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.

“Livestock Keepers’ Rights should be addressed”

The much talked about “Access and Benefit-Sharing” is not a concept appropriate for animal genetic resources – this was the conclusion of an International Technical Expert Workshop on Access and Benefit-Sharing for Animal Genetic Resources that took place in Wageningen in the Netherlands at the beginning of December. Organised by the Dutch government as well as Switzerland and Norway, the meeting sought to analyse the implications of the Nagoya Protocol on the exchange of breeds and genes across international borders. Normally this works quite well, as individual animals – that embody the genetic resourcs -are sold to their new owners in other countries at a certain price, and the government only comes in, if there are hygienic restrictions or if does not allow export. But now, if the Nagoya protocol was implemented according to the letter, the procedure would change:  every time there is an international transaction, a contract about Access and Benefit-Sharing would need to be developed.
The experts at the meeting, representing almost all stakeholder groups and more than 30 countries, agreed that exchange of livestock genetic material needed to be as unimpeded as possible. The positive thing was the consensus that “Livestock Keepers’ Rights” needed to be addressed, and that maybe this should be done on the context of an amendment to the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources. There was also widespread support for Biocultural Community protocols which were also mentioned in the recommendations. These will be presented to the next meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) that will be held at FAO in Rome in July 2011.

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.