New study injects new life into the livestock 'goods' and 'bads' controversy

A new two-volume report, Livestock in a Changing Landscape, released in March 2010, makes the case that the livestock sector 'is a major environmental contributor' as well as a major livelihood of the world's poor.

The report's co-editor, biologist Harold Mooney, says: 'We want to protect those on the margins who are dependent on a handful of livestock for their livelihood. . . . On the other side, we want people engaged in the livestock industry to look closely at the report and determine what improvements they can make.' Among the key findings in the report are:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth's land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
  • About 1 billion poor people worldwide derive at least some part of their livelihood from domesticated animals

While overconsumption of animal-source foods – particularly meat, milk and eggs – has been linked to heart disease and other chronic conditions, these foods remain a vital source of protein and nutrient nutrition throughout the developing world, the report said. The authors cited a recent study of Kenyan children that found a positive association between meat intake and physical growth, cognitive function and school performance. Published this year by Island Press, Livestock in a Changing Landscape is a collaboration of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Swiss College of Agriculture (SHL), Woods Institute for the Environment, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Scientific Committee for Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), Agricultural Research Center for International Development (CIRAD), and Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative (LEAD). Other editors of the report are Laurie E. Neville (Stanford University), Pierre Gerber (FAO), Jeroen Dijkman (FAO), Shirley Tarawali (ILRI) and Cees de Haan (World Bank). Initial funding for the project was provided by a 2004 Environmental Venture Projects grant from the Woods Institute. Here is a presentation made by ILRI Director Shirley Tarawali at the launch of the publication and workshop of the way forward 4-5 March 2010 in Switzerland.

View more presentations from ILRI CGIAR.

ILRI’s Alan Duncan on livestock and poor people in Ethiopia

In October 2009, Danielle Nierenberg of the Worldwatch Institute’s ‘Nourishing the Planet‘ project began a visit to Africa to document agricultural innovations. Her aim: “to tell stories of hope and success in food production from all over Africa.”

Early in the trip she visited the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa; she has subsequently been in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa … reporting on the project blog. This month, Danielle’s blog includes a profile of ILRI’s Alan Duncan, member of the project’s advisory group.

Responding to a question on the association between livestock production and climate change and other negative environmental impacts, Alan argues that “the blanket condemnation of livestock as ‘polluters of the planet’ misses the nuances of differences between livestock’s role in the rich North and the poor South. Limiting intensive livestock production which oversupplies protein to those in developed countries is probably good for the planet. But in places like Ethiopia, livestock are a crucial element of poor people’s livelihoods and their nutrition. They utilize byproducts of cereal production (straw) and turn them into high-quality protein (meat and milk) for hungry people. They also serve as a source of security in marginal environments, acting as a buffer against disaster in drought-prone environments. Reducing livestock numbers in Africa would have a relatively minor effect on global GHG emissions but would have many negative consequences for the world’s poorest.”

Read more … (Nourishing the Planet Blog)

Follow Danielle on the the Nourishing the Planet project blog

Alan Duncan’s Blog

Putting livestock on the climate change table

New options should focus on helping hungry animals and people adapt to climate change while mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions of small-scale livestock production systems.

Farm animals have been providing the world with an uncommon array of benefits since before the dawn of agriculture. Indeed, most small-scale farming even today would be impossible without them. But it is the world’s poorest people—some one billion of them—who depend on cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and other domestic animals the most. Livestock keeping helps them sustain their herding cultures or small-scale farming (e.g., animal manure fertilizes croplands; cattle and buffalo pull ploughs and transport farm produce to markets). Livestock provide them with a rare means of earning and saving an income (people can sell milk, eggs, manure or surplus stock, or they can find jobs in dairy or related businesses). Livestock foods feed hungry people (families can consume the milk, meat and eggs their stock produce or sell these high-quality foods to buy cheaper starchy foods). And livestock are a last hedge to protect households against the shocks common to the rural poor—from drought, flood or disease that destroys food crops in the field, to market distortions that make farm produce worthless, to civil unrest that makes people flee their homes, and, finally now, to a warmer world with increasingly unpredictable weather and extreme weather events.

