Ethical Camel Dairying

Camel milk is a gift of the DESERT, and it does not make ecological sense to produce it in industrial systems.

The current buzz around camel milk causes a rush of people to enter the emerging camel dairy sector in the belief that it is a lucrative business. This is not necessarily beneficial for camels – nor does it even generate the expected profits – as these new entrants automatically follow the model provided by cow dairies: they search for camels with the best possible yields, confine them somewhere, buy feed, and invest in a milking parlour, with the intent of maximising production. Such industrial scale camel dairies are springing up in oil-rich Arab countries and elsewhere.

Keeping them in confinement subverts the nature and biology of camels – long-legged creatures that have evolved in the most sparsely vegetated environments and are designed to cover huge distances daily to find enough forage to satisfy their nutritional needs under these frugal conditions. We know from the now almost forgotten studies conducted by German biologists Birgit Dörges and Jürgen Heuck in the 1980s and early 2000s, that feral camels in Australia routinely walk up to 70 km per day. Another adaptation of camels to a desert environment is their slow reproduction with a calving interval of two years in most places (it can be less in the Horn of Africa because of two rainy seasons). The camel’s digestive system is aimed at metabolizing extremely thorny, fibrous, salty plants and that is what these animals thrive on and where their ecological advantages lie: producing food in drylands, and without use of fertilizers and fossil fuels.

Camels in Kutch in India where forage plants are quite salty.

Coupled with their tolerance of high ambient temperatures, their ability to cope with droughts, and their congenial disposition, camels are evolution’s gift to humanity and a priceless asset in light of the record temperatures that the Earth is currently experiencing in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.

This year we are celebrating the International Year of Camelids, for which the FAO has picked the official slogan the heroes of deserts and highlands that nourish people and culture. Camelids are certainly remarkable, but even bigger heroes are the people that have been stewarding them for thousands of years in extremely inhospitable environments, who have adapted their ways of life to the needs of their camel herds, rather than dominating them.

It is from these societies that we can learn how to keep camels in a way that is basically ethical and long-term sustainable:

  • Good for camels by letting them move, keeping them in natural social settings without separating mothers and babies, allowing them to choose their own menus and an environment in which their senses are stimulated.
  • Good for people by securing livelihoods, producing healthy food, and not contributing to antimicrobial resistance.
  • Good for the environment by nurturing biological diversity, recycling nutrients, replenishing the soil and avoiding the pollution that confined livestock production is associated with.
The Raika are the traditional camel herding community of Rajasthan in India

Of course, pastoralists are not perfect, especially since they are under a lot of pressure in most locations, but their principles of raising camels are basically sound and ethical and the model to follow.

Learning from the Raika camel herding community in Rajasthan, the social enterprise Camel Charisma that I co-founded, is building on their hereditary principles, with some innovations. We support the traditional nomadic system, pay a decent sum to the herders for their milk, and make an effort to provide the most hygienic milk to our customers across India. You can learn about the rationale for the dairy in this official FAO video .

Standard Operating Procedures of Camel Charisma in Rajasthan (India)

There are other people and communities who have the same approach, for instance Khandaa Byamba and her family in Mongolia who keep Bactrian camels. Even in countries where camels were not traditionally kept, such as Australia, Europe and the USA, efforts are made to keep camels in a more natural, non-industrial way.

Mongolian camel herder and advocate for ethical camel keeping Khandaa Byambaa

Coming back to the on-going International Year of Camelids, its main aim should be to find ways of supporting camel pastoral systems, rather than just focusing on increasing productivity and efficiency. We need an approach that does not see camels in isolation, but in their social and environmental contexts.

The participants of the International Workshop on Camelid Pastoralism in January 2024

In January 2024, camel pastoralists from several countries met in India to exchange experiences and chart out their future work. In their workshop statement they ‘rejected the extractive model of animal production that was superimposed on many camelid-keeping countries in colonial times and is now leading to the capital-intensive industrialisation of camelid keeping, which depends on fossil fuels, chemical inputs and imported feed. At a time when greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to prevent further global warming, fossil-fuel-free camelid development that is solar powered, makes optimal use of local resources and is in tune with planetary boundaries is the need of the hour’.

These are wise considerations and one hopes that the people, research institutions, donors that are involved with camels and development take them to heart.

