Vegetarianism/veganism not an option for people living in non-arable areas!

Pastoralists rarely eat meat – usually only on special occssions – but dairy products are an essential part of their diets.

An article entitled Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers just published in Science magazine and widely broadcasted by The Guardian  and The Independent newspapers is making some  startling claims. For this monumental meta-study, the authors J. Poore and T. Nemecek compiled data from 38,700 farms in 119 countries and analysed the environmental footprint of  40 major food categories with regards to Greenhouse Gas emissions, land use, freshwater withdrawals, eutrophication and acidification. Their conclusion is that even the most benignly produced meat and dairy products have a far worse environmental impact than plant foods: ..” meat, aquaculture, eggs,and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories” and recommend that “avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”.

While the attention to the environmental impact of agriculture and food production is welcome, the conclusions are over-simplified, misleading in some aspects and very Western-centric.

This starts with the data that overwhelmingly derive  from North America, Brazil, Europe, China and Australia. As the map provided in the supplementary materials illustrates hardly any studies from the African and Asian drylands  have been included, reflecting the absence of Life Cycle Assessments from these countries. We can not blame this uneven data scenario on the authors, but it indicates that pastoralist systems were not included in the study.

Emphasizing that livestock provides just 18% of calories is totally misleading, since livestock is not kept to provide calories but to convert low quality feed into high quality proteins with essential amino acids that can not be sourced from plants.  Its akin to saying  there are 50 times more cars than trucks in the world but they only transport less than 2% of the goods.

Then there is the statement that livestock takes up  83% of farmland. The term “takes up” conjures up a situation where this land is exclusively used by livestock and not used for anything else. In reality, crops and livestock are largely integrated, as they should be. In addition,  large parts of the world are non-arable – they are too dry, too step, too cold, too hot to be able to be cultivated – but they can still used for food production by means of herding livestock.  Statistically these areas are classified as “permanent pastures” and are more than double the size than arable land. So its only logical that livestock can be found over a much larger part of the world than crops.

Most remarkably, the authors come to the conclusion that “without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.”

To achieve a reduction of such magnitude, we would have to stop raising livestock in the non-arable areas mentioned. Neither the authors of the study nor the journalists seem to be aware that if you remove livestock from these regions, which include the vast drylands of Africa and Asia, as well as mountainous areas in Asia and parts of Latin America, the local populations will lose their livelihoods. In these so-called marginal areas  people have co-existed with and depended on livestock for millennia: reindeer herders in the tundra; yak herders in Asia’s high altitude zones; keepers of Bactrian camels and dromedaries in the deserts; nomads relying on cattle, sheep, and goats in the semi-arid steppes and savannahs.

If they are to stop livestock production, they will either starve or have to vacate the area. Thus such a blanket advisory to stop eating meat and dairy is an irresponsible recipe for disaster in already impoverished parts of the world and for people for whom livestock represents a much better survival option during the frequent  droughts than growing of crops.

Yes, the world as a whole needs to drastically reduce its consumption of livestock products, and every vegan or vegetarian in the Global North, Brazil and China is welcome. But nobody can extend that recommendation to the people whose livelihoods depend on livestock in the semi-arid and arid parts of the world! For this reason, I would really recommend that the authors of the study and the journalists formally retract that particular statement and reword their conclusions to include this particular caveat.

Even in Europe and North America we need to retain some livestock in the system, as it is crucial for the provision of organic manure and – through grazing – for the conservation of biodiversity.  Grazing is the most common nature conservation measure in Germany and its shepherds obtain the major income from such ‘environmental services’ rather than from the sale of products. As a new friend on Twitter, Ariel Greenwood who grazes cattle for conservation in California expressed it: We should limit consumption of animal products to those raised in an ecologically restorative way.

There is one statement by Joseph Poore that I totally agree with:  The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half (my emphasis) of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.

Can we agree which is the most harmful half of meat and dairy production?

Pigs, Power and Profit: Reading Pig tales by Barry Estabrook

A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea
A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea

Spending most of my time with pastoralists, I don’t often have to do with pigs, although there are exceptions. I had the good fortune to meet the pig nomads of Odisha due to my friend Dr. Balaram Sahu who runs a pathe pathshala (moving university for livestock keepers) and has written a booklet entitled Pigs: The Protein Pot of the Poor. And I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the pig culture of Papua New Guinea thanks to the invitation of Dr. Workneh Ayalew who headed the country’s National Research Institute on Agriculture in Lae until recently.

