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.

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 http://www.pastoralpeoples.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Community-protocols-web.pdf

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: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/de/map/pastoralists_563977#5/53.318/-7.053

[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? https://www.bfn.de/fileadmin/BfN/ina/Dokumente/Tagungsdoku/2017/02_Nickel_Wiese_oder_Weide.pdf

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.

On World Milk Day (1 June), Camel Milk is set to make a splash!

For the 1st time ever, a global coalition of camel milk consumers, experts & dairy producers from 35 countries will raise a virtual glass for camel milk. This is the first-time camel milk is on the global World Milk Day agenda since it began 20 years ago. Sales in camel milk are growing, as is interest, in this more natural, climate friendly and allergy free healthy dairy option, both as a stand-alone milk and as an active ingredient in camel milk products.

The global camel milk products market size was valued at USD 10.2 billion in 2019.[1]  Camel milk is highly sought after for its anti-inflammatory, strong protective proteins, anti-microbial and nutritious value and works well for lactose intolerance

“The global camel market is projected to grow at more than 10% for the next decade, so more camel milk in the future!” said Dr. Bernard Faye, veterinarian and chair of ISOCARD, the International Society of Camelid Research and Development.

The unique health benefits of camel milk:

Camel milk works across a range of physical and behavioral issues, making it a highly effective alternative.  “Parents of children with autism remain a key and growing market, as studies show the milk is safe and effective and can lead to behavioral and medical improvements,” stated Christina Adams, author of several publications on camel milk and editorial board member of the Journal of Camel Science.

“The fatty acids in camel milk are also better for human hearts as they contain more mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids than cow milk. Low in allergenic proteins, camel milk is also the best alternative to human milk and for children with severe food allergies or eczema,” said Dr Tahereh Mohammadabadi, Associate Professor, Khuzestan Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources University, Iran.

A growing market for camel milk

The Middle East and Africa dominate with more than 60% of the global camel livestock revenue. Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya consume the most per capita in the region. Saudi Arabia is the largest market in the world at around 33 litres per year, per capita. North America is expected to grow the fastest as consumers with diabetes switch to camel milk to better control sugar levels.

The cow dairy industry is known to be a well-organized and powerful lobby force. Until now the camel milk private sector has been mostly established in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. But with climate change and growing consumer concerns about ethics and farming, camel herders and camel milk producers are expanding worldwide.

For the past 50 years, camels are the second-fastest growing herbivorous livestock in the world, after buffalo, and has grown annually significantly by 4.5 % in the past decade in Africa (FAO).[2] The Middle East and the Horn of Africa camels lead the charge, as the second-fastest growing herbivore livestock in the world after buffalo (FAO).

Regions in Africa are switching to camels even where they never were before, e.g. Uganda and Tanzania « There is so much tradition and long-term use across the world, but we need more scientific research on camel in general  and especially on camel milk” Says Mohammed Bengoumi, Tunisia based FAO camel expert. 

Facing climate change on the equator in Kenya and Australia, more commercial dairy farmers are diversifying or switching to camels as they do better in tough, drought-ridden, hot climates and browse on prickly bushes and shrubs that most farm animals avoid.

“The camel milk industry is undervalued but could rival other foreign exchange earners in Kenya. Drought and the fact that 89% of Kenya is classified as arid and semi-arid land means many are shifting from cows to camels, even in southern Kenya,” said Dr James Chomba Njanja, Vice Chair of the Kenya Camel Association.

Every year an estimated 3 million tons of camel milk are officially sold and consumed around the world. But the true production level could be double that, at around 5-6 million tons per year. A fact of note is that 70% camel milk is consumed by the camel owners and never reaches the market.

“The camel saved humans for generations in the desert.  In arid areas and hot weather over 45C, we see cows suffer as they need 8-10 times more water than camels to produce 1 litre of milk,” said Dr. Abdul Raziq Kakar, a UAE based camel dairy specialist from Pakistan and Camels4All blogger.

Camel herding nomads who have traditionally bred camels for centuries are also benefiting from the interest in camel milk. “Supporting decentralized camel farming through innovative models is a great opportunity to reduce poverty and to better food security in some of the poorest parts of the world,” concluded Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, project coordinator of the League for Pastoral Peoples. 

For all these climate friendly, natural and immune-boosting reasons, please raise a virtual or real glass of camel milk to celebrate this World Milk Day!