For ‘Livestock Transformation’ we need to transform Animal Science…and move away from ‘efficiency’ as sole guiding principle

The International Livestock Transformation Conference that took place at FAO Headquarters in Rome from 25-27th September provided plenty of fodder for thought. While it remained hazy which direction the transformation should take – except effecting better production, better nutrition, better environment and better lives – there were many good presentations and one could sense unease with the current thrust of livestock development, especially with respect to antimicrobial resistance and with animal welfare. There was a great presentation by Robyn Alders about the importance of smallholders and how to enhance their access to services and markets. It was also satisfying to see the prominence that was given to pastoralism. Hindou Oumaru Ibrahim of the Association of Indigenous Women and People of Tchad talked about the significance and practical applications of their traditional knowledge, while Mounir Louhaichi of ICARDA emphasized their role in sustainable land managment and that ‘it is not the cow, but the how’ that determines the environmental impact of livestock.

Then there was a noteworthy paper by IFAD’s Anne Mottet about ‘circularity’ with which I could not agree more. In her conclusions, she recommended better spatial distribution of livestock and even ‘leading animals to the resource’ which is basically an endorsement of pastoral systems that embrace both dispersal and mobility.

Circularity! This means reintegrating livestock with crop production to mimic as much as possible natural eco-systems in which herbivores cycle much of the nutrients they uptake from plants back into the soil. In practice, this entails sustaining animals on natural pastures or feeding them with crop by-products, rather than on especially grown feed requiring fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer. In such systems manure once again turns into a very valuable asset rather than the toxic burden it has become in concentrated animals feeding operations.

We must adopt circularity as one of the guiding principles for the design of sustainable livestock systems! It needs to replace the mantra of ‘efficiency’ which merely focuses on product output versus feed input, and ignores the fact that nutrients must be recycled by all means in order to avoid their depletion in the feed producing parts of the world and their toxic accummulation in the feed receiving countries. Arguably, the blinkered focus on efficiency is at the root of the current crisis of Dutch farming. While the Netherlands may have developed (one of) the most ‘efficient’ dairy farm systems in the world, this has also led to the unacceptable levels of nitrogen pollution in soil and water that have caused the current political crisis. They are a result of importing most feed from afar, as the Dutch Minister for Nature and Nitrogen Policy, Christianne van der Wal-Zeggelink pointed out.

In this context of transforming the livestock sector, a statement by 17 Civil Society organizations at the occasion of the upcoming International Year of Camelids 2024 is noteworthy. Besides calling for ‘Investing in decentralized infrastructure, such as networks of mini-diaries and local processing facilities1 to link camelid herders in remote areas to value chains, while also respecting and supporting our traditional ways of processing,for an alternative vision for the future of livestock, it also advocates for ‘Carving out an alternative, cruelty-free development trajectory for camelid herding that conforms to the worldview of traditional camelid communities and avoids industrialization‘.

Side-event on the International Year of Camelids

There was of also an official side-event on the International Year of Camelids 2024 that was chaired by the governments of Bolivia and Saudi-Arabia and in whichits visual identity was revealed. It had presentations by Mongolia, IFAD, and two genomics experts. Although the IFAD presentation informed about various projects involving camelid herders, communities themselves did not have a chance to speak. Hopefully they will be given a proper platform once the IYC has been officially inaugurated in December. Certainly much can be learned from them on how to best manage ‘the heroes of deserts and highlands’!

World Biodiversity Day and Pastoralists

I am currently reading a fabulous (in the true sense of the word) book by Kelly Carew ‘Beastly. A new history of animals and us‘. In it she describes her revulsion as a child to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. The former was a farmer, the latter a shepherd and inexplicably God preferred the offering of Abel (a lamb) to those of Cain (harvested crops).

I am not a Biblical scholar, but from what I understand the name Abel is derived from ibl, the Arabic word for camel, and the name Cain was associated with metal forging and copper mining. According to one source :

The Biblical conflict between Cain and his brother Abel is an iconic story of the conflict created by the copper mining operations in the Negev. Copper was mined and smelted on site using local brushwood as fuel. The mining operations denuded the area where the Bedouin and caravan tribes grazed their goats and camels causing a conflict between the miners and the shepherding Bedouin and camel herders. The conflict is represented in the Cain and Abel saga in which Cain represented the mining interests and Abel represented Bedouin pastoralism as well as the caravan tribes in the frankincense trade.

If this interpretation is correct, then it is no wonder that God preferred the sheep- or camel herding Abel to the miner/farmer Cain. Because herding livestock is the one systematic way of food production that respects and does not structurally modify ‘God’s creation’ , i.e. the Earth’s natural biodiversity and replace it with monocultures (or sometimes polycultures). It is by far the most natural way of producing food, one whose only prerequisite is trust and good communication between humans and herd animals. It requires no fossil fuels, no pesticides or any other -cides, no fertilizer. It is a much more efficient way of protein production than factory farming and feedlotting – systems which consume more human edible protein than they generate although they are conjured up as necessary to feed the world.