Nomadic pig herd in Odisha (India) grazing on harvested rice fields

But I am also a member of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, a multi-stakeholder initiative managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that is doing its level best to create momentum for practice change to make the livestock sector more sustainable. The rationale of GASL is that the livestock sector has problems but also great potential to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So it was with great interest I picked up a book  entitled Pig Tales by Barry Estabrook to learn about the situation in the US pig sector. In a captivating introduction three “tribes” of pigs are distinguished: feral pigs, those kept in industrial systems, and a small minority raised by farmers  exemplifying an alternative to the industrial model. In the second part, we learn about research on the “the nature of the beast”, for instance by Candace Croney who heads the Center for Animal Welfare Research at Purdue University. Pigs are extremely intelligent, easily learning how to work with computers and use joysticks, are able to recognize symbols, and even are self-aware. Other studies provide evidence that pigs living in an enriched environment and being treated nicely have better health, bigger litter sizes and higher growth rates. Alas, such crucial research has come to a halt because it was funded by the industry which concluded that it does nothing to improve their bottomline.

The power of the pork industry is indeed the most shocking revelation of this book. As described in a large number of examples its protagonists can ignore and violate laws with impunity, and influence legislation, so it has been impossible to stop the use of antibiotics . Workers rights are worse then when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Yet, consumers are not entirely powerless as recent pledges by major stakeholders to not use products from sows kept in crates and chickens in cages.

The final chapters of the book show that alternatives are possible in which farmers make a reasonable income, pigs live a happy life without confinement, antibiotic use is restricted to therapeutic indications, and consumers enjoy  a tastier and healthier pork chop. These are win-win situations that should be supported with appropriate policies so that they can capture a higher share of the market.

This book is an eye opener that one can hardly put down, although I skipped a few pages in which the gory details of error prone assembly line slaughter are described.

It re-inforces my sceptical view about using “efficiency” as yardstick for judging and improving livestock systems. Unfortunately, livestock efficiency as currently defined, more often than not occurs at the expense of animal welfare, workers’ rights, farmers’ profits and consumers’ health and tastebuds. And it makes me believe even stronger in the urgency for developing countries to NOT follow the “western model” of livestock development depending on exotic genetics and imported feed, but instead carve out their own farmer/pastoralist centered approach building on local breeds and available biomass.

To me it feels ominous that the largest American pork processor Smithfield is owned by a Chinese company that renamed itself W.H. Group and is registered in the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Such concentration of transnational control and power can not be healthy for the planet, despite the best efforts of the company to project a responsible image. Do read Barry Estabrook’s book!

Rescuing a drought resistant sheep breed

Boti sheep - tubular ears
Short tubular ears, a black head and fine carpet wool are characteristic for the Boti sheep – a breed that has never been officially recognized.

Locally adapted livestock breeds are a key resource for adapting to climate change. This is brought home by a recently initiated action research project of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) that documents and seeks to save an as yet unregistered sheep breed from the Godwar area in Rajasthan. This is the Boti sheep which is distinguishable by its small tubular ears and black head, as well as its lustrous carpet wool. This breed was described already about ten years ago by a Dutch researcher, Ellen Geerlings, who noted that it was gradually being replaced by another breed, the Bhagli sheep, which grows much faster and is therefore more profitable for meat production. The present survey, supported through the FAO’s funding strategy for the implementation of the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources is coming just in time: it is hard to find any original Boti sheep at all, as herders have generally been using Bhagli rams. The breed is literally at the verge of extinction.

Explaining advantages of Boti sheep
Explaining the advantages of the Boti sheep makes Raika herders realise what they are about to loose: a breed that can cope with both disease and climate extremes – be it drought or floods.

