The future of livestock keeping will have to revolve around finding a balance between economy and ecology. Economically it might make sense to crowd huge numbers of animals in small spaces and automate their feeding and management but this runs counter to all ecological principles: it requires huge amounts of fossil fuels (to grow and transport feed, to climatize stables), it results in accumulations of manure that become difficult or impossible to dispose of (turning dung from a much sought after asset into a liability and threat to the environment), it raises disease pressure (so that routine use of antibiotics becomes essential), and it is problematic from the animal welfare angle. It’s also not good for livelihoods – studies from various countries where the Livestock Revolution has taken hold testify that it results in depopulated rural areas.
Ecologically, decentralised models of livestock keeping as epitomized by pastoralists are much more preferable. They are based on the optimal utilization of locally available biomass and independent of fossil fuels, manure recycling is integrated into the system, disease pressure is small, and animal welfare is almost solved optimally. So why not support these, if we are concerned about the sustainability of the livestock sector?
“But young people don’t want to do this work and prefer to live in the cities” is the argument that is always raised when one suggests that small-scale livestock keeping may be an answer to the sustainability question. There is certainly some truth in it. Many young people are attracted by the urban life, and – by all means – they should be given a chance to go for it. But there are also many youths who find a life taking care of animals preferable to slogging away at menial jobs and a life in slums. So why not encourage these young people, by giving them respect and support, instead of branding them as backward? By directing subsidies towards these ecological livestock production systems instead of the industrialised ones? By building another livestock development paradigm that takes into account the ecological externalities, instead of always comparing the milk yields of the Indian cow with the Israeli cow and automatically concluding that the second one is so much superior?
According to a remarkable presentation by ILRI’s director Jimmy Smith during the third Multi-stakeholder platform meeting of the Global Agenda of Action towards sustainable livestock sector development (GAA), 80% of livestock derived food is still contributed by small producers. If we focus on raising the performance of these systems – for instance through adequate animal health care – and providing incentives for the young generation, then we can solve the livestock sector sustainability question. And we will help address another burning issue – the high unemployment rates that bedevil not only developing countries, but also Europe and the USA – as well.
The FAO is worried about the global sustainability of the livestock sector – which it should be. It is preparing to launch a “Global Agenda of Action in support of responsible livestock sector development. The focus appears to be on “resource efficiency” and environmental aspects. However such an approach would neglect equally important angles of livestock, such as social implications and livelihood issues, as well as the animal welfare perspective. We urgently need a holistic approach that scrutinizes the direction that livestock development has taken in the last few decades. The effects of the Livestock Revolution in the countries where it has hit the hardest, such as China and Brasil, are now becoming apparent – they include loss of rural livelihoods and outmigration to the cities.
In order to make the livestock sector sustainable, we need a radical rethink and thrive for decentralisation instead of further concentration and ever bigger livestock holdings. We need Livestock Keepers’ Rights instead of a further expansion of the Livestock Revolution. I have expanded a bit on that in a recent article published in Ecology and Farming.
Selling food from cloned animals without special labelling has been confirmed as legal by the European Commission, while at about the same time representatives from USA, New-Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay issued the Buenos Aires Declaration on Livestock Cloning, under the guise that such new technologies would be essential for food security. I beg to differ for the following reasons:
It is undemocratic: While 58% of European consumers are against it, in the USA its a whopping 67% that oppose eating meat from cloned animals or their descendants.
It is causing immense animal suffering: According to the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), “health and welfare of a significant proportion of clones have been severaly affected, often severely and with a fatal outcome.” Only a small percentage of the embryos actually survive and the remainder develops in odd ways.
It is eroding genetic diversity: pretty soon the supermarkets will only want products from exactly the same animals – so they can fit better into the standardized trays.
It undermines food security: We dont need more soy-bean and corn guzzling super animals – that basically compete with humans for food/feed. Instead we need robust, vital and self-contained animals that can fend for themselves and live off the vegetation of the drylands and mountainous areas of the world – that would otherwise go unutilized. Only pastoralists keep these types of animals, and they dont lend themselves to cloning, since much of their behaviour is learned and not genetically inherited, as my friend Saverio Krätli has convincingly shown.
It is a waste of resources – that benefits only the scientists and companies that have invested not only in the technology but also substanial amounts in lobbying lawmakers.