As Keggie Carew eloquently and emotionally conveys in Beastly, we KNOW that industrial livestock faming serves as a n incubator for zoonotic diseases that can jump over to humans, and we also KNOW that replacing tropical rain forests with palm oil plantations and other mono-cultures exposes humans to new disease vectors. We are also realizing that the most effective way of stablizing the climate is by conserving biodiversity, and that these two environmental issues can not be disentangled.

We know all this, yet as an international community we are paralysed. We continue to pump carbon dioxide into the air, pour asphalt over the ground, and support and subsidize industrial and factory farming. Not that we are not concerned about ‘conservation’: At the last Conference of the Parties to the United Convention on Biodiversity held in Montreal in December 2022, the world agreed on conserving 30% of the earth’s land and sea through the establishment of protected areas (PAs) and other area-based conservation measures (OECMs).

Yet, this was a highly controversial target opposed by many indigenous peoples because ironically and tragically they are the ones who are prone to be affected negatively. It is in their ancestral territories that these conservation areas are likely to be established, because they most closely resemble nature.

The 30% target would be fine, if we now supported pastoralists and other indigenous peoples, to continue stewarding biodiversity. But Conservation with a big C has a bismal record with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples and it seems as if only affluent western wildlife agencies come out on top. Although ‘fortress conservation’ has become discredited, in practice it still predominates.

Look at the Raika camel and sheep/goat herders of Rajasthan – people who produce milk and meat in a humane and ethical way, while also stewarding the environment. They tolerate that leopards prey on their animals without taking retribution, ther herds support germination and regeneration of local acacia trees, while also providing organic manure. Yet these services go unrecognized and these genuine conservers of biodiversity are regarded as threat to conservation and have lost their long-standing grazing rights in places such as the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

No wonder few young people want to continue in this profession which combines food production wth environmental services.

Reinstating the rights of pastoralists to their ancestral territories and prioritizing them over mining and other interests would go a long way towards saving both biodiversity and limiting climate change. It would be a measure that does not cost anything and have many positive social percussions as well. But, alas, at the moment I do not know of any single country where this is happening (although I would love to be told that I am wrong). Amazingly, the story of Cain and Abel is still very relevant more than two thousand years later.

The International Year of Camelids 2024: How can it benefit camel pastoralists?

It is late March 2023, and there are no plans, as yet, for celebrating the International Year of Camelids (IYC) that the United Nations General Assembly has declared for 2024. Compare that situation with the status of preparations for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists that will happen in 2026 and for which a large number of active regional preparatory groups have already worked out detailed activity plans, in a bottom-up initiative.

With respect to camelids – which includes the two Old World Camels (Bactrian and dromedary), as well as four New World Camelids (llama, guanaco, alpaca and vicuna) – there is no coordinated approach. Certainly, interest in, and research on, camelids has snowballed in recent years, with regular conferences happening, and camel milk being hyped for its health enhancing properties. There is an effort of some kind to ‘turn the camel into the cow’ in terms of global significance, with research focusing on camels as such, without consideration of their socio-economic and ecological context. The prime interest is in increasing yield and performance under controlled conditions; large scale dairy farms such as in the UAE, with hightech interventions including artificial inseminaton and embryo-transfer, are held up as model.

Map showing many of the camelid pastoralist groups (not complete) Available at

But such visions exclude the traditional camel pastoralists and do nothing for the continuation of their herding systems that have generated the amazing genetic diversity of camelid breeds and types adapted to local conditions. They will eventually result in the dangerous genetic uniformity that we have in the dairy cattle sector and they ignore the close human-animal relationships that are typical for camel pastoralists. If we continue on this path, camels will become cogs in the wheel of big farms where they lose their individuality and are regarded as input-output machines. And where they are cut off from their original ecological role of converting scarce and dispersed desert vegetation into animal protein, and instead fed with imported feed grown far away.

Camel herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

The International Year of Camelids presents an opportunity to set up a different development trajectory and avoid the errors of the cow dairy sector. Building on the traditional knowledge and ethics of camel pastoralists it provides a chance to carve out a new, cruelty-free, ecologically sound and community centered approach to dairying, on the lines that we have been pursuing through our social enterprise Camel Charisma and for which we have linked up with the startup Nomadic Nutrition. If taken up more widely, I am sure this path will benefit the planet and also appeal to the many who currently believe they have to be vegetarian or vegan in order to be good people.

