mann).

A special report on feeding the world, ‘The 9-billion people question,’ appears in this week’s issue of the Economist, as the world continues to grapple with a global food crisis. The author is the Economist‘s globalization editor, John Parker. In an article titled ‘Doing more with less’, Parker argues that ‘the only reliable way to produce more food is to use better technology.’

The world has three main ways to produce more food for our growing populations, he states, and we’ll need new technology for each. The three ways are better seeds, more productive livestock systems and advanced use of plant genetics, including genetic modification.

Parker gives examples of how ‘it is possible to grow more food, more efficiently, on both a regional and a national scale.’ ‘But,’ he asks, ‘can it be done on a global scale . . . to feed 9 billion people? If so, how?’

‘The main gains will have to come in three ways,’ Parker writes: ‘from narrowing the gap between the worst and best producers; from spreading the so-called “livestock revolution”; and—above all—from taking advantage of new plant technologies.’

(1) Regarding the first way, Parker says better technology is already closing the gap between best and worst producers in comparable environments.

(2) Regarding the second way, Parker writes: ‘The second main source of growth will consist of spreading a tried and tested success: the “livestock revolution”. This consists of switching from traditional, open-air methods of animal husbandry, in which chickens and pigs scratch and root around the farm, eating insects, scraps and all sorts of organic waste, to closed “battery” systems, in which animals are confined to cages and have their diet, health and movement rigorously controlled. This entails huge losses in animal welfare, and European consumers are reacting against the system. But there are also gains in productivity and sometimes even in welfare, by reducing losses from diseases and predators that in traditional systems can be distressingly high.

‘Improving livestock farming is important because of meat’s growing share in the world’s diet. Meat consumption in China more than doubled in 1980-2005, to 50kg a year per person. Between now and 2050, meat’s share of calories will rise from 7% to 9%, says the FAO; the share of dairy produce and eggs will rise more.

‘Livestock matters for many reasons. It provides financial security in poor countries, where herds are often a family’s savings. It can affect people’s health: new infectious diseases are appearing at the rate of three or four a year, and three-quarters of them can be traced to animals, domestic and wild. Avian flu is just one example. Livestock also plays a part in global warming. Much of the methane in the atmosphere—one of the worst greenhouse gases—comes from cattle belching.

‘Since the 1980s livestock production has far outstripped that of cereals. World meat output more than doubled between 1980 and 2007. Production of eggs rose from 27m tonnes to 68m over the same period. Some countries have done better still. India has the world’s largest dairy herd. Its milk production trebled, to 103m tonnes, over a period when global milk output increased by half. Brazil increased its production of chickens fivefold in 1987-2007 to become the world’s largest exporter. Most spectacularly, China raised its output of both eggs and milk tenfold.

‘For sheer efficiency, there is little question that battery systems do a better job than traditional methods. A free-range hen scratching around might lay one or two eggs a week. Feeding her costs nothing, giving a net gain of 50-100 eggs a year. A battery chicken will lay six eggs a week. She might cost the equivalent of 150 eggs to feed, producing an annual net gain of 150 eggs. And selective breeding has made her more economic to keep. Battery chickens used to need 4kg of feed for 1kg of eggs; now they need only 2kg.

‘Moreover, it is almost impossible to scale up a farmyard operation: there are only so many insects to eat, and so many hens one family can look after. And to breed the most productive hens which convert their feed most efficiently into eggs and are most resistant to disease, you need large flocks.

‘So there are two reasons for thinking that the livestock revolution will continue. One is that some countries still lag behind. An example, surprisingly, is Brazil, which has just one head of cattle per hectare—an unusually low number even for a country with so much land. Roberto Giannetti da Fonseca, of the São Paulo industry federation, says Brazil should be able at least to double that number—which could mean either doubling beef production or using half the area to produce the same amount.

‘Carlos Sere of the International Livestock Research Institute thinks traditional systems could borrow some of the methods of closed battery-farm systems—notably better feeding (giving a small amount of animal feed makes a big difference to the weight of range-land cattle) and the introduction of new breeds for better yields (as Kabiyet did by switching from longhorn to Holstein cattle).

‘The second reason for expecting further gains is that recent genetic analysis could improve breeding dramatically. About a third of the livestock revolution has come about through selecting and breeding the best animals. Another third comes from improved feeding and the remainder from better disease control. In the 1940s and 1950s breeding relied on the careful recording of every animal in the herd or flock; in the 1970s on artificial insemination by the best sires; and in the 1980s on embryo transfers from the best females into ordinary breeding animals.

‘New genetic analysis now promises to bring in another stage, says the FAO’s Henning Steinfeld. It allows breeders to select traits more precisely and thus speeds up breeding by reducing generational intervals: if you know which genetic traits an animal has, there is no need to wait several generations to see how things turn out.

‘This will not happen everywhere. Europeans and—to some extent—Americans are increasingly influenced by welfare concerns. They jib at confining animals. The European Union has banned certain kinds of cages, and California is following suit. But, so far, people in emerging markets, where demand for meat and animal products is growing fast, are less concerned about such things, so the next stage of the livestock revolution will mainly be concentrated there.’

(3) Regarding the third way—making better use of plant genetics, Parker argues that ‘the change likely to generate the biggest yield gains in the food business—perhaps 1.5-2% a year—is the development of “marker-assisted breeding”—in other words, genetic marking and selection in plants, which includes genetically modifying them but also involves a range of other techniques. This is the third and most important source of growth.’

Read the whole special report in the Economist: The 9 billion-people question, 24 February 2011.

Read the whole article in the Economist: Doing more with less, 24 February 2011.

Listen to John Parker interviewed on this subject: A special report on food, 24 February 2011.

The cerrado: Accounting for the food miracle (or madness?)


