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!

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

Registering Rajasthan’s Camel Herds: Laying the Foundation for Ethical Dairying

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Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) registering the herd of Dhungar Ram Raika

The news around camels in Rajasthan have been dismal over at least the last 15 years, with the population plummeting, the remaining camel herds suffering from neglect and no young people willing to enter the profession of camel herding.  Declaring the camel state animal in 2014 and the passing of the Rajasthan Camel Bill (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) in 2015 only added to the gloom and certainly did not achieve the intended effect of reversing the fates of camels and their breeders.

But now there is some light on the horizon! Two developments make me feel that, if everything comes together, the situation can be turned around and Rajasthan’s camel economy revived.  And maybe, maybe – I know this sounds highly ambitious – even a new model for ethical dairying developed: Milk production where the consumer knows where her milk comes from and is ensured that she purchases a pure and unadulterated product. Because you are what you eat, and it makes a difference whether your milk is produced by stall-fed animals fed on a diet of concentrate and milked for all their worth with the help of hormone injections or from animals that graze on biodiverse natural vegetation, let down their milk voluntarily and whose milk is “harvested” judiciously and with concern for the needs of the calves.

The first reason for my current optimism is that the demand for camel milk in India is on a steep rise, especially for the alleviation of autism and Diabetes. Camel milk has medicinal qualities for which consumers are willing to pay a premium and this creates a huge incentive for camel breeders to hang on to their herds or to even expand them. I have seen this happening in the last couple of months among the camel breeders that supply to the “Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy” that is run by Camel Charisma and bridges the divide between urban camel milk consumers and camel breeders roaming around in remote areas.

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“Last year, I thought I would have to give up camel herding, but now I am increasing my herd to produce camel milk” says Bhanwarlal Raika

But how to make sure the milk is from happy herded camels and not diluted cow or buffalo milk? Unfortunately there is still no field test available that can provide the answer. The only solution is to know exactly which herders the milk comes from and the number of milking camels they have. And to have the herders committed to provide genuine unadulterated camel milk and not a white fluid amalgamated from milk of other animals, water and other ingredients.

For this reason, Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) is currently engaged in registering all camel herds in a 50 km radius from Sadri and educating the owners about the real opportunity for the survival of their camels and their own livelihoods if they commit themselves to providing a genuine product.

Meeting the herders is a humbling experience, seeing how the old Raika philosophy of “first the camels, then us” is still alive, the hardships and hard work they perform to keep their camels healthy, how many farmers appreciate the manure that the camels deposit on their fields as organic fertilizer, how closely the herdsmen observe nature and the effect of camel browsing on the trees of the Aravalli Hills. One can feel how camels are a crucial part of the agro-ecological web whose disappearance would undermine both local food production and ecology.

But most satisfying of all is to see how there are still young Raika keen to herd and look after camels if only it provides a decent income.

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“I want to be a camel herder when I grow up” says the youngest son of Dhungar Ram

Diligent registration of herds is an absolute must for camel dairying to grow into an ethical and profitable business. Its also a must for the successful implementation of a just announced scheme by the Rajasthan government to provide a Rs 10,000 subsidy for all new camels born, in 3 instlments and over an 18 months period. This scheme can only succeed on the basis of proper herd registration, otherwise it will flounder and be abused as so often happens with well-intended schemes.

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Official announcement by Rajasthan government for a scheme to support breeders with Rs 10,000 for new born camels.

Both these developments – emergence of a market for a premium camel milk market and the subsidies for new-born camels – have the potential to provide a decisive boon to camel herders, both morally and financially. And if they would be embedded into a proper “Camel Policy” adopted and implemented by the Rajasthan, then we will be on the right track for conserving Rajasthan’s globally unique and ethical camel pastoralist system for the future!

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.

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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!

How can livestock become sustainable? Impressions from the 6th Meeting of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock

Panama Canal Authority
The Panama Canal Authority is working with beef cattle raising Campesinos to protect the Panama Canal watershed.

The 6th meeting of the Multistakeholder Partnership of the Global Agenda for Sustanbale Livestock took place in Panama from 20-23 June, just before the new locks of the Panama Canal were inaugurated.

On the surface, the two events may not appear to have much of a connection. But, for one, there is an urgent need for protecting the Panama Canal’s watershed area through extensive livestock keeping. Secondly, the new expansion is critical for U.S. soybean exports to Asia. About a quarter of the average  4 billion-bushel U.S. harvest is transported on the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, from where some of it is destined for Europe and Africa while around 600 million bushels will pass through the Panama Canal en route to Asia, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Korea.