My organization, the League for Pastoral Peoples, has hosted two preparatory meetings for the IYC in which people working with both dromedary camels and New World camelids have participated. More background information about the IYC is available in this presentation that I recently made at the Oxford Desert Conference.

Pastoralism at the Oxford Real Farming Conference!

Forgive me for engaging in some self-promotion, but I am incredibly excited to share that my new book Hoofprints on the Land. How traditional herding and grazing can restore the soil and bring animal agriculture back in balance with the Earth will be launched on 5th January at the Oxford Real Farming Conference which is the ‘largest gathering of the agroecological movement on the planet, dedicated to transforming food & farming systems for good’.

I could not think of a better venue for releasing Hoofprints which is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, both in UK and USA.

This is how the publisher describes it:

A timely, powerful but also incredibly lyrical book about nomadic pastoralism and how traditional herding cultures are not a thing of the past but a regenerative model for the future. Nomadic herding is the most ancient and natural means of keeping livestock, and this book debunks the myth that animal-free agriculture is the only way forward for a healthy planet.

Hoofprints on the Land is Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s passionate rallying cry for those invisible and forgotten herding cultures that exist all over the world, both of ancient heritage and modern pioneers. These are people that tend their flocks, from alpacas to reindeer, cattle and sheep, camels, goats and yaks, in harmony with the land and in partnership with their animals, a relationship that is founded not on exploitation but reciprocity.

Hoofprints is already available for pre-order from Chelsea Green Publishing (in the USA), Amazon, and some other bookshops which ship globally.

Will the UN Convention of Biological Diversity ever help the true guardians of biodiversity?

Recently I had the pleasure and good fortune of visiting the Van Gujjars, a buffalo breeding transhumant community that traditionally migrates between their winter stays in the forested foothills of the Himalayas and alpine pastures in the summer. As our host and guide, Meer Hamza, founder of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuvak Sangathan, explained, the identity of this community is based on its intimate relationship with the Gojri buffalo breed that is able to climb up incredibly steep hillsides and produces totally natural – and cruelty free – milk is processed into butter, ghee, paneer and khoa, with male buffaloes being sold to farmers who use them to genetically upgrade their own stock.

The Van Gujjar way of life is about the most ecologically positive one can imagine, with their seasonally used homes built only out of natural materials and an almost complete independence from fossil fuels and non-solar energy.

One would think that the Van Gujjar’s role in producing food without the usual externalities and in harmony with nature would be recognized and merit all possible support, but instead they face constant harassment on their migrations and are threatened by eviction from the Forest Department, as much of their territory has been declared a national park.

During migration between summer and winter pastures, the Van Gujjar often camp on the roadside.

This battle has already been going for decades and taken on many twists and turns, too complex to reiterate here. Suffice it to say that life is made difficult for people who basically conserve nature, although India, together with almost all other countries, is a signatory of the legally binding UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The Nagoya Protocol was supposed to ensure that communities who steward biodiversity receive benefits and introduced the concept of ‘Community Protocols’.

It is now twelve years ago that the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their Utilization was negotiated as an addendum to the CBD to ensure benefits reached those communities that actually steward biological diversity and are holders of traditional knowledge on genetic resources. The Nagoya Protocol obligated its parties to encourage the development of Community Protocols in which indigenous and local communities would document their role in the conservation of genetic resources and biological diversity. It was hailed as a milestone by both governments and Civil Society,including my own organization. Together with like-minded NGOs we jumped on this opportunity enthusiastically, expecting it to be an avenue to finally get recognition for pastoralists and their biodiversity conserving ways. We catalysed a number of ‘biocultural community protocols’ by a number of pastoralist groups, including several in India, but also in Kenya and elsewhere. Only to find out that they were totally ignored and had no impact whatsoever.

Looking back on almost twenty years of advocacy, it seems to me that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has not really made any difference. It was ill-designed from the start by placing biodiversity and genetc resources under control and ownership of nation states rather than declaring them as our common global heritage. As most biodiversity is found in the South, while its commercial applications benefitted the North, this probably seemed an equitable approach that would compensate the so-called ‘developing countries’ for past injustices. Furthermore, the move was supposed to encourage countries to steward their biodiversity, but in practice it has reduced biodiversity into a commercial good. Those communities who actually protect biodiversity by means of their way of life continue to be ignored, left unsupported, or and evicted from the ancestral territories they conserved.