However, in conversations with the Raika shepherds, they remember very well the advantages of the Boti sheep especially in terms of drought and disease resistance. They emphasize that the Boti breed can endure pain and even if it suffers from Foot and Mouth Disease or has a thorn in its foot, it will continue walking on three legs, while the Bhagli sheep lies down and dies. The Boti can also cope well with rains and water in its pen, whereas Bhagli requires dry ground or will get sick. The ewes of the breed have a very long life span, giving up to 10 lambs.

Just by talking about these matters, the shepherds seem to start reconsidering their preference for the Bhagli and express the need to again use a Boti ram (which are however now very difficult to find) for improving disease resistance and drought-proofing their flock. When the possibility is raised that they might receive a higher price for the wool, then they get really interested. Wool prices have been so low that they did not even cover the costs of shearing in recent years. However, through the development of niche markets, for instance by creating rugs that contain both Boti wool and “Desert wool” from the local camels, it will hopefully be possible to create financial incentives for keeping Boti sheep.

So, although the initial results of the survey were depressing, it now looks much more hopeful. Value addition is the way to go for saving  breeds and creating high value livestock products that appeal to the discerning customer. My next blog will be about our efforts to develop innovative camel products and how this is benefitting women and “poor” people in the Thar desert.

weighing Boti sheep
LPPS staff Khetaram Raika weighing the rare Boti sheep – to try to establish breed descriptors.

What kind of research helps small-scale livestock keepers?

Camels have tremendous potential for improving food and nutritional security, especially in times of climate change. But how can this potential be leveraged? Most camel research has been conducted from the perspective of the rich Gulf countries, but there has hardly been a stab at helping poor livestock keepers in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran getting their products to the market and investigating the necessary technologies. Research into small cooling units for camel milk in the field would be sorely needed.

“Better lives through livestock” is the motto of ILRI, the International Livestock Rsearch Institute which recently brought out its second 10 Year Strategy for the period from 2013-2022. This new strategy is much superior to the previous one, as it encompasses a wider range of goals, including food and nutritional security and acknowledges that livestock can also have negative consequences. However, an important angle is missing and that is the question of how this is going to be achieved. What kind of research is necessary to actually addresses this issue?

Lets face it, livestock research in general is rarely conducted from the perspective of supporting small-scale livestock keepers and ecologically sustainable decentralised ways of keeping farm animals. Most of it has been oriented towards increasing quantities of product – more milk, faster meat – in the belief that this would automatically raise poor livestock keepers’ income. Well, this may true in some cases, but in many instances it is not, because the “genetically improved” animals that go along with this approach usually do not perform in the setting in which poor livestock keepers operate. They require inputs in terms of feed and medicine which need to be purchased and which often are not available or draw the farmer into a debt trap, as is indicated in the research study by my colleague Evelyn Mathias entitled “Livestock out of balance. From asset to liability in the course of
the Livestock Revolution“.

In my experience, research should take its cues from the problems as they are experienced by livestock keepers themselves. And these are almost always the same: insecure access rights to land and lack of veterinary services. I have never heard a livestock keeper complain that his or her animals are not productive enough. But I have seen how excited they get when they realise the marketing potential of their animals, as the camel breeders in Rajasthan when they experienced new camel products such as camel ice cream, fashionable camel wool products or even camel dung paper.

Raika camel herder with a notebook crafted out of paper made from camel poo. Probably not the most relevant product for solving the world’s problems, but illustrative of the range of products that is possible.

But sorry, because of my enthusiasm for the camel, I am getting diverted from the mainpoint that I am trying to make: In order to identify research that really helps poor livestock keepers, a dialogue has to be initiated with them to identify their real needs and priorities. For too long, livestock research has been conducted top-down for scientific merit only and based on the wrong assumptions, equating higher output with better income. What we now need is a platform and a process that enables this kind of participatory and bottom-up approach – an approach that reflects consideration of one of the Livestock Keepers’ Rights – “Livestock Keepers shall have the right to participate in the identification of research needs and research design with respect to their genetic resources, as is mandated by the principle of Prior Informed Consent.”

It would really be great if ILRI (and of course all other research institutes working on livestock) looked into establishing such a platform for the interaction between scientists and livestock keepers that will undoubtedy make research more meaningful, targeted and likely to reach its vision of a world where all people have access to enough food and livelihood options to fulfil their potential. We at LPP and the LIFE Network are certainly ready for this!