Livestock and the environment: finding a balance
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CTA. 1997. Livestock and the environment: finding a balance. Spore 71. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to cite or share this item: https://hdl.handle.net/10568/48850
Livestock production is now the world's largest land user, and the sector is expanding at an unprecedented rate. The cost to the natural resource base is already too high. As demand for livestock products continues to soar, ways must be found by...
Livestock production is now the world's largest land user, and the sector is expanding at an unprecedented rate. The cost to the natural resource base is already too high. As demand for livestock products continues to soar, ways must be found by which livestock production can be increased without causing further damage to the environment in which that production has to take place. We ignore at our peril the interaction between livestock and the world in which we live, its natural resources and the environment on which we depend for our survival. About one-quarter of the world's total land area is used for grazing livestock. In addition, about one-fifth of the world's arable land is used for growing cereals for livestock feed. Livestock production will soon be the most important agricultural activity in terms of economic output, because the number of potential consumers of livestock products is growing faster than the rate of increase in world population. This is because in developing countries, on average, real incomes of consumers have doubled since the early '60s and rising affluence worldwide means that more people can afford the high value protein that livestock products offer. Demand is soaring, but not only because there are more people with more disposable income to spend on the food they desire. In ever greater numbers, those people are living in towns and cities, and urban populations consume more animal products than those based in rural areas. Lowering demand is not an option; that would deprive billions of people of the chance to improve their diet. Livestock production may have had a bad press in the past, but the realization is growing that livestock are no more to blame for deforestation, overgrazing or pollution than a car is to blame for a traffic accident. As Mrs H Gebru of Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture points out, 'It is not the livestock that need to be blamed for the rapidly increasing natural degradation but the conflicting interests of human beings and the ever-rising demand.' Too often poverty exacerbates damage to the environment. Poor farmers may spend their life's savings to own a piece of land on which to grow crops, but the only land that is cheaply available is in semi-arid, marginal areas more suited to livestock grazing. According to Abdi Umar of the Kenya Pastoralist Forum, 'they scratch out the soil, exposing it to wind and soil erosion, and are able to get a crop perhaps only two out of every five years.' Some are now adjusting to the reality and are trying to become pastoralists, but once the vegetation cover has been removed it is hard to get it back to good grazing land. Environmentally the situation is disastrous. 'It's what we call in Kenya a double tragedy,' says Abdi Umar. It is a trend that not only risks the sustainability of agricultural production itself but may even lead to social upheaval. For example, in many countries conflict between herders and farmers continues to rise as land in the semi-arid areas tomes under pressure from both types of farming enterprise. With the loss of traditional methods of land use management, the natural resource base becomes degraded and disputes over the best of what is left become more serious and more violent. In some parts of Africa where ecotourism has become an economic activity to rival agriculture, there is a move to ensure a fairer share of tourist revenue to the pastoralists for their conservation of the wildlife that the tourists come to see. Robin Masaki, Head of Ranch Management Division at Tanzania's Ministry of Agriculture until his retirement two months ago, believes that there is a re-awakening among planners that pastoralists need specific grazing lands. 'Pastoral lands must be demarcated and protected by law against encroachment by cultivation, national parks and game reserves.' He says that governments are becoming increasingly aware of the need to recognize these communities and actually listen to what they say and to what they need, rather than just planning for them from Headquarters. In Ethiopia efforts are being made to give farmers options that allow them to increase productivity per animal, thereby reducing the need to increase herd numbers to sustain income. According to Mrs Gebru, 'We really cannot sacrifice the degradation of the natural resource for the sake of satisfying immediate needs. Directly or indirectly this will affect human beings - later or sooner.' A major study into the impact of livestock production systems on the environment culminated in an international conference held in the Netherlands in June. The conference 'Livestock and the Environment' was sponsored by the World Bank, the European Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the governments of Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. According to Alexander McCalla, Director of the Agriculture and Natural Resource Department of the World Bank, 'Over 100 million tons, or about one-third of the volume of internationally traded agricultural commodities are livestock products or livestock feed.' These internationally traded products also contain millions of tons of plant nutrients. Often these are leaving the soils of countries where soil fertility is decreasing, resulting in damaging consequences such as soil erosion, and are going to countries that already contain a nutrient surplus and where imported nutrients add to the risk of soil and water pollution. 'We cannot sit back and ignore the impact on the environment,' said Henning Steinfeld of FAO, co-author of the report of the study. The interactions between livestock and the environment are many and complex, and represent a challenge for policy makers who also have to consider social and economic factors which are likely to be far more pressing and politically sensitive. However, our knowledge of the means of increasing livestock production, while simultaneously reducing the use of natural resources per unit of product, is enormous. If the technology exists, which for the most part it does, all that is required is a willingness to safeguard the natural resource base. Discussions at the June conference suggested that awareness, political will and readiness to act are all growing amongst those involved; this may help to ensure that the problems are no longer denied but are effectively tackled. [caption to illustration] Overgrazing: a major threat to the environment
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