One of the several attempts of promoting conservation partnerships with indigenous communities, is the Dana Declaration on Mobile People and Conservation that was the outcome of a workshop held in Jordan by conservationists in 2002. Recently a follow-up workshop (Dana +20) was held, this time with representatives of pastoralist and other mobile communities that put together the Dana+20 Manifesto on Mobile Peoples

Will the manifesto be heard at the upcoming 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) of the UN Biodiversity Conference that will take place in December in Montreal?

There is always a lot of fanfare around the COPs, but in reality few if any benefits have trickled down to the communities who live with biodiversity. Besides the Van Gujjars, look at what is happening in Tanzania with the Maasai being evicted, and closer to home, there are the few remaining Raika pastoralists who are threatened by the establishment of a tiger reserve in their monsoon grazing grounds, although they are singlehandedly responsible for the conservation of India’s dwindling camel population.

Review of ‘Livestock for a Small Planet’ by Judith Schwartz in the Pastoral Times

Judith Schwartz is one of the few environmental journalists who recognize the importance of livestock for the health of the planet. She is author of the classic Cows Save the Planet, and more recently of Reindeer Chronicles. I am delighted to share her review of ‘Livestock for a Small Planet‘, originally published in the latest edition of Pastoral Times (a highly recommendable broadsheet about happenings in the pastoral world that currently comes free of charge into your inbox).

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s timely and compelling report is an homage to Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, which places food at the center of social justice and calls attention to the ecological cost of industrial meat production and consumption. In the five decades since that book’s publication, the world has gotten yet smaller, thanks to the Internet, more accessible travel, and increasingly opaque global supply chains. In addition, livestock—the heartbeat of traditional cultures throughout the world and integral to the livelihood of a billion-plus people—have become vilified and blamed for crises from water shortages to climate change. Köhler-Rollefson’s succinct, readable book directly takes on widespread misunderstandings about animal agriculture and shows how nature-aligned livestock stewardship can sustain people and planet. At a time when anti-livestock rhetoric has reached a treble pitch (to wit: with world leaders at this month’s COP26 climate summit urged to forego meat) Köhler-Rollefson’s cogent, clear-eyed account is a powerful corrective.

            Rather than getting mired in well-trodden arguments, the author offers a fresh angle on animal-land dynamics informed by decades of observing pastoral practices. For example, she points out that nature has designed plants to be stationary and animals to be on the move. Under modern, industrial management, however, animals are kept in place while plants are cultivated as commodity feedstock and delivered to livestock, a system that involves shipping goods around the world. The health of the land, the animals, and the people who consume animal products all suffer as a consequence. This plant-animal “role reversal”, she writes, transforms a system based on solar energy into one totally dependent on fossil fuels. Highlighting the folly of manipulating nature to conform to markets cuts through squabbles about the need to intensify production in order to feed the world.

            Köhler-Rollefson brings in the perspective of pastoralists, whose voices are often missing in policy discussions. Conversations about livestock tend to betray Western ethnocentrism, she says. She makes the point that we humans evolved in tandem with the animals we raise, and stresses the deep knowledge that herding cultures have built over time. If we lose these animals and traditional herding ways, she suggests, we lose a part of ourselves.

            The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first zeroes in on nine common myths about livestock. This format allows the author to effectively counter misinformation and bring facts to what has become an emotional topic. She points out that rather than undermining food production by “taking up too much land”, livestock thrive in landscapes that are unsuited for crop agriculture. At a moment when many in western countries see livestock as climate villains and meat eating as unethical, Köhler-Rollefson makes the distinction between industrial management, which is environmentally destructive and cruel to animals, and pastoral systems, which regenerate dryland environments and afford animals better lives than in the wild.

            The author takes on the fraught topic of greenhouse gas emissions, emphasizing the distinction between methane, a short-lived gas generated by the breaking down of plant material, and carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere indefinitely. As she acknowledges, this is a complex matter and the focus of much fuzzy “cows-are-bad” math. She correctly says that regenerative grazing can build carbon in soils, thereby absorbing atmospheric CO2, and mentioned the high-profile example of ranch-owner and one-time US presidential candidate Tom Steyer. She could have noted, however, that restorative livestock rearing is more than a quirky California trend, as grassland restoration via holistic grazing is a rapidly growing, worldwide movement. For example, Savory Global now has training hubs in twenty countries and has developed land-to-market meat, dairy, wool, and leather supply chains based on ecological monitoring protocols. This underscores the increased awareness of grazing solutions and the wealth of potential alliances for pastoral communities.

