“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.

Promoting Biocultural Protocols in Africa

I’m in Nairobi now, helping the LIFE Africa coordinator, Jacob Wanyama, prepare for our workshop “Biocultural Community Protocols: An emerging approach to strengthening livestock keepers” that will be held at the Kenya School of Law on 29th November. We are excited to share and discuss the existing experiences with BCPs (Biocultural Community Protocols) with a wider audience. Dailibai Raika from Rajasthan will give a presentation about the Raika Biocultural Protocol and we will also hear about the Samburu BCP. Unfortunately, Abdul Raziq, the facilitator of the Pashtoon BCP, can not make it due to the difficultues of obtaining a visa in Pakistan. The workshop is organised in collaboration with Natural Justice and WISP, the World Initiative on Sustainable Pastoralism. It will be facilitated by our old friend, Getachew Gebru from Ethiopia.

Sustainability of the livestock sector

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.

Why the EU does not reject cloning

I am sure many of you have wondered why the EU commission meakly accepts cloning and refuses to label meat from clones or clone offspring, despite the overwhelming majority of citizens being very much opposed to this. A  paper by the European commission that was obtained by Testbiotech and published by Foodwatch reveals the arguments:

1. Its not deemed possible to actually trace the meat of cloned animals or their offspring – which is already on the market in Europe – and regulations for labelling would practically mean an import stop for all bovine meat. (So far only beef deriving from clones and their offspring is available, while pork from cloned pigs apparently has not yet hit the market.)

2. The EU is afraid of  “carousel sanctions” under the WTO that would impact both its imports of livestock products to the tune of  € 2 billion as well as its exports to the tune of € 6.9 billion.

Its almost hilarious. So much effort and costs have been invested in obtaining traceability of all livestock products in the EU, yet cloning is not considered a criterion. And the EU is afraid of risking the ire of the WTO fearing that it will lose the market for its excess meat – produced to 78% by using protein feed that is imported from the Amercias where the Amazon forests are being cut down for this purpose. …. Ah, that means economic sustainability for the few grain traders that dominate the global market!

Five reasons against farm animal cloning

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.

What’s a breed?

I have been discussing this topic recently with my friends and learned colleagues in India. It came out that there actually never has been a scientific breed survey in the country and that basically India’s breed classification dates back to colonial times. It was always assumed a priori that only 20% of livestock belongs to a specifc breed and that the rest is non-descript. No wonder then, that new breeds are coming to light now and then. For instance the NGO Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) reported about Malvi camel and Nari cattle sometime ago. Then Sahjeevean, an NGO based in Kutch (Gujarat), managed to get the Banni buffalo breed officially recognized. Now, they have identified another breed, the Kharai camel, that swims to and lives off the mangroves on the coast.
Getting a “new” breed recognised is a major effort, requiring lots of genetical studies to confirm that the breed is indeed unique. But it seems to me this approach needs to be streamlioned, especially if there apparently never was a real breed survey and the existing classification is based on more or less anecdotal evidence.