#worldmilkday #enjoydairy #camelmilk

For information, photos and comment in Germany and India, contact me at ilse.koehlerroll@gmail.comxxxx

For information, photos and interviews with camel milk experts worldwide: Samantha Bolton

+41 79 239 23 66 – samanthabolton@gmail.com – Twitter: @camel_wild  and  @sambolton007


[1]https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/camel-milk-products-market

[2]The global milk market grew at a steady pace of 3.89% per year between 2011 and 2018 (FAO)

Rajasthan’s unique and caring camel culture is on its deathbed….but we can still save it!

Photo by Sophie Matterson taken in 2017. This camel herd no longer exists.

The news about Rajasthan’s state animal is depressing and heart-wrenching: According to the just released official livestock census of India, the country’s camel population has decreased by 37.1% since the last survey in 2012 and is now down to 250,000 (compare that to 1.5 million camels in the late 1980s, and the fact that camel numbers doubled in the rest of the world!). This has happened despite various protection measures having been put in place by the Government of Rajasthan after the previous census in 2012, such as a law prohibiting slaughter and movement across state borders.

Photo by Sophie Matterson: Where will these camels end up?

In less than two weeks, the Pushkar Camel Fair will attract thousands of tourists who come to visit what is still as billed the world’s largest camel fair, even though it has turned into a horse and amusement fair; the famous camel hill has been annihilated by helipads and resorts, causing the normally placid herders to stage a rally against these conditions.

Protest at Puskar Fair in 2018 against conditions. The rally was successful: District Collector and Fair administration provided access to water and tried to ameliorate the situation.

Nevertheless, hundreds of female camels – pregnant, lactating, with babies on foot – are currently being driven to Pushkar in order to sell them off for good. Its an arduous trek over many hundreds of miles and undertaken out of sheer desperation by traditional camel herders who have owned these herds since many generations, but who can no longer make a living from them. Although it breaks their hearts to sell off their ancestral herds, they get pressured by relatives to take this final step and exit herding. Its not just the camels and the livelihoods that are vanishing, but a whole eco-system of community knowledge and mutual support. It takes a community to raise camels!

Photo by Sophie Matterson. Raika camels are so close to their keepers they are easily milked without need for restraint

Over the last few years many of them have held on to their herds hoping that a market for camel milk would develop. But this has not materialized, except for a lucky few who live close to the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy on the campus of LPPS in Rajasthan’s Pali district and of which I am a founder.  Since it was set up, we have been getting dozens of phone calls every week by Raika begging us to purchase their milk. But despite our best efforts, we have not been able to raise turn-over and only a handful of camel herders have benefited. The milk is marketed mostly directly to the end consumer (80% of them are parents of autistic children), frozen and shipped in ice containers.

Photo by Sophie Matterson: camel milk is a magic potion!

There have also been efforts to link up with supermarket chains, but this is expensive, and our start-up has not had the necessary resources, in addition to the logistical challenges. I am convinced that camels are the dairy animal of the future, given the steady rise of temperatures and sinking water levels in Rajasthan and many other parts of the world. They are worthy of investment by all the institutions that concern themselves with food security such as FAO, ILRI, IFAD, WFP.  Sadly, none of these is somehow in a position to help support a system that provides livelihoods, saves biodiversity and produces incredibly nutritious food that seems to be an antidote to industrial diets.

In the last few years, animal welfare organizations have spent a lot of money on confiscating camels from places such as Hydrabad and then trucking the poor camels back to Rajasthan ‘where they belong’, and this is the kind of story that gets a lot of media attention. But its not a success story – although the camels may be saved for the moment, what is happening to them in the long run? For sure, a dedicated camel shelter exists in Sirohi, but its resources are also limited, camels get picked up somehow and again may undergo a harrowing transport to a slaughter house. All this could be avoided! It would be so much more animal friendly, if the remaining camel herders could be PAID a living wage to continue taking care of their herds, at least for another year. Costs would be much less than rescuing and transporting the camels back to Rajasthan and provide for their care in a camel shelter. It remains to be seen if the dedication of animal activists extends to seeing the rationale of such an approach.

Camels get rescued in Hyderabad – AFTER they have been sold and trekked for thousands of miles. This could be prevented by a proper approach and supporting camel herders with a living wage.