            One small quibble is the author’s parenthetical remark that grasslands require occasional burning. This is not true of all grassland ecosystems. What is necessary is a means of breaking down senescent vegetation. As Allan Savory points out, this process can occur chemically, through fire, or biologically, via the digestion of ruminant animals. While fire emits particulates and greenhouse gases and leaves bare soil, grazing sustains moisture and promotes more life on the land. It is important to acknowledge that herbivores represent an alternative to fire as well as a factor in fire resilience.

            The second part articulates a vision for livestock management that aligns with nature and the needs of herding societies. The author challenges the assumption that we should intensify animal production, saying that what we actually need is to extensify livestock herding so that more plant waste material can be “upcycled” to protein-rich food and more land benefits from regenerative animal impact. She highlights the value of heritage breeds suited to specific locales and the need to empower small-scale farmers and herders. This part, a blueprint for a just, ethical, and regenerative livestock future, is essential reading,: a manifesto for human-animal partnership on a resource-stressed planet.

             “Livestock for a Small Planet” extends a hand to readers familiar with problems linked to modern animal agriculture but may not be aware of alternatives—or that pastoral cultures have much to teach us. In all, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson does a wonderful job in showing the role livestock play in making our small planet go round.

Livestock for a Small Planet

On 5th October, the League for Pastoral Peoples will be launching a new booklet ‘Livestock for a Small Planet’ with a panel of renown livestock experts who have kindly agreed to discuss it.

You can register for this event here and download the publication below

In this small volume I have tried to distill the essence of what I have learnt from the Raika and other pastoralists over the last 30 years, mainly by observing how they are obsessed with grazing for their herds and keeping them healthy, how they treat animals as part of their families, and how they look at landscapes through the eyes of their flocks. Basically how they have a holistic view instead of atomized knowledge as scientists tend to have.

Over the last few years the discussion about livestock has become extremely polarized, with one faction wanting us divorce from our 10,000 year old relationship with farm animals. On the other side is the pro-livestock lobby which does not admit to any faults with how livestock is often being kept and believes in increasing ‘efficiency’ to compensate for livestock emissions and environmental impacts.

There is a golden middle way of keeping livestock humanely and within planetary boundaries for which traditional herding communities (pastoralists) can show us the way. If we adopt their principles of keeping Iivestock in tune with nature, much will be gained and we will be in a much better position to cope with climate change and the increasingly variable conditions this entails.

I am the first to admit that it is impossible to immediately implement a transition to pastoralism everywhere, but we need to adopt the goal post of going back to solar powered rather than fossil fuel powered animal husbandry, say by 2040. And we need to begin that transition now, before it is too late! Lets focus our energies there rather than on eliminating livestock from the planet. They are indispensable allies in keeping the earth inhabitable and we just need to treat them as such – and not as slaves.

I am very grateful to Vandana Shiva for being one of the first readers and am delighted to share her quote:

“Humans are animals. Pastoralists, small farmers, indigenous cultures live with their animals as members of their family. Industrialisation of agriculture and our food systems is based on objectification, manipulation and commodification of plants and animals for highest extraction profits. This has led to violence against animals. Putting an end to the war against our relatives needs putting an end to factory farming and industrial agriculture.  Ilse Köhler Rollefson’s “Livestock for a Small Planet” shows the way. It should be read by everyone who cares for the planet and animals. Most importantly, reading about animal cultures who love their animals and sustain their lives and livelihoods in loving and caring relationships with their livestock will remove the ignorance of those who are supporting fake lab food under the illusion that pushing livestock to extinction is ending animal cruelty. Intentional extermination is the highest form of violence. .”Livestock for a Small Planet” is vital reading to transcend the mechanistic, industrial paradigm which objectifies life , promotes monocultures and violent economies. It is an important contribution to protecting our rich biological and cultural diversity. It shows the path for  protecting , celebrating and regenerating the cultures of non violent livestock economies and food systems that protect the planet while nourishing people with healthy diets.”

Hoping to see you all at the launch with Elizabeth Katushabe from PENHA- Uganda, Frank Mitloehner from CLEAR Centre at University of California in Davis, Peer Ederer of the Scientific Council of the World Farmers Organization and Shirley Tarawali, Chair of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock and ILRI All cogently and charmingly moderated by Nitya Ghotge of ANTHRA!

How pastoralism and biodiversity go together…and why we are mapping pastoralists !

Buffaloes and birdlife at Chillika Lake in Odisha (India)

On 22 May, the International Day of Biological Diversity, we must recall that food production is the world’s worst enemy of biodiversity. When we cultivate crops, we replace native plant assemblages with monocultures and, in order to protect them, usually apply rounds of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizer. This cocktail eliminates the micro-organisms and insects at the bottom of the food chain, depleting amphibia, reptiles, birds, and mammals, eventually leading to sterile landscapes.