But the inexorable rise of human populations, along with the aspirations and appetites of their growing middle classes, have led also to global livestock populations of increasing numbers and increasingly intensive livestock production practices. While overconsumption of red meat and other livestock foods is damaging the health of many people of the North, under-consumption of these nourishing foods is hurting, and killing, many people of the South. In terms of the environment, livestock production globally causes up to 18% of the human-generated greenhouse gases that are warming our planet. Livestock do this both directly (methane, for example, is produced in the rumination processes of cud-chewing animals) and indirectly (such as the felling of forests to make room for fodder crops and ranching). The factory farms of industrialized countries not only can treat animals inhumanely but also can pollute air and water and threaten human as well as animal health. The herding and farming families of developing countries, on the other hand, typically maintain their ruminant animals on poor-quality feeds that make conversion of feed to milk and meat inefficient and environmentally damaging—skinny ruminants on poor diets, while not competing with people for grain, produce much more methane per unit of livestock product than do well-fed cattle, sheep and goats.

Just one hundred years ago, the principles and practices of animal husbandry were pretty similar across all the regions of the world where it was practiced (which pretty much meant all the regions of the world). But as schisms have opened up between the livestock production systems and peoples of today’s rich and poor worlds, we must now start from a new understanding—an understanding based on decades of livestock and systems research—that ‘local context’ is everything.

In the North, we need to focus on mitigating the impacts of livestock production and consumption on climate change. We already have many workable and alternative ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental and health ‘bads’ of intensive livestock production systems. We need to get them implemented and to begin monitoring our reductions in livestock-produced greenhouse gases as we begin to build more sustainable and healthy food systems.

In the South, where most of the world’s poor live, work and are fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers and herders, the impacts of climate change will be greatest—and typically experienced at first hand. These farmers and herders include the largely rainfed crop-and-livestock farming communities that, unknown to many, have become the world’s biggest source of staple foods for the poor as well as many of the world’s most renowned herding cultures.

In the rural South, there are few ways of making a living other than by producing food from the land. Therefore, while we need to encourage people to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their livestock enterprises, we need to focus most urgently on helping these people and communities to adapt their production systems to climate change. New incentives and technology and policy instruments should allow them to continue to provide the foods, jobs, livelihoods and environmental services that their livestock make possible and doing so in increasingly more efficient and sustainable ways.

With a perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages fast approaching—and 1 billion livestock livelihoods at the very centre of a nexus of human, climate and environmental vulnerabilities—the time for helping developing countries and communities to transform their livestock sectors has come.

As we move further into a 21st century characterized by depleted natural resources and the projected ‘human tsunami’ that is expected to peak by mid-century with a population of more than 9 billion, those of us in research for development need to focus our energy and attention on the little- as well as well-known levers that drive big change.

Across the developing regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the raising and selling of farm animals, and the increasing consumption of milk, meat and eggs, together represent one of those ‘big-change’ levers. The ubiquitous small-scale livestock enterprises found in every country of the developing world can represent pathways out of poverty and hunger. They can also promote climate change. Livestock researchers are acutely aware that they are working at these critically important crossroads.

This is Chapter One of the ILRI Corporate Report 2008–09: Download the full report

Putting livestock food on the climate-change table

It’s time for climate negotiators to put meat on the bones
of the next climate agreement

By Carlos Seré, Director General, ILRI

Mozambique, Tete province, Muchamba village

Worldwide our climate is changing, and livestock, which are vital to food security and to agricultural systems in most marginal regions of the world, must adapt to survive, as must the herders and farmers who keep them.

Livestock systems are a major global asset. They occupy 45% of the earth’s surface, employ at least 1.3 billion people, and are valued at about 1.4 trillion US dollars. They provide 17% of the calories and a third of the protein we consume. According to FAO, milk is the world’s number one agricultural commodity, worth about $144 billion annually, and meat from cows, pigs and chickens rank 3, 4 and 5, respectively.

These statistics, however, hide stark differences in how livestock are raised. In poor countries, most livestock are raised on small farms or herded by pastoralists. Throughout their (usually long) natural lives, they survive largely on grass and other vegetation, including the stalks, leaves and other ‘wastes’ of food crops after the grain has been harvested.