East Africa Boran cattle at ILRI's Kapiti Ranch (photo by ILRI / Elsworth)

A recent article in the Economist, 'The miracle of the cerrado [savanna],' is still stirring up passions.

Some, like our colleague Tom Tomich, formerly at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), in Nairobi and now at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California at Davos, California, take issue with the idea that large farms are necessarily more efficient and productive than small ones.

'How NOT to feed the world

'SIR – I believe you are correct to reject neo-Malthusian pessimism about 21st Century food prospects in your leader “How to feed the world: Brazil’s agricultural miracle” (28 Aug), but in the process, you ignore some of the most painful lessons of the 20th century and glibly advocate elements of agricultural strategy that long have been discredited as inappropriate for much of the world. True, the world does face food challenges in coming decades of similar magnitude to those tackled in the latter half of the 20th century. As you note, those successes came though a mix of scientific innovation, new inputs, and national policies that linked farmers with profitable market opportunities. (These innovations were adopted by many farmers, both small and large.) And Brazil’s Embrapa provides an apt example of the transformative power of public investment in agricultural science that should be emulated by more tropical countries; Brazil, to its credit, is striving to assist other countries in efforts to strengthen their agricultural R&D agencies.

'But you do a profound disservice to serious efforts to avert future food crises and the human misery these entail by extolling “capital intensive large farms” as the focus of agricultural development. The scientific evidence refuting your approach under conditions prevailing across much of Asia and Africa has been available for decades: as long as rural wages are low (characteristic of countries with chronic mass hunger), broad-based agricultural development (involving the majority of farms, which are small) is more economically efficient, leads to higher productivity per hectare, and creates more rural jobs than your approach.

'What about all those small farmers your approach would dispossess? Brazil (like the US, Canada, Australia, and Argentina) is endowed with relatively low population densities and significant resources of arable land such as the cerrado to bring into production; these conditions largely are absent in Asia and Africa. If heeded by their policymakers, your call for primacy of capital-intensive, large-farm development is a formula for economic inefficiency and social catastrophe (depriving the majority of farmers of their livelihoods—which in turn deprives them of food) and would further entrench the politics of patronage that has inhibited sound policy in so many tropical countries.'

Others, like our friends Luigi Guarino and Jeremy Cherfas over at Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, want a broader environmental accounting:

'Is there really no downside to Brazil’s agricultural miracle?
'by LUIGI on SEPTEMBER 3, 2010

'It’s not easy to explain the Brazilian agricultural miracle to a lay audience in a couple of magazine pages, and The Economist makes a pretty good fist of it. It points out that the astonishing increase in crop and meat production in Brazil in the past ten to fifteen year — and it is astonishing, more that 300% by value — has come about due to an expansion in the amount of land under the plow, sure, but much more so due to an increase in productivity. It rightly heaps praise on Embrapa, Brazil’s agricultural research corporation, for devising a system that has made the cerrado, Brazil’s hitherto agronomically intractable savannah, so productive. It highlights the fact that a key part of that system is improved germplasm — of Brachiaria, soybean, zebu cattle — originally from other parts of the world, incidentally helping make the case for international interdependence in genetic resources.1 And much more.

'What it resolutely does not do is give any sense of the cost of all this. I don’t mean the monetary cost, though it would have been nice for policy makers to be reminded that agricultural research does cost money, though the potential returns are great. The graph shows what’s been happening to Embrapa’s budget of late. A billion reais of agricultural research in 2006 bought 108 billion reais of crop production.

'But I was really thinking of environmental and social costs. The Economist article says that Brazil is “often accused of levelling the rainforest to create its farms, but hardly any of this new land lies in Amazonia; most is cerrado.” So that’s all right then. No problem at all if 50% of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots has been destroyed.2 After all, it’s not the Amazon. A truly comprehensive overview of Brazil’s undoubted agricultural successes would surely cast at least a cursory look at the downside, if only to say that it’s all been worth it. Especially since plans are afoot to export the system to the African savannah. And it’s not as if the information is not out there.

'A final observation. One key point the article makes is that the success of the agricultural development model used in the cerrado is that farms are big.

'Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant operations and inefficient hobby farms.

'Well, leave aside for a moment whether it is empirically true that big means efficient and small inefficient in farming. Leave aside also the issue of with regard to what efficiency is being measured, and whether that makes any sense. Leave all that aside. I would not be surprised if millions of subsistence farming families around the world were to concede that what they did was not particularly efficient. But I think they would find it astonishing — and not a little insulting — to see their daily struggles described as a hobby.'

Read more at the Economist: The miracle of the cerrado, 28 August 2010, or Agricultural biodiversity Blog.

Indian dairy is big dairy – and it’s all done by small producers

India, Andhra Pradesh, Ramchandrapuram village

A recent article in the Economist — ‘Indian policymakers should see agriculture as a source of growth, not votes’ — in its 13-19 Mar 2010 issue states that: ‘Indian agriculture has performed so poorly largely because governments have treated it as a source of votes rather than as an engine of growth. . . . India’s government still fixes prices and subsidises inputs, when public money would be far better spent on infrastructure and research. . . . India needs to stop seeing agriculture as a problem to be nursed and start thinking of it as an opportunity to be grasped. . . . India is already an agricultural force in some crops. It is the second-biggest exporter of cotton and was a net exporter of cereals for a decade after 1995 . . . .’

What the Economist article omits to mention is that India nearly a decade ago (2001) became the world’s biggest milk producer. Remarkably, almost all of that milk is produced by some 40 million households keeping just a few cows or buffaloes on small plots of land. Those households are, indeed, an opportunity to be realized.

For more information about smallholder dairy research, visit ILRI’s ‘Livestock Markets Digest‘ blog.