Pastoralism is the only exception from this predominant model of fulfilling our nutritional needs: the natural plant cover is not removed and herd animals directly convert biodiversity into edibles, circumventing all the toxic and carbon-intensive steps involved in most crop production. It is based on natural biological processes and is powered by the sun. Because of the absence of un-natural inputs, pastoral areas are the original ‘lands of milk and honey’.

Raika sheep flock at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary

Areas where pastoralists roam are often picked for setting up wildlife sanctuaries or national parks. This is no accident.  In the absence of crop cultivation, biodiversity thrives.  “If you have pastoralists, you do not need a national park” emphasizes Jesus Garzon-Heydt, one of Spain’s most prominent conservationists.  He is one of the movers and shakers behind the revival of Spain’s transhumance and its ancient drove roads, the Cañadas.  In medieval Spain, a network of drove roads was established by royal decree that facilitated the semi-annual movement of five million sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses between their winter quarters in the southern and coastal lowlands to summer pastures in the mountainous areas of the north. The Cañadas were up to 75 meters wide, with a total length of around 125,000 km and covering a surface of more than 420,000 hectares of common property, equivalent to 1% of Spain’s total area. This pastureland buzzes with biodiversity in terms of plants, butterflies, and beetles. Vultures made a comeback when transhumance was revived[i].

Research on Spain’s transhumant sheep also led to another important ecological discovery: The role of migratory livestock as “seed taxis”. Sheep transport thousands of seeds over hundreds of kilometres in their fleece[ii]. With changing climates, this can be an important vehicle for plants to move into new areas that fit their requirements and thereby prevent their extinction. Besides seeds, sheep can also carry lizards, beetles and grasshoppers, aiding their movement to new biotopes and adaptation to a changing biome during climate change. In Germany sheep were found to redistribute up to 8500 seeds from 57 species[iii]. The monetary value of the seed transportation services of a flock of sheep amounted to some 4500 EURO for a 200 head flock.

It is important to document the relationship between pastoralists and biodiversity. ‘Community Protocols’ are a tool promoted by the Convention on Biological Diversity to do this. This guide can be downloaded here

Sheep don’t just do this by default and the nature of their wooliness, some herders make conscious efforts to disperse the seeds of preferred plants. Pastoralists in the Islamic Republic of Iran pack seeds in little bags and hang these around the necks of their sheep. During grazing the seeds drop out through little holes in the bags and are worked into to the ground by the sheep’s hooves[iv].

It is not just that livestock transport seeds, they also aid their germination through scarification. ‘Scarification’ has nothing to do with tattoos, but is a botanical term that refers to weakening the coat of a seed, so that it can break up and germinate. Many acacia trees, for instance, have very hard seed coats and their seeds need to pass through the stomach of a ruminant in order to be able to sprout. After they have scarified the seeds, livestock also conveniently trample them into the ground like a forest gardener.

‘Trampling’ has other ecological effects as well, mostly positive, although it all depends on the intensity and the context. The depressions left by hooves fill with water and become mini-habitats for insects and amphibians, which then provide food for all kinds of birds and mammals. And here we come to the general role of grazing animals at the bottom of the food chain. Their droppings are powerful incubators for a huge diversity of beetles and buzzing insects that not only feed populations of insectivorous birds, bats and reptiles, but also break down the manure into its constituents that feed soil bacteria and loosen up the soil. The presence or absence of grazing animals in a landscape makes a huge difference to its biodiversity.

Researchers in Germany have concluded that mechanical mowing of meadows has a disastrous effect on insects, killing up to 80% of cicadas, for instance.  They see it as a one of the major factors in the dramatic loss of insect, bird, amphibian and reptile populations.that the country has experienced.[v] This is one of the reasons why ‘grazing’ is the country’s most popular nature conservation strategy and shepherds make more of their income from conservation activities than the sale of products.

Why mapping pastoralism?

Yet, livestock has turned into a bogeyman and is blamed for .many of our planetary problems. Meat is projected as the world’s biggest environmental ill. There is truth in these accusations, but they do not pertain to pastoralism which works on different principles than intensive ways of livestock production. So it is crucial that we make the distinction clear and draw attention to the potential of pastoralism for the ‘nature positive production‘ that is so prominently envisioned in the context of the International Food System Summit. By mapping pastoralism we can visualize the extent of already existing ‘nature positive production’ and that we need to support these systems and communities if we want to put our planet on a more sustainable trajectory. On 25th May, at 2 p.m. CEST, there will be an introduction to this crowd-sourced mapping project for which you can still register here.