In contrast, most livestock in wealthy countries are ‘factory-farmed’ using industrial processes. These short-lived animals are quickly fattened by feeding them vast quantities of corn and other grains – food that could be eaten by people.

Livestock contribute about 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. The vast majority of these emissions come from wealthy countries practicing factory farming. All of Africa’s ruminants combined, for example, account for only 3 percent of the global methane emissions from livestock.

Most farmers in developing countries practice either mixed-crop and-livestock farming or pastoral production on rangelands. These smallholders and herders leave tiny environmental footprints in terms of inputs. Even so, investments that increase their efficiency and productivity in terms of breeding and feeding could remove millions of tons of methane and carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Livestock play central roles in the lives of the poor. If livestock are lost, households can slip into chronic “poverty traps”. Experts believe that climate change is particularly hurting Africa’s livestock and other food producers and the ecosystems on which they depend. And they predict things are going to get worse on the continent, probably much worse. The productivity of rain-fed cropping systems is likely to drop, and do so dramatically in some areas; water shortages will become more common; and important human, livestock and crop diseases are likely to spread to new regions and become more severe.

Many of the world’s small-scale livestock keepers will have to adapt, for example, by changing the mix of livestock species they keep and the types of crops they grow, or switching to new sources of feed for their animals. Some will probably have to get out of agriculture altogether.

When negotiators meet later this year in Copenhagen to finalize the global climate pact, they must pay attention to the many small farmers and herders who are already feeding most of the world’s poor. And they must begin to pay attention explicitly to farm animals that remain neglected by policymakers even as they become increasingly important to food security and raising smallholder incomes. African negotiators in particular need to be champion the cause of small-scale animal agriculture, which remains the backbone of their nations’ economies.

Food security and climate change are inextricably linked. Policymakers must become adept at moving on both fronts simultaneously. And if our climate negotiators hope to address the needs of more than a billion animal keepers n the world, they must begin to provide differentiated policies that support rather than neglect the multifarious small livestock enterprises that make food production possible throughout the developing world.

When worlds collide: Those who eat too much meat – and those who eat too little

Our concern for the environment is proper – and needn’t override concern for the livestock livelihoods of a billion poor people.
In late 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming. A study it had conducted, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, estimated that livestock are responsible for 18% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of all the world’s transport.

Animal rights groups grabbed this news and promoted it widely, saying that that keeping a cow was more damaging to the environment than running a sports utility vehicle (SUV) and that the answer was for the world to become vegetarian. Since then, several world leaders have repeated that livestock production is a major culprit in human as well as environmental ill health. Most people would agree that it is improper that a gas-guzzling SUV – a symbol of the rich – is considered a legitimate need, while a cow – a critical income and food source for a billion poor people – is not.

Of course, many people who eat too many animals products have a lot to gain from reducing their consumption of such high cholesterol foods. Unhealthy diets overloaded with fatty meat and dairy products is a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and circulatory disease, mostly in rich countries. But for one billion of the world’s poorest people today, eating less of something you don’t have any access to in the first place is not an option. We cannot fairly equate the problem of heart disease resulting from consuming too much cholesterol with the problem of the malnourishment and resulting death of millions of children under two years old due to their consumption of too little cholesterol. And we shouldn’t try. The health of everyone matters. What tends to get lost in these arguments is science-based evidence that we can work towards one health for all.

For example, all of Africa’s ruminants put together account for just 3% of the world’s methane emissions. So while it may make sense to reduce the number of livestock in rich countries, getting rid of Africa’s livestock populations would make little difference to global warming but would have catastrophic impacts on livelihoods and national economies. That’s because most of the world’s "bottom billion" rely on cows and other farm animals to earn income; without their farm animals, their livelihoods would disappear. And most poor livestock-dependent families don’t actually eat meat – they can’t afford to. They sell it to wealthier consumers and use the money they’ve earned to buy cheaper food.

Ultimately, we need a balanced approach to solving complex environmental problems, one that does not hurt the many people who depend on livestock for food and livelihoods. Asking a person in New York or London or Tokyo to reduce their meat consumption for the good of their health and that of the planet is one thing. It’s quite another to ask a household subsisting on a daily diet of maize meal porridge to do without any animal protein or any livestock income with which to buy more nourishing food.

