Animal genetic resources: the theme of the hour!

Raika community members taking the stage at a side-event during CBD COP 11

The outgoing chair of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources (ITWG_AnGR), Francois Pythoud from Switzerland started his speech with the remark that animal genetic resources really had hogged the limelight during the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Hyderabad, India, earlier this month. He was impressed by the number of side-events on the subject that had taken place, as well as an exhibition of India’s indigenous breeds at the side-lines of the event.

With Access and Benefit-Sharing being on the agenda here in Rome, things are heating up. African countries are promoting Biocultural Community protocols, but its still a new subject for many others. The above picture from the LIFE Network’s side-event in Hyderabad was graciously shared by Polish animal scientist Dr. Ela Martyniuk, and it symbolizes for me how far we have come in the last decade. At the beginning of the new millenium, livestock keepers were not even considered as stakeholders in the conservation of animal genetic resources, but now there is probably consensus that they are the key-actors!

Animal genetic resources and Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS)

I’m here in Rome for the 7th Session of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources. Agenda-items include the preparation of the second report on the state of the world’s animal genetic resources, the role of small-scale livestock keepers, and Access and Benefit-Sharing. The latter is a subject that requires a lot more thought, although in a side-event hosted yesterday by the governments of the Netherlands and of Brazil, three of the stakeholder groups outlined some initial ideas. Cleopas Okore from the Kenyan government reported about his country’s experience with developing Biocultural Community Protocols (based on the Samburu Biocultural Protocol), while Dawn Howard from EFFAB (European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders) represented the industry perspective.  I had been invited to present the results of the Working group on Biocultural Protocols and ABS held during our Bonn Conference.

There will be more discussion on this today in the plenary. It will be interesting to see what the various regions and individual countries will have to say! I will keep you posted!

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!

Pastoralism: pretty to outsiders, but no longer practical and feasible?

People are as fascinated by pastoralists as they are disgusted and taken aback by conventional livestock production.  Film makers, photographers, tourists, students go crazy about traditional livestock keepers herding their flocks through scenic landscapes, while most people avoid being confronted with the stark and uncomfortable technical realities under which their food is produced. Nevertheless, pastoral systems are waning, while the industries are proliferating.

In order to address this issue, LPP is hosting an international conference in Bonn next month in which we are trying to provide “small-scale livestock keepers” with the opportunity of projecting their perspective. Today I received a very sombering note from Argentina by Gabriel Palmili who has spent almost 28 years working with communities and families of nomadic herders in the Northern Neuquen province, Argentina, in the provincial government. I quote:

“I am sure that, if there is not important changes in the government’s policies (national and provincial) and in the concientización and empowerment of the pastoralists themselves on his dramatic situation, this productive system is going to disappear….Transhumants families from the province of Neuquen are getting worse: Their lands are being privatized, young people migrate to the city leaving alone the elderly; government agencies overwhelm them with a lot of regulations (on trade, health for livestock); their traditional transhumance roads disappear as a result of fencing, construction of roads, the growth of population centers. Even nature punishes them with severe droughts like never before they have met. Added to this is that, being a minority among minorities, their situation is overlapped by that of millions of livestock keepers specially of Asia and Africa.

He also adds this comment:

However, this bleak picture contrasts with the reality of many professionals and officials who theorizing about the particular have written and published many works, presented thesis, get doctorates, have progressed in their careers, have discoursed at conferences and meetings, etc.

Let’s hope this conference will serve effectively to begin to reverse this extreme situation being experienced by not only transhumants families from Neuquén’s province but many more livestock keepers families in the whole world.

Yes, Gabriel is right. Nevertheless, we should not give up. Establishing policies that make pastoralism an attractive and rewarding livelihood option would not only revitalize rural areas, but have so many more positive externalities: increased food security, biodiversity conservation, healthy food and less disease problems and pandemics.

Lets hope that our conference will not just talk, but also identify some concrete steps towards reaching the goal of making livtstock keeping more sustainable – both ecologically and socially!

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.

“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 keepers need a voice!

Indian pastoralist leaders hand over petition about Livestock Keepers’ Rights to Dr. Sadana of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources

There is no shortage of global initiatives in the livestock sector. There is of course the Global Agenda of Action towards sustainable livestock sector development – we wrote about it previously. But there is also the Global Alliance for a safer, fairer and more sustainable livestock sector that apparently was launched during a meeting at ILRI in March. Notable is the overlap in the big organisations that are involved: FAO, ILRI, and Worldbank. Others in the Global Alliance are IFAD, OIE (World Organisation of Animal Health), the African Union’s Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One wonders about the reasons behind these coalitions. And we also wonder why livestock keepers are not (yet) officially recognised or mentioned as a stakeholder group in these processes which include governments, research institutions, private sector and NGOs, but no representatives of the 600-800 million poor livetsock keepers in the world. The LIFE Network is of course working and advocating to change this and presented a statement to this effect in the 23rd meeting of the Commission on Agriculture, a body that is composed of government representatives, and that was asked to gives its backing to the GAA and its secretariat being hosted by FAO for the time being. The statement was also on behalf of CELEP, the Coalition of European Lobbies for East African Pastoralism. We are sure that this was taken note of and will continue to pursue the issue. In the next few weeks this blog will provide some more background information about “small-scale livestock keepers” and why they are so important to listen to. Watch out for the next post!

Where are the “small-scale livestock keepers”?

I’ve spent the last few days here in lovely spring-time Washington D.C. attending a meeting by “stakeholders” in the livestock sector – which  has a $ 1.4 trillion asset value and employs 1.3 billion people worldwide, according to Mark Rosegrant from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He also presented a calculation showing that a 50% reduction in the per capita comsumption of livestock products in developed countries could move 60 million people out of hunger. Another fascinating talk was by Andy Jarvis from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) who emphasized that livestock need not be a problem in terms of green house gases but also has enormous mitigation potential if sylvi-cultural approaches were used more widely.

Much concern at the meeting was about disinterest among major donors in livestock projects, although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is planning to muscle in, in a big way, in the coming years.

Sorely absent from the discussion was the voice of the “poor livestock keepers” themselves who are supposed to be in the centre of all the activities. So many benefits could accrue if they could also have an opportunity to share their thoughts. In fact, none of the many initiatives in the livestock sector can genuinely claim to be “multi-stakeholder” until this changes. Well, I hope that this somewhat neo-colonial attitude will turn around in the near future.

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.