 

Conserving Rajasthan’s camel herds is an investment that surely will bear fruit – socially, ecologically, and in terms of human nutrition and animal welfare – in the long run. There is also reason to believe that it will eventually be financially worthwhile, considering the significant amount of  research underpinning the therapeutic qualities of camel milk for diseases, such as diabetes and autism. The ‘magic of camel milk’ is the subject of a new book by American author and autism mother Christina Adams. There are also researchers who believe that camel milk is of special value for tackling air pollution, although this is still to be published.

Another important aspect of camel milk is its very high iron content, indicating that it could be of extreme value in alleviating Rajasthan’s high prevalence of malnutrition: anaemia is present in half of the pregnant women, and 23 percent of children are born with low birth weight.  Around 39 percent of children are stunted. If we could link Rajasthan’s camel breeders who sit on about 35,000 liters of unutilized camel milk with government nutrition programs, this would be a win-win situation for everybody.

But this will take time to set up. In the meantime it is urgent to prevent loss of Rajasthan’s camel breeding herds and to prevent unnecessary camel suffering by providing a living wage to camel herders and stopping the sell-out of their herds at this Pushkar Fair.

LPPS and LPP are about to start a crowd-funding effort for this purpose. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

This is for you, pastoralists!

Savaram Raika: I challenge anybody to produce food in such an environment and animal friendly way!

Pastoralists are somehow always on the defensive, being told that they need to change their ways, are backward, unproductive, cause desertification, and harm the climate. Sigh! Nothing could be further from the truth. At the moment it’s the  IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report on Climate Change and Land that is causing a lot of consternation among pastoralists who follow such issues. Its contents are summed up by major media in headlines such as “Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet“. Although this headline is from the topnotch scientific journal Nature (!), it totally misrepresents what the IPCC report actually says! Shocking, indeed – whatever happened to scientific standards?

Pastoralists, in Africa and elsewhere, I want you to know:

  1. What the IPCC report is actually saying is “animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable & low-GHG emission systems present major opportunities for adaptation & mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. Nowhere does it mention that anybody should eat less meat. It does make some references to “better management of grazing and of livestock”, but it leaves open what precisely is meant by that.
  2. While ruminants continue to be blamed for their methane emissions, a big trend among the liberal elite in parts of the US, is to support ‘restorative grazing‘ to counter climate change by supporting carbon sequestration. For example, multi-billionaire and democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer is raising free ranging cattle on his ranch as a tool to avert climate change: Now ‘restorative grazing’ and pastoralism don’t have exactly the same goals – one is oriented at carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation, the other at food security. But both follow the same principles, and pastoralism has survived and kept the environment intact for almost 10,000 years or so, so maybe it could teach restorative grazing a thing or two?
  3. A host of research shows how important pastoralist products are for our health. This recent article by Fred Provenza et al, published in Frontiers in Nutrition elegantly summarizes it: “the health of livestock, humans, and environments is tied to plant diversity—and associated phytochemical richness—across landscapes. Health is enhanced when livestock forage on phytochemically rich landscapes, is reduced when livestock forage on simple mixture or monoculture pastures or consume high-grain rations in feedlots, and is greatly reduced for people who eat highly processed diets. “
Silvi-agro-pastoral system in Rajasthan’s Godwar area. Mixed flock of sheep and goats belonging to my neighbour Pagru is grazing/browsing bio-diverse native vegetation r crop residues. No fossil fuels involved, animals in natural social group, able to move around: criteria for sustainable and ethical livestock raising!

4.In an increasingly resource constrained world, pastoralism/grazing is the way to go, because it directly converts roughage into high value protein. We can no longer afford to  use the intermediate step of growing feed for livestock on arable land, usually with a lot of fossil fuel expenditure, and we can not afford cutting down more rainforest for growing soybeans. Its the law of thermodynamics that comes to the fore here, as beautifully explained in a somewhat older article by USDA scientist R. K. Heitschmidt et al entitled “Ecosystems, sustainability, and animal agriculture”. Please read this eye-opener from which I only want to quote this sentence:..”when properly managed, rangeland agriculture is fully sustainable, having gone on long before the discovery of fossil fuels, and it will, without doubt, go on long after the depletion of fossil fuels.”

There are certainly a lot of problems for pastoralists, and I am not saying that land degradation or overgrazing does not occur. But the principles of pastoralism are sound and ecological. Lets hope policy makers will recognize this in time and give pstoral development priority. The IPCC Report rightly emphasizes that there is a connection between climate, soil degradation and livelihoods.