‘Mapping Pastoralists’ is a project of the League for Pastoral Peoples and its partners. It is very much work in progress that depends on help and information from the ground. Here is the link to the map:

[i] Pedro P. Oleaa,*, Patricia Mateo-Tomás . 2009. The role of traditional farming practices in ecosystem conservation: The case of transhumance and vultures. Biological Conservation 142 (2009) 1844–1853

[ii] P. Manzano and J. Malo, 2006. Extreme long‐distance seed dispersal via sheep. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(5):244-248.

[iii] Fischer, S., Poschlod, P., & Beinlich, B. (1996). Experimental Studies on the Dispersal of Plants and Animals on Sheep in Calcareous Grasslands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33(5), 1206-1222. doi:10.2307/2404699

[iv] Koocheki,  A. 1992. Herders care for their land. ILEIA Newsletter, 8(3): 3

[v] Nickel H 2017. Evolution im Naturschutz: Von der Weide zur Wiese und zurück?

Pastoral Alchemy, Palm oil, Net-Zero Dairy and One Health

Feeding on the Indian Globe Thistle (Echinops echinatus), a plant with known medicinal properties, produces exceptionally sweet milk

‘There is a disconnect between what we feed animals and food science’

(Dr. Sylvain Charlebois @foodprofessor)

The camels that I work with and that supply the milk for the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy are said by their Raika keepers to feed on 36 different ayurvedic plants. It varies seasonally which plants they nosh on: forest trees and vines during the monsoon, and pods of acacia trees in the summer. At this time of year, in February, they are roaming around on fields that are totally covered in the Indian Globe Thistle – Echinops echinatus – a tall and spiky plant that no other livestock will touch. Locally known as unt kantalo (‘camel thistle’), it makes the milk incredibly sweet, as well as foamy. It tastes like ambrosia. Of course our camel breeders are addicted to the elixir, but even our esteemed visitor, Dr. Tatti from Prompt Innovations could not get enough of it during a recent visit!

After returning from the (thistle) field, I looked up Echinops echinatus and found out that all kinds of medicinal properties are ascribed to it: antifungal, analgesic, diuretic, reproductive, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, antipyretic, and antibacterial properties. Its even good for your sex-life! (Is that why camel milk is regarded as an aphrodisiac?)

By indulging in thistles, camels actually provide three different kinds of services:

  • They de-weed which is appreciated by the farmers who own the land and who hate unt-kantalo, that creeps up during the time their land lies fallow.
  • They provide organic manure and deposit it precisely where it is needed
  • They produce this wonderful milk that I can only liken to ambrosia in taste.
  • They also produce offspring!

Its almost miraculous how the camels transform an unwanted material into a health tonic and at the same time replenish and fertilize the soil. Pure pastoral alchemy! And it exemplifies how livestock is best used, in sync with nature: pastoralism only gives, it does not take.

Canada’s ‘Buttergate’: palm oil in dairy feed

I can’t help but link this scenario to a scandal that is currently engulfing the Canadian dairy industry: the fact that butter no longer softens at room temperature, apparently due to cows being fed with supplementary palm oil. Palm oil, of all things! When it is known that a. its cultivation is one of the most biodiversity destroying activities and b. it has also been associated with negative effects on human health. The Canadian public is outraged, as many have been buying butter to avoid palm oil, and dairy farmers are well subsidized in order to produce healthy food, according to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, senior director at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. In an interview he also points at a disconnect between what animals are fed and how this affects human/public health. I think this is a crucial point that needs to be remedied urgently, because it is of such relevance to the much touted One Health approach, which considers human, animal and ecological health as interconnected. It would certainly help validate pastoralist food production!

Is pastoralism naturally ‘net zero’?

And there is another hot issue to which I would like to link the observations on the thistle field: The dairy sector is now feeling the heat from the anti-livestock propaganda and is making an earnest attempt to become ‘net zero‘ in terms of Green House Gas emissions by 2050. One of the approaches they are promoting is to process manure into fertilizer. I am wondering if pastoralists are not already there at ‘net zero’ dairy production, because their systems are entirely solar powered and they use practically no fossil fuels. At the same time, they reduce the need for chemical fertilizer (whose production is extremely GHG intensive) and also the need for weed killers. It would be great if a credible research organization could do a life cycle analysis of this particular camel dairy system, as well as other pastoralist production systems!

If you are interested to learn more about the unique camel dairy system described and would like to support it, please go to our Patreon page here.