A bit more respect for livestock keepers, please!

Whose knowledge is more useful? Scientists’ or livestock keepers’?

Recently I had the privilege to attend a “high-level” meeting between ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research and ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute) bureaucrats and scientists. While interaction between such major institutions is important and necessary, I became a bit concerned about the underlying tenor of many of the presentations. For instance there were remarks about farmers/livestock keepers having no concept of animal nutrition and not being able to “calculate rations”.  And there is this general attitude of believing that the farmer/livestock keeper is backward, illiterate and in need of guidance by scientists. Well, nothing wrong with science, but how many of the interventions developed by scientists are actually taken off the shelf and being put into use? And, considering that India is not only the largest dairy producer in the world, but also all set to become the global leader in beef exports , must the country’s livestock keepers not be doing many things right? Especially since this development has happened without any noteworthy extension activities, without animal health services reaching the more marginal areas, and without India (yet) becoming dependent on imports of feed stuff from other countries?

In fact, in my view, India’s livestock development trajectory is exemplary, as compared to a country such as China which, in the course of its Livestock Revolution, has become heavily dependent on import of soy and maize to feed its farm animals. This is because India’s non-poultry livestock production is still largely in the hand of small farmers and pastoralists who make optimal use of locally available feed and fodder resources – both crop by-products and natural, very bio-diverse, vegetation – with their indigenous breeds and by means of their extensive experience and willingness to innovate. Let’s ensure that it remains that way – in the interest of national food security, rural employment opportunities and conservation of biodiversity!

In this context, I must applaud the many members of India’s LIFE Network that work on these lines by respecting and highlighting the value of traditional knowledge, rewarding saviours of local livestock breeds and supporting the struggle for continued access to the Commons and for Forest Rights.  See, for instance the tireless work of Dr. Balaram Sahu, Vivekanandan of SEVA, Karthikeya of the Senaapathy Kangayam Research Foundation, Hanwant Singh of LPPS, and many many more.

I send my happy Diwali greetings to all of them and wish them all the best in their  endeavours that are so crucial for putting livestock development on a sustainable path!

“Science” – can it be trusted to be neutral?

There is nothing wrong with calls for more science and for science-based decision making. But the “production of knowledge, the access to this knowledge, and the capacity to challenge a particular intellectual formulation” (to paraphrase Vasant Saberwal in his book “Pastoral Politics“) are also very much a matter of power, so it is interesting to see what actors are chosen (or have chosen themselves) to participate in a newly announced effort to ” harmonize measurement of livestock’s environmental impacts“. It includes the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC), the European Vegetable Oil and Proteinmeal Industry (FEDIOL), the International Dairy Federation (IDF), the International Meat Secretariat (IMS), the International Egg Commission (IEC) the International Poultry Council (IPC), the International Federation for Animal Health (IFAH), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  It is of course laudable that these stakeholders want to collaborate among each other and agree on a methodology for measuring environmental impacts. But shouldn’t some more disinterested or neutral agencies also be involved – for example some universities? And who will watch out for the interests of the small-scale livestock keepers – that produce animal food without much purchased input, either on natural vegetation or crop by-products ?

Shepherds penning their herds on India’s Deccan Plateau. Who will calculate their “resource use efficiency”?

It is almost as if they have already stopped existing, although they still produce at least half of the world’s milk and meat. And they achieve this without much of the negative environmental impacts of their industrial counterparts, in fact they tend to have beneficial effects on local ecologies.

Another quote from Vasant Saberwal’s “Pastoral Politics”: “The incorporation of local knowledge into the management of resources, results in a de facto reduction in the power differential between the local community and the bureaucracy managing the resource. ” While the context to which Saberwal refers is slightly different, the principle applies just as well to all the global alliances and action agendas that seek to improve on the livestock sector’s rather horrid environmental impact and turn a blind eye to the small-scale livestock keepers that – by and large – produce meat and milk in tune with local resources and eco-systems. Enabling the small guys to have a voice and contribute their common sense and local knowledge would do much to put the livestock sector on a saner trajectory.

Livestock out of balance

Well, due to travel and slow internet connection in Rajasthan its been a while,  but at least there has been some progress and follow-up with respect to the issues raised in the last post. In the meantime, my colleague Evelyn Mathias has completed a study about the impact of the Livestock Revolution on farmers – which gives ample food for thought. The results are preliminary and need to be discussed with economists, but they are on-line now as a discussion paper “Livestock out of balance. From asset to liability in the course of the Livestock Revolution.” on the LPP website. One of Evelyn’s conclusions is that the enormous competition for ever cheaper livestock products is creating incentives for “unethical behaviour”, such as the use of banned antibiotics and many environmental sins.

Well, I will be attending the 13th Inter-Agency Donors Group Meeting, this time organised by the Worldbank in Washington DC, over the next couple of days. One of the priority themes is “equity” and I am really curious what the results of the discussions will be!

Livestock: From Asset to Liability?

On the way to the Global Livestock Sustainability Conference in Thailand, I picked up a copy of the book “The Mystery of capital” by Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto. In it he describes how the concept of capital (which meant cattle or livestock in Medieval Latin) was derived from livestock – a movable, low-maintenance asset that is self reproducing. His description is dead-on, and pastoralists certainly have capitalized on the savings and asset function of their livestock. I have often observed that they dont need credit since they can always generate cash by selling a few animals. However, in the course of the  Livestock Revolution, livestock seems to turn into a source of liabililtes: significant investments are required in order to enter the industrial mode of production. Farmers are required to take up loans for erecting the housing for the animals.  Since they have no control over either input or product prices, they tend to end up heavily indebted with no opportunity the debt cycle. This is described for Thailand by Isabelle Delforge in her study of pig and poultry contract farming, as well as by various sources for the United States. It wold seem that this situation very much affects the “sustainability fo the livestock sector”, since it locks farmers/livestock keepers into a straight jacket that prevents them from adapting to changing economic situations.