Thanks to Susan Macmillan and Dr. Sara Place for alerting me to important references!

Camel Milk Alchemy: Nature’s Antidote for Urban Lifestyles

Nomadic camel dairying: a system in which milk is shared between humans and calves.

Its World Camel Day on 22nd June and therefore time for an ode to this animal that is the product of ancient nomadic cultures, but rapidly accumulating admirers and supporters in the North.

I won’t bore you with the known and scientifically proven facts about camel milk and its therapeutic value for a range of “modern”, lifestyle diseases. After all, they are all over the place, hyped by a global, very active network of camel lovers, camel dairy entrepreneurs (of which I am one), and people who have experienced dramatic health improvements after they started consuming camel milk. Compatible with lactose intolerance, helpful for diabetes patients by reducing need for insulin injections, often beneficial for certain types of autism, are some of the well-established facts. (Contact me if you need references)

For me the wonder of the camel is associated with its nomadic origin in the vast deserts of the Arabian peninsula: Its ability to convert extremely spiky, thorny and fibrous trees or scant widely dispersed ground vegetation, sometimes with an extremely high salt content, into a delicious elixir that is ideally positioned to address the needs of the times. Here are the three points that need to get more attention in  future research and work on camels:

At the beginning of the camel dairy system are, in my nook of the world in Rajasthan: Extremely drought resistant trees and shrubs with deep roots that enable them to withstand years without rainfall. These trees, such as this Acacia leucophloea, are used in ayurvedic medicine, and full of phytochemicals and micronutrients absent from modern diets.

 

  1. An opportunity for creating a more animal friendly and more ecologically sustainable milk production system.

The emerging camel dairy sector should carefully avoid  the pitfalls of conventional dairying, such as hyper-bred cows needing expensive feed, throw away male calves, exploitation of farmers, and dismantling of milk into its constituent parts. Camel dairying must remain a system based on nature in which camels harvest leafs and pods of wild plants and convert this biodiverse biomass into a powerful, entirely naturally health elixir.  In start-up speak, camel dairying is a system to disrupt conventional practices and approaches to dairying.

  1. Climate change proofing.

With average temperatures inching up annually in the already hot parts of the world, no other animal is as well positioned to support dryland food production (“adaptation”). Camel milk production requires less fossil fuels than cow milk production. What other food producing strategy do you know that makes do without the plough, fossil fuels, fertilizers, harvesting machinery? And it is worth mentioning (although this part of the anti-livestock story is being debunked now) that they emit less methane than cows, maybe also because of their diet high in tannins (“mitigation”).

3. Camel milk chills

Is it the high amount of GABA in camel milk that gives it that chilling, relaxing effect?

Camel milk is good for your health, but from personal experience I feel it is not just about physical health but about something more: about peace of mind! Drinking fresh camel milk is almost intoxicating:  It helps you relax and focus.  It’s the perfect antidote for a hectic, constantly on-line, multi-tasking lifestyle. Its grounds you.

The scientific explanation for this might be its high content of  GABA (Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid), a substance that blocks neuro-transmitters and reduces the number of neurons firing in the brain, thereby promoting relaxation, sleep and easing anxiety.

Apart from that I feel it helps you cope better with heat – which would only be logical. And a new research hypothesis holds that it can help your body dealing with air pollution. More about that hopefully soon.

Try it out – camel milk puts you into a Sufi mood!

 

 

 

 

The EAT- Lancet Report, pastoralism and artificial meat

The livestock world is up in arms about the EAT-Lancet Report  that was launched on 18th January in Oslo and recommends drastic reductions in the consumption of meat, especially red meat. It is the outcome of a committee of “more than 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet” and recommends a plant based diet and almost complete elimination of red meat from our menues. The initiative goes back to a Norwegian billionaire with engagement in the animal rights movement, and one of its collaborators is FRESH, a consortium of global food giants. This includes even those who currently build their riches on the meat economy, such as Cargill and Tyson.

The report is being savaged and ridiculed on social media, with the pack being led by Frédéric Leroy, a Belgian professor who has untangled the special interests involved behind the initiative in an article published by the European Food Agency: A powerful action against meat?   Many livestock people have been in a frenzy, enumerating the significant nutritional benefits of red meat and pointing out errors in the report. And the EAT-Lancet report definitely has major weaknesses. It is prescriptive and top down, western centric, and promotes a diet that is not feasible for most citizens in the world.