The new Panama Canal extension allowing passages of much larger ships will make the transfer of livestock feed considerably more efficient, and “improving efficiency” is one of the key tenets of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), which basically is a long-term follow-up to Livestock’s Long Shadow, the seminal first comprehensive analysis of livestock’s environmental impacts published by FAO in 2006. GASL was initiated in 2011 in Brasilia and is a concerted effort to involve all stakeholders (including government, research, social movements, NGOs, international organizations and the private sector) in constructive dialogue and arrive at a “consensus” about how the livestock sector can become more sustainable.

While the priorities and opinons of the different groups obviously vary (I personally believe that the focus on improving “livestock efficiency” is only a small part of the solution, if any) , the meetings provide a great and very valuable opportunity for understanding each other’s perspectives as well as to get exposure to different livestock production systems. At this meeting the focus was on showing the connection between livestock and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is certainly a very timely and appropriate endeavour.

But the most interesting and thought provoking information was presented in the parallel sessions. Most fascinating  was a paper presented by Pablo Manzano, currently an independent consultant adscribed to the IUCN commissions, who drew attention to the fact that the greenhouse gas emissions of wild herbivores once exceeded those of current domestic ruminant populations. Another paper by Pablo Peri of INTA in Argentina dwelled on the potential of Silvo-Pastoralist Systems as an animal-friendly, climate change mitigating alternative to the rapid expansion of soybean cultivation in Argentina – a process that is destroying native forests, biodiversity and local livelihoods. Then there was the presentation by Elizabeth Katushabe, Ankole cattle breeder from Uganda and fellow member of LIFE Network International  in which she showed the draw-backs for farmers and the environment of the transition from local cattle to Holstein-Friesian cows for dairy production.

Interesting also the fieldtrip to the watershed area of the Panama Canal where campesinos are being incentivized by the Panama Canal Authority to keep forest standing and utilize sustainable land use practices in order to prevent soil erosion .

Campesino cow
“Indian” or “Indian origin” cow kept for beef production in the Panama Canal Watershed

I was especially impressed how the Indian origin Zebu cows were thriving in the Panamanian jungle and how happy and well-fed they looked by comparison with many (but of course not all) of their Indian relatives, despite being kept for beef production!

Uplifting also the participation of pastoralists and the attention that is given to the subject of pastoralism, as reflected in the number of best practice notes that were published for the occassion by the Action Network on “Restoring Value to Grasslands”, including one based on our experiences with the social institutions upholding sheep pastoralism in Rajasthan.

In conclusion, its important that such global meetings around livestock continue to take place and we hope that GASL will get the necessary support from FAO Headquarters that it deserves!

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Animal genetic resources and “Access and Benefit-Sharing”: not made for each other?

ITWG sign

During the eighth session of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources (ITWG-AnGR 8), the confusion of delegates about how to apply the concept of “Access and Benefit-Sharing” to animal genetic resources (AnGR) was palpable. Developed countries such as USA and Canada argued that nothing should interfere with the free flow of AnGR. Of course they have the interests of their genetics companies in mind. Developing countries such as Bolivia expressed their fear that the indiscriminate import of exotic breeds destroys their locally adapted ones. There is also the latent fear of biopiracy especially of climate resilient local breeds, although at a side-event by WIPO and FAO about the patent landscape in the livestock sector it was stated that there have been no patent applications on genetic material from any indigenous breeds.

Francois Pythoud from Switzerland argued for brainstorming the issues and “thinking out of the box”, but unfortunately nobody picked up the suggestion. LPP and LIFE Network tried to make the case for community protocols, but this elicited neither any response nor support despite a side-event on the previous day that sought to bring across the point  that locally adapted breeds are often low-input and high output. And that this can be made visible by means of the Community Protocols that feature importantly in the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing that recently entered into force.  Our side-event was chaired by Poland’s National Coordinator, Dr. Elzbieta Martyniuk and featured presentations by Elizabeth Katushabe of Uganda about community documentation of Ankole Longhorn Cattle, by Rao Abdul Qadeer from Pakistan about the significance of Pakistan’s genetic resources for the camel dairy industry in the Gulf countries and by Dr. Maria Rosa Lanari of Argentina on the low-input but high-output indigenous livestock production systems of Patagonia.

