Today is World Food Day

Camel Milk – also known as the “white gold of the desert”

Today is World Food Day, a time to remember the enormous role of livestock keepers in food production! Not just in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality, as we are trying to highlight in our Ark of Livestock Biodiversity project. And a role that could be vastly increased and improved if “small-scale livestock keepers” (a somewhat unwieldy term that includes pastoralists, family farms, and smallholders) woud be given the policy support that they deserve.

Unfortunately, research and subsidies continue to be directed towards supporting high-input and industrial livestock production – a scenario that undermines livestock biodiversity, livelihoods, sustainability and – in the final reckoning – even food security, as more and more grain and soybeans are fed to livestock.

How to change this situation? Well, of course consumers have a major role to play by choosing products that come from extensively raised “pasture fed” animals. But it is also the livestock keepers themselves that must get organised and make their voices heard. One of the reasons for their neglect by policy makers is also that pastoralists and other small-scale livestock keepers are dispersed, busy with their animals, and have no institutional representation.

However, at the recent – actually still on-going -11th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)  in Hyderabad, they made an impressive show of strength, demanding their grazing rights in the forest. This fills us with much hope for the future!

Rethinking livestock development

The tiny Vechur cow is indispensable for organic horticulture in Kerala and also integrates well with rubber plantations.

As long as the term exists, “livestock development” has been practically synonymous with “breed improvement”. Animal husbandry and livestock departments are pervaded by the notion that local breeds are unproductive and need to be upgraded by means of cross-breeding with exotic high performance breeds. Artificial insemination and embryo-transfer to speed up this process has been the mantra, sometimes even combined with outright prohibition of locally adapted breeds. Although this approach has rarely been successful and has had detrimental impacts on livestock diversity, its basic rationale has never been explicitly doubted.

Participants of a conference entitled “Native Animals for the Future of Mankind” that was held in Kerala (India) on 6th and 7th July finally spelt out their fundamental disagreement. After listening to the evidence of various experts and scientists, they issued a strongly worded statement, the Bharananganam Declaration in which they appeal to the government to discontinue its policies of promoting cross-breeding and instead focus on community-based development of local breeds.

The Conference was organised by the Vechur Conservation Trust, a small but incredibly active group of animal scientists around Prof. Sosamma Iype that singlehandedly rescued the Vechur cattle breed, a dwarf animal that was persecuted some decades ago with forceful castration of all male animals by the government. The breed had become virtually extinct, but Prof. Sosamma’s team managed to scout out a handful of remaining specimens and has nursed the population back to over a thousand animals. There is now a long waiting list for the Vechur cattle – which are perfectly adapted to the current crowded situation in Kerala and ideally suited for providing manure and recycling nutrients in organic agriculture and horticulture. Yesterday’s outcast is on the way to being recognised as a national treasure – possible only because a few people were brave and dedicated enough to swim against the mainstream and took their own initiative!

Luxury hotels are now proud to associate themselves with the once scorned and persecuted Vechur cattle.

The Nagoya Protocol: who will reap the benefits?

Not another Copenhagen…..the world is breathing a sigh of relief as the 10th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity successfully agreed on the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. Although the meeting attracted well over 10,000 participants, very few people have heard about the convention and only a minute few understand the term “Access and Benefit-sharing”. This all goes back to the when the Convention was drafted and biological diversity was put under national sovereignty – previously it had been regarded as humanity’s common heritage. The idea behind it was that the poor, but bio-diverse countries of the south could benefit (read make profit) by providing access to the biodiversity poor, but rich northern countries who would then in return “share the benefits”.
Well, it seem as if this concept was dreadfully wrong, and has provided benefits only in a very few cases which have never real reached the people who have been conserving the biodiversity. I attended a meeting yesterday here in Delhi where one of the speakers expressed the opinion that it was time to reverse the stance of biological diversity being under national sovereignty and again classify it as common heritage, since all countries are interdependent on genetic resources and not one of them is autonomous.