But on the other hand,  the fact that the EAT-Lancet Report draws attention to the planetary boundaries of our food system is most welcome, the more so as these are being pretty much ignored in on-going UN processes and not tackled anywhere else, although GASL, the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock , is making an attempt.

What I miss on the part of the “livestock lobby” is a more nuanced consideration of how meat is produced, instead of its blanket endorsement.  Some introspection and  analysis of how we got to the current vegan assault would be very much in order.  Because it MATTERS how animals are kept – whether confined and pumped full with concentrate, or moving, foraging on their own, in a herd! It matters to the animals, to the consumer, to animal and human health, and to the planet!

For too long, the large majority of animal scientists – with a few notable exceptions – have subscribed to what I term the “efficiency paradigm”, the belief in “sustainable intensification” that reduces animals to input-output models and basically leaves no room for animal welfare, besides ignoring the need for a circular livestock economy. The FAO has had a big part in this, on one hand raising awareness about livestock’s long shadow (good), but on the other hand uncritically promoting the stance that “we need to double livestock production by 2050,” and spreading the mantra that this has to be achieved through higher natural resource use efficiency.

While the ILRI white paper for the World Economic Forum in Davos makes many good points by emphasizing the crucial role of livestock for the poor, it talks about industrial systems as option. In the long term, these systems will be phased out and be replaced with artificial meat/clean meat – or at least this is the future that the food companies are preparing for, and maybe one of the reasons for them supporting “plant-based” diets.  There are of course  still many question marks about “clean meat”, as summarized in another paper about alternative protein sources prepared for the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In all this clamour, some seminal new research is not getting the attention it deserves.   A team of reputed researchers led by a scientist from Wageningen University in a paper entitled “Defining a land boundary for sustainable livestock consumption” points at a solution  that challenges the beliefs of both vegans and FAO:  They propose that if we stop industrial livestock farming and feed cultivation, replacing it with “low-cost livestock” that is fed with either waste food or with biomass from non-arable land, while at the same time reducing consumption in western countries, there would still be scope for raising protein consumption in Africa and Asia. Their conclusion is that trying to sustain the human population on plant food alone would actually require MORE land, as without livestock  crop by-products would not be utilized for food.

This conclusion is a clear endorsement of pastoralism and damning to the “efficiency paradigm”. The direction for the future of livestock is clear: Support pastoralists with their humane livestock production systems to continue managing non-arable zones for food production, biodiversity conservation and as carbon sinks. In arable areas, limit livestock to what can be sustained with local crop waste. Eliminate industrial systems and replace them with artificial or clean meat – if it works. Perfect!

A brief encounter with the camel culture of Saudi Arabia – and how camels replaced cattle during climate change some 5000 years ago

Camel herders are mounted on camels, as seen here near Hail

When I recently had the opportunity to travel to Saudi-Arabia, I jumped at the chance. After all, this country is the cradle of camel culture – the place where the human-dromedary relationship was first forged, more than 3000 years ago, and resulted in an amazing technological innovation: warfare from camel back! It was in the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C. that the ‘Arabs’  first appeared as a distinct group in world history as camel mounted warriors that fought against the Assyrian king Shalmanesar III.

A stela from Niniveh illustrating camel mounted ‘Arabs’ in a battle with the Assyrians. A replica is found in the National Museum in Riyadh.

So the emergence of Arab civilization and the domestication of the camel are closely interlinked and cannot be separated from each other. I have always been spellbound by Bedouin camel culture has always enthralled me and I have long been a fan of the explorers, such as Anne Blunt and Alois Musil, that described its fondness and love of camels.

The trip was brought about by my archaeological first life and provided me the incredible fortune to visit some of the world’s most stunning archaeological monuments that have so far been hidden and off limits to foreigners, with the exception of a few intrepid explorers, the likes of Ibn Battuta and Charles Doughty. I am talking about Al Ula in Northern Saudi-Arabia, the site of many thousands of rock drawings which provide testimony of the ecological and cultural history of the Arabian peninsula over the last 7000 years or so. This is also where the Nabatean site of Madain Saleh is located as well as ruins from a range of civilizations.   The area is presently being developed into a world class tourist destination by the Royal Commission for Al Ula in a massive multi-disciplinary and visionary effort whose first task is to record the cultural and natural riches.