Rao Abdul Qadeer, Maria Rosa Lanari, Ilse Koehler-Rollefson, Elzbieta Martyniuk, Elizabeth Katushabe (left to right)
Trying to get across the value of locally evolved food production systems and adapted AnGR during an LPP/LIFE Network side-event at the ITWG-Angr 8 on 26th November: Rao Abdul Qadeer, Maria Rosa Lanari, Ilse Koehler-Rollefson, Elzbieta Martyniuk (chair), Elizabeth Katushabe (left to right)

In order to move forward, I think we really need to get back to the basics and remind ourselves of the rationale of Access and Benefit-Sharing in the first place: to provide positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Now, in the case of AnGr, it is quite clear that there is currently not much of a commercial interest in locally adapted AnGR because they do not really fit into the industrial systems for which the genetics companies work. On the other hand, it is just the spread of industrial systems that poses the danger to livestock biodiversity as they contribute to the destruction of native livestock based food production systems – which are often much more productive than is evident, or worse: which have never been documented and remained invisible.Thus the community protocols that are mandated by the Nagoya Protocol have an extremely important role to play in changing perceptions about local systems and providing at least moral support and empowerment to the local livestock keepers that continue to be the backbone of food production in many countries.

I have tried to explain this in a study, co-authored with Hartmut Meyer and published by the ABS Capacity Building Initiative and LPP, entitled Access and Benefit-Sharing of Animal Genetic Resources: using the Nagoya Protocol as a Framework for the Conservation and Sustainable use of Animal Genetic Resources and which can be downloaded here.

Can the Nagoya Protocol become a game changer for animal genetic resources and livestock keepers?

Bakkarwal herders from Kashmir looking at photos of breeds in the Raika Biocultural Protocol
Bakkarwal herders from Kashmir looking at photos of breeds in the Raika Biocultural Protocol

In October, the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing entered into force. This legally binding add-on to the Convention on Biological Diversity places special emphasis on obtaining “prior informed consent” not only from governments but also from local and indigenous communities when accessing their traditional knowledge with respect to genetic resources.

It mandates in its Article 7, that parties, “in accordance with domestic law, take measures, as appropriate, with the aim of ensuring that traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources that is held by indigenous and local communities is accessed with the prior and informed consent or approval and involvement of these indigenous and local communities, and that mutually agreed terms have been established.

In Article 12, parties are urged to, in accordance with domestic law take into consideration indigenous and local communities’  customary laws, community protocols and procedures, as applicable, with respect to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources. Furthermore it is stated that “parties shall endeavour to support, as appropriate, the development by indigenous and local communities, including women within these communities, of Community protocols in relation to access to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of such knowledge“.

Well, pastoralists and other keepers of locally developed breeds certainly qualify as “indigenous and local communities” under the CBD. As reader’s of this blog know,  several of them have already developed “Biocultural Protocols” for their breeds and communities.

And this is where the potential lies: in community documentation of animal genetic resources and of local production systems. For, even in the absence of any party requesting “access”, such documentation will make visible the existence, the significance, and the meaning of livestock production based on local breeds whose economic contribution is routinely underestimated or even entirely ignored.

Visibility of these systems would be the first step towards putting livestock development – conventionally based on “high yielding” introduced genetics and higher inputs from outside – on a more sustainable path, both ecologically and socially.

I am very pleased to report two events:

1. On 26th November, there will be a side-event at the FAO, during the 8th session of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources with reports from the field about the importance of community documentation and BCPs by Elizabeth Katushabe from Uganda, Dr. Maria Rosa Lanari from Argentina and Rao Abdul Qadeer from Pakistan. The event will be chaired by Dr. Ela Martyniuk, Poland’s National Coordinator of Animal Genetic Resources.

2. Just a fortnight ago, the Rainfed Livestock Network in India kicked off a project on developing BCPs for several communities and/or breeds, including the Bakkarwal pastoralists of Jammu and Kashmir, the Golla pastoralists in Odisha, the shepherds of the Deccan Plateau, and the Kangayam cattle breeders of Tamil Nadu

So all these are small, but important steps forward towards getting more visibility – recognition should then follow – for the long neglected “traditional” livestock production systems based on locally evolved animal genetic resources. Recognition should then follow – hopefully quickly enough to support and save some of these precious systems!