Having said that, we do need solutions to environmental problems, including global warming, caused by the industrial production of livestock in rich countries. And we do need new livestock feeding systems that meet the needs and circumstances of the world’s small farmers—systems that would allow their farm animals to convert feed to meat and milk more efficiently, and with less emission of methane.

But to join up all our fragmented knowledge, we’re going to need a common currency with which to assess the costs and benefits of different activities and processes. This goes beyond simplistic solutions such as stopping the world from eating meat and dairy. We need fairer ways to look at carbon emissions and perhaps start looking at individuals’ carbon footprints. For example, Stephen Pacala says we should ‘follow the money to find the big emitters’ and he highlights that the richest 500 million people in the world (7% of the world’s population) is responsible for emitting half of the world’s total carbon dioxide. In comparison, the ‘bottom billion’ emits practically nothing. He proposes a cap on personal emissions.

These are the kinds of differentiated solutions we could be exploring and discussing. And with the help of science and equitable and evidence-based policymaking, we can tackle our concerns for the earth and all its people. It’s time our health—the health of the planet and the health of its people—were treated as a single health issue. Different solutions will be needed for different situations. This is within our powers. All we have to give up is the idea that one solution for one group must come at the expense of another.

Another ‘Inconvenient Truth’

ILRI director general Carlos Seré responds to an August 2007 New York Times article about animal rights groups promoting vegetarianism as an answer to global warming
Claudia Deutsch reports in the New York Times (29 August 2007, and picked up in the International Herald Tribune), that animal rights groups are coalescing around a message that ‘eating meat is worse for the environment than driving’. They are urging people to curb greenhouse gases by becoming vegetarians. These groups are citing a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that states that livestock business generates greenhouse gases. That’s true; methane and carbon dioxide produced by livestock contribute about 15 per cent to global warming effects. But simply focusing on this contribution to global warming distorts the problem and, more importantly, fails to offer solutions. Research tells us it would make little difference to global warming if we somehow removed all the livestock in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. The impact on livelihoods there, however, would be catastrophic.

What the animal rights folks are not saying (and the FAO report does say) is that for some one billion people on earth who live in chronic hunger, in degrading poverty and in degraded environments, the lowly cow, sheep, goat, pig and chicken provide nutrition, income and major pathways out of poverty, just as they did, until this century, in rich countries. In poor countries today, more than 600 million rural poor people depend on livestock directly for their livelihoods and farm animals account for some 30 percent of agricultural gross domestic product, a figure FAO expects to rise to 40 percent in the next 20 years. Virtually every industrialized country at one stage built its economy significantly through livestock production and there is no indication that developing countries will be different. Do we want to deny one-third of humanity—the 2 billion people living on less than 2 dollars a day—what has been such a critical and ubiquitous element in the development of industrialized countries?

The animal rights groups argue that humanity could help stem global warming by switching to a plant-based diet because mass-production of animals can lead to environmental as well as health problems. But the livestock that eat grain in the United States eat grass in Africa. The beef that causes heart disease in Europe saves lives in Asia. And the manure that pollutes water in Utah restores soils in Africa. The world is big and full of difference between the have’s and have not’s. In one city, too much cholesterol is a daily fear; in another, too little. But for much of humanity, livestock farming, most of it involving one or two cows or a few goats and sheep or pigs and chickens raised on tiny plots of land or in urban backyards, reduces absolute poverty, malnutrition and disease and often actually helps to conserve natural resources.

Demand for livestock products is in any case skyrocketing in developing countries, making an increase in animal production in those countries inevitable and this argument academic. FAO and other groups are predicting that the impacts of this on-going ‘livestock revolution’ will change global agriculture, health, livelihoods, and the environment. We should be looking for ways not to stop this livestock revolution (which, being demand-led, is impossible) but rather to harness it for human as well as environmental welfare. And before setting ourselves the task of ridding the world of animal flesh, we might try ridding it instead of unspeakable poverty, hunger and disease. We need a balanced approach to solving complex environmental problems, one that does not hurt the many people who depend on livestock for food and livelihoods.