A glimpse of Al Ula

Our journey focused on rock drawings and on the way to Al Ula we stopped at Jubbah, an assemblage of rock formations near Hail which are literally covered in etchings from different periods, mostly of animals. Based on their style, and in combination with various scientific dating methods, archaeologists can tell from which period they are, and the types of animals represented allow us to deduct about the changing ecology of the area. During the Neolithic period – New Stone Age – the environment was clearly much more fertile and similar to what we find in the savannahs of Eastern Africa today: there were lions, baboons, kudus and ostriches. People herded cattle with long, circling horns very similar to those kept by the Dinka people in Southern Sudan today. But after the Neolithic, cattle disappear and camels become abundant. Their appearance is associated with Thamudic inscriptions – Thamudic being a precursor to Arabic.

Rock drawings of camels abound around Jubbah in Hail province. They are often associated with Thamudic inscriptions.

This replacement of cattle by camels reminds me very much of the processes that are currently going on in Eastern Africa where previously cattle oriented cultures, such as the Samburu and Maasai are switching to camel husbandry because it provides greater food security in times of climate change.  In both East and West Africa, the camel distribution range is shifting southwards, as part of a global trend towards increasing importance. Camel milk is gaining recognition in Europe and the US for its health enhancing qualities, but camels should also be of interest to the general livestock sector which worries much about its emissions of greenhouse gases. Camels emit less methane than other ruminants, so it is  kind of curious that they are not getting more attention from development agencies.

Travelling with archaeologists, my excursion provided only brief opportunities to see live camels, mostly from a distance.

Camel herds are a frequent sight. They tend to be of the same colour, either dark or white.

But the glimpses I caught confirmed that the Bedouin still love their camels, even if they are no longer economically dependent on them, and that these are  just as friendly and inquisitive as those kept by the Raika in India. A highlight of my trip was the encounter with a Bedouin near Jubbah who was feeding dates to his herd.

Saudi camels are just as friendly and inquisitive as their Indian relatives – because they are loved by their owners.

It is very encouraging to know that Saudi-Arabia is set to once again highlight the role of camels in civilization – which is also the theme of the current issue of Aramco World Magazine –  through the third edition of the Abdul Aziz Camel Festival scheduled to take place near Riyadh in February 2019. I really hope to be back!

Out of Australia (2): Camel dairying – a kinder approach to milk production?

Australia’s camel dairy sector provides exciting vistas – here at Summerland Camel Farm

The modern dairy sector is keeping supermarket shelves well stocked, but if you look behind the scenes it is often not a pretty picture: A glut of milk is depressing prices and forcing small and medium sized farmers to give up. The cows are numbers that wander back and forth between feeding troughs and milking carousels, eager to relieve themselves of the pressure of the enormous volumes of milk that they have been wired to produce.  Their life spans are short, and mothers and calves are separated at birth; calves are housed in solitary igloos, and the male calves have become an unwanted by-product as their slow growth rate makes them uneconomical for fattening. Then there is the much debated issue of A1 versus A2 milk with the former suspected to be a causal factor for allergies and many modern “lifestyle” diseases. This appears to gain increasing traction with the world’s largest dairy companies, including Fonterra, Amul and even Nestle establishing special A2 brands.

Looking at this scenario one can almost understand the increasingly militant cries of vegans that all livestock farming should be prohibited. As an advocate for pastoralists, I of course do not agree with this, but I also think that the livestock community needs to address animal welfare issues in a more fundamental way than has happened so far. As one of the founders of the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy in Rajasthan, one of the questions that keeps me awake at night is whether camel dairying can be steered onto a kinder, gentler, and more ecological trajectory than we have witnessed in conventional dairying:  towards systems in which producers get a fair price, where camels are not turned into milk vats, and are kept in systems that allow them a social life with opportunity for exercise and mental stimulation.

Looking at the websites of some of the better known camel milk brands, one gets the impression that some thought is indeed going into these issues. So what is the situation in Australia with its historically troubled camel relationship?  More than half a dozen camel dairies have sprung up down under,  stocked with camels that have been caught in the wild and trained for milking. Its a small but constructive measure of making productive use of the country’s wild camels that have been cast as environmental menace rather than an asset.