Livestock Keepers’ Rights on the roll?

lk landscape comp
Will indigenous and local livestock keepers conserving precious biodiversity ever be heard and given the rights that they have under existing international legal frameworks? Governments are ignoring the generations of expertise owned by livestock keepers at their own peril – as is evidenced by Rajasthan’s decision to put a ban on export of camels from the state. As this Raika herder testifies, this will not have the desired effect of saving the camel, but lead to breeders abandoning the animal because of lack of income. See previous blog at http://ikrweb.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/its-official-camel-is-rajasthans-state-animal/

There appear to be good news for the large number of Civil Society organisations that support “Livestock Keepers’ Rights“, a bundle of rights that would create a more level playing field between small-scale biodiversity conserving livestock keepers and the large-scale industrial livestock producers.

I have just returned from a panel discussion on Livestock Keepers’ Rights held at India’s National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) in Karnal. It took place at the sidelines of the annual Breed Saviour Awards function  and at the initiative of the institute’s recently appointed director, Dr. Arjava Sharma and one of its well-known scientists, Dr. D. K. Sadana. The panelists included spokespeople for various groups advocating for more inclusive and participatory livestock policies, such as the Rainfed Livestock Network, LIFE Network, SEVA, Kasargode cattle breeders, as well as a livestock expert from Pakistan.

Apparently there is a desire in the government to make a move on Livestock Keepers’ Rights, unfortunately taking India’s Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 as a model and suggesting to just replace the word plant with animal. However, the strong consensus of the panelists and the audience was that this would not at all serve the purpose and not do justice to the complexity of the task. Instead an extensive dialogue, especially with livestock keepers, is necessary to arrive at a useful outcome.

One of the points agreed upon was the need for establishing strong breeders’ associations and that rights must go along with responsibilities.  A good deal of discussion centered on the right of livestock keepers to breed and to make breeding decisions. Some scientists were of the opinion that this could lead to the continuation of indiscriminate cross-breeding and might further threaten indigenous breeds. Others noted that livestock keepers can not be expected to keep threatened breeds if it was not economically worthwhile; in such cases the government would need to make payments if it wanted the breeds to be preserved.

Much doubt was also raised about the wisdom of government breeding policies which have heavily promoted cross-breeding of indigenous breeds and continue to do so.  According to Dr. A.E. Nivsarkar, a former director of NBAGR and currently with the National Dairy Development Board, 60 years of government promoted and supported cross-breeding has had no lasting impact (except in the creation of mongrels with reproductive problems) and wet averages have plateaued out at 6 liters among cross-breds, while the wet averages of indigenous breeds have slowly improved. He was of the opinion – shared by many – that if the same attention had been given to improve indigenous cattle through selective breeding, the impact would have been been much better for the national economy. This seemed to be confirmed by the cattle breeder from Pakistan who proudly talked about his prize winning Sahiwal cow with daily yields of more than 39 kg.

An eye-opening input was made by the participants from Kerala, Dr. Jayan of the Vechur Conservation Trust and Mr. Lal of the Kasargod Conservation Centre who related how the state’s Livestock Improvement Act of 1961 had prohibited the use and keeping of bulls of the dwarf Vechur cattle breed punishing it with one month in jail and a Rs 500 fine. Indigenous bulls were  systematically scouted out and castrated by force. This was against the backdrop of an Indo-Swiss  dairy development project which promoted cross-breeding with exotics. Now, 50 years later, the Vechur cattle – which was rescued against all odds by the well-known efforts of Prof. Sosamma Iype and her students – has turned into a highly treasured and expensive breed whose milk sells at a minimum of three times the price of the milk from cross-bred cows and which is ideally suited because of its minute size for the small land holdings in densely populated Kerala.

Despite the government efforts focusing on cattle, India’s story is one of buffaloisation, as was described by Dr. R. K. Sethi, former director of India’s Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes. This species is now the main provider of milk in the country and largely responsible for India’s number one rank as beef exporter (beef including buffalo meat). This development appears to be largely due to livestock keepers taking advantage of marketing opportunities as well as government pricing policies rewarding the high fat content of buffalo milk.

Much remains to be analysed and discussed but it is a highly positive sign that India – as home of the largest population of small-scale livestock keepers – has opened the discussion on Livestock Keepers’ Rights! Hopefully other countries will follow and thereby move their livestock sector towards a more sustainable trend.

 

 

Make Cheese, not Mass!