After a glorious excursion into the outback on the tracks of the early Australian cameleers,  I had the exciting opportunity to visit two camel dairies on the east coast near Brisbane.  Both were impressive and provided valuable insights.  But they were also quite different in their approaches which I am tempted to call ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’.

Q Camel, is the first dairy to “produce premium pasteurised camel milk in Australia” according to its website. It is the baby of Lauren Brisbane and a family-run enterprise,  promoting “ethical, organic and sustainable farming practices and a no-cull environment in which milk is shared with calves”.

The farm is spread out against the beautiful backdrop of the Glasshouse Mountains. When we drive up milking is in progress, performed by two young ladies, who oversee how the camels walk into the stand and then place the milking cups onto their teats. Lauren, in a coverall and wearing an Akoubra hat, explains that QCamel has about 100 camels of which 20-22 would be milking with each one producing between 1.5 to 2 liters per day. She makes a point of recruiting her staff from people without previous camel experience. “Women are better milkers” she says. The camels certainly are supremely relaxed, inquisitively nozzling my face while the milking machines pulsate away rhythmically, drawing the milk into the pails.  Meanwhile the babies look on with great curiousity, play tag or or engage in light hearted wrestling matches. A nearby paddock is reserved for new camel moms with their curly-haired cuties almost hidden by the high grass. The place exudes tranquillity and peace – its a meditation on how people and animals can co-exist, each benefitting from the other species! Certainly more fun for the camels than living in the wild, and having all their needs taken care of rather than having to cope with droughts in the outback!

Its camel heaven at QCamel !

Lauren takes us on a ride in her pick-up truck to distribute bales of hay to camels roaming around in some of the far corners of the seemingless endless expanse of land which is co-grazed with cattle.  The milk tastes clean and refreshing; it is processed into a variety of products, including quark in an off-farm dairy processing unit under her supervision. They also make a range of beauty products.

“What do you do with the males ?”, I ask Lauren and she replies: “Oh we find good homes for them, there is a strong demand for them for weed control on some farms. A young male camel costs about 1000 AUD.”

Other interesting tidbits I glean from Lauren is that the shooting of camels from helicopters has almost stopped in Australia, with the exception of very targeted and localized actions in Western Australia; that most of the country’s camels are on Aboriginal land and that Aboriginals are the biggest camel owners, always looking for ways of making commercial use of them. Some camel meat is exported to feed the Moroccan army and female camels are also exported to the Middle East to serve as surrogate mothers in embryo transfer projects.

If you are interested in experiencing this camel heaven I encourage you to book the Camel Cuddles experience that QCamel offers!

I apologize for my language, but a more “masculine” approach to camel farming is reflected by the Summerland Camel Farm which is the brainchild (sic) of Jeff Flood and Paul Martin. Located in an equally beautiful setting near Harrisville south of Brisbane, with vulcanic peaks in the background, it is on a totally different scale. This is not just a family enterprise but backed by investors of the Australian Wild Camel Corporation.

Jeff, a biochemist and nutritional immunologist, sits down with us in the Café that is housed in a beautiful white Queenslander. The verandah offers a breath taking view over camel studded paddocks which he proclaims to have the “most fertile soils in the southern hemisphere”.

Having big investors of course means you have to have a profitable operation and Jeff has clear ideas as to how that’s to be achieved: by bringing down the production costs of camel milk to that of cow milk. For this he has ambitious plans, with the next step being to increase the headcount from around 600 to 1100 camels and also by improving the genetic make-up of their herd.

While Jeff takes care of some urgent calls, I have a look at the menucard which offers the most expansive selection of camel goodies and dishes I have come across anywhere: several types of cheeses, including feta, halloumi, fromage blanc, meats (salami, minced meat, stew and steaks), absolutely fabulous gelatos (try the chai latte flavour), and a variety of pastries with camel milk as ingredient.

While I am enjoying the “Avocado smash with camel feta”, Jeff’s partner Paul comes along. A specialist for regenerative grazing techniques and holistic sustainable farm management, he arranges a tour of the farm where we observe the milking, pass by the creamery where the cheeses are made and inspect the labs that are the source of the skin care products. All these experiences – camel farm experience and lab experiences – can be booked, as well as long and short camel rides.

Its a fascinating adventure that is inspiring for our work in India seeking to revive the economic importance of Rajasthan’s state animal. Certainly Australia and India can learn tremendously from each other and I need to mull over which lessons from Australia are applicable in India!