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Bargkass (mountain cheese), ripening in a cheese cellar in the Vosges in France

More! Faster! Cheaper! Mass production is the mantra of global livestock development as breeding companies create ever more productive genetics and farmers and countries are caught  in cut-throat competition worldwide. “Producing more with less” is also the guiding principle of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), a multistakeholder platform that seeks to make livestock production more sustainable, both environmentally and socially.

The spiraling pressure has not been good to livestock producers. Exhorted to “grow or go”, they need to invest heavily in infrastructure and additional animals if they want to stay in business. They get caught up to the hilt in debt, as my colleague Evelyn Mathias has shown in her study “Livestock out of balance. From asset to liability in the course of the Livestock Revolution?“. In all developed countries the number of farmers that can make a living from livestock has plummeted precipitously and this is being repeated in the emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, Thailand, and India, as well as Eastern European countries that have recently joined the European Union. Its a trend that does not forebode well for the sustainability of the livestock sector as holdings become ever bigger leading to huge problems with manure recycling, public health and animal welfare, besides abandoned rural areas.

Yet its still possible to buck the trend and make a decent living from keeping a small number of animals which do not even need to be “highly productive” in the conventional sense, and even enjoy doing so!  The secret is to make cheese. This is the lesson learnt during a recent whirlwind tour to artisanal cheese makers in three European countries originally inspired by the desire to test whether cheese making would be an option for processing camel milk in Rajasthan.

Our first stop was Robert Paget in Lower Austria who produces camembert and mozzarella from about 30 goats and a dozen buffaloes. Robert started out more than 30 years ago with a single goat and believes in growing in quality rather than in quantity. He has a long waiting list of customers – both individuals and gourmet shops – who have to order their cheese quite sometime ahead. Robert covers almost the entire value chain, although he rents the land that produces the fodder for his herds. He has help to milk, but makes and sells the cheese entirely on is own and still finds time to share his knowledge in cheese making courses at home and abroad and supporting the local Slow Food movement.

Robert Paget of Bufala-Connection explaining the intricacies of gourmet cheese making
Robert Paget of Bufala-Connection explaining the intricacies of gourmet cheese making

The next stop on our tour was Northern Italy where we had the pleasure to meet Alessandro a very young man in his early twenties who has embarked on a cheese making career. Alessandro is crazy about his goats and he loves what he is doing – the only downer being the inordinate amount of bureaucracy he has to put up with.

Alex goat hugger
Alessandro Breda in a village near Bergamo (Northern Italy) hugging the goats that are the basis for his cheese making enterprise

Over the span of a few years and with small investment he has built up a faithful clientele for his cheese which he is crafting with the help of his mother in a tiny production unit in his parents’ garden. His enthusiasm – and his lovingly hand crafted cheeses – are absolutely enthralling.

Another interesting experience was waiting for us in the Alsace region of France at the Pensées Sauvages farm of the Baumann family in Linthal. “Pensées sauvages” has the double meaning of wild pansies and wild thoughts which I found very appropriate, as the Baumanns keeps about 30 cows of the Vosges breed which have average milk yields of just above 3000 l. In the European context where dairy farmers usually need well over a hundred high performance cows to make a living, such figures indeed seem to be a wild idea. But here two generations lived well from this enterprise that creates premium organic Munster cheese, a local specialty that is protected by an Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), a French type of Geographical Indication and can be made only from milk produced in the high meadows of the Vosges.

 

The Vosges cattle, a once highly threatened local breed, that produces the milk for Munster cheese
The Vosges cattle, a once highly threatened local breed, that produces the milk for Munster cheese

Here too there were two generations absolutely loving what they were doing and producing high quality food with happy animals – in a way that seemed against the odds.

Tow generations of the Baumann family enjoy making specialty Munster cheese
Two generations of the Baumann family enjoy making specialty Munster cheese

Some observations:

All three cheese makers were first generation farmers coming from a non-farming background.

All of them seemed to be doing well – their secret being to have built up their own value chains and being in control over it  – starting with the feed or access to grazing land to the  sale of the premium products.

There did not seem to be a downside – except of course hard work every day of the year. But everybody benefitted: landscape, animals, farmers, quality of food and consumers.

More support – and less bureaucracy – for such kind of enterprises would go a long way towards making the livestock sector more sustainable. In Europe it would enable more people to come back from the cities and revitalize the rural areas. In developing countries  this could be a model for generating rural income opportunities and curbing high unemployment rates.

We are convinced of the potential of cheese making – the only question is whether it will work with camel milk in Rajasthan!

 

 

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.