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Debate: Are beasts a burden - to the environment?

Pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and even global warming are accusations often levelled at livestock. And yet, even setting aside the growing demand for animal protein, how could millions of farmers manage their crop-growing activities without animal draught power or their animals' contribution to on-farm soil fertility? How environmentally-friendly can livestock be?

The world stands on the brink of an unprecedented global expansion of factory farming, according to the report 'Factory Farming: The Global Threat' published by the charity, Compassion in World Farming Trust. The report warns that this massive expansion of factory farming could have catastrophic consequences not only for the well-being of billions of farm animals, but also for the world's environment and the welfare of people in developing countries.
Press Release issued by CIWT to accompany publication of Report

Livestock, for many the sole source of livelihood
Photo credit: FAO

Livestock raising is the sole source of livelihood for at least 20 million pastoral families and an important, often the main, source of income for at least 200 million smallholder farmer families in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance. FAO publication

"It is not the livestock that need to be blamed for the rapidly increasing environmental degradation, but it is the conflicting interests of human beings. The focus so far has been to meet the interests of human beings by increasing the number of livestock, without giving emphasis to the improvement of the livestock themselves."
Hadera Gebru, Head of Animal Research Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Ethiopia

"Sub-Saharan Africa has an enormous diversity of livestock production systems. Each has evolved to suit a particular geographical, cultural and economic environment, and the production systems change in response to the rapidly-changing conditions of the region. Livestock owners almost invariably respond perfectly rationally to any situation with which they are confronted. Unexpected or undesirable responses can usually be attributed to faulty analysis of the production system or the objectives of livestock owners."
Andrew James, Director of VEERU, University of Reading

"You find that a farmer, who had 20 acres of land, when he gets children and grandchildren, naturally each of these sons and grandsons must own animals. And if the farm is going to continue believing in keeping large animals regardless of the size of the land, it's not going to work."
Samuel Sende, Land'o Lakes Dairy Development Programme, Uganda

Livestock provide the power to cultivate
Photo credit: FAO

Livestock provide the power to cultivate at least 320 million hectares of land, or one-quarter of the total global cropped area. This would otherwise have to be cultivated by hand tools, resulting in harsh drudgery, especially for women, or by tractor power with an inevitable drain on foreign exchange.
Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance. FAO publication

"In the last 10 or 15 years, this conflict has increased because more and more land which is actually not suitable for agriculture, is being ploughed for agricultural crops. And we find that the total production is less and farmers experience a loss. We recommend that an area having less than 150mm of rain should not be used for crop growing and this area should be earmarked for growing perennial grasses."
Dr. B.K. Mathur, Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, India

About 25 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost every year
Photo credit: FAO

Worldwide, around 25 billion tonnes of topsoil are being lost every year . . . Exporting the production of animal feed crops to developing countries switches the problem of loss of this vital natural resource from the rich, developed world to the poor countries of the South, which are much less well placed to deal with the consequences.
Factory Farming: The Global Threat. CIWT publication

"We've noticed big changes in the way they (farmers in Patagonia) see the reality and look into natural resources - at least the ones that have got some information about this. The means of how we get to these people is through AM radios. It is the only means to get to them. Most of them don't read and anyway, even if they could, they wouldn't be able to get the written information because they are far out there. We are working for the future, 25-50 years ahead, and we've simply got to get it right."
Hugo Mendes Casariago, Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia Agropecuaria, Argentina

"We cannot simply sacrifice the degradation of the natural resource for the sake of satisfying immediate needs. By doing that we really cannot sustain the natural resource. So, directly or indirectly, it is again going to affect human beings - later or sooner."
Hadera Gebru, Head of Animal Research Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Ethiopia

"Most countries, especially developing countries, don't have policies that address these issues, that's where we should start. Some people come in basically looking at marketing but, you've got to stop and say these natural resources are important and they must be sustained. Maybe we'll have to start by understanding environmental interactions and having appropriate policies that are going to address this."
Robert Thwala, Swaziland

"I would like to start by saying, relative to vehicles and machines, that beasts are less of a burden to our environment. Often the ruminant animal has been accused of polluting the environment through methane production, but studies have shown that this is just a small contribution compared to gas emission from motor vehicles and machines. Apart from the obvious supply of quality protein from animal products, livestock play several other roles such as improvement of soil fertility, draught power etc. The browsing behaviour of camels, for example, makes an opening through thick bushes which allows other small ruminants to graze or browse. This allows the penetration of sunlight for the regrowth of young plants. In crop-livestock interactions, the ruminant animal has played a significant role in utilization of low quality crop residues. In most cases such waste products will be burned, thus polluting the environment. But the ruminant is equipped with the rumen microbes to degrade and utilize such material for food production for humans.
When animals are managed under an intensive system, an appropriate system for disposing of manure is necessary. In various farming systems, such products (slurry) have been successfully used on farms as sources of fertilizer and compare well with commercial fertilizer. In this respect, we do not need to use chemicals but rather to go organic. You will agree with me that this is the way forward for our good health and also good for our environment."
S. Abdulrazak, Shimane University

Huge energy inputs are required to raise feed-crops. The basic 'inefficiency' of intensive livestock production - the dependence of factory farmed animals on the large-scale production of high-protein feed-crops - is, in a very real way, a threat to the environments of both developing and developed countries.
Factory Farming: A Global Threat. CIWT publication

"Some of the intensification measures to increase concentrate feed production have already shown negative ecological and environmental impacts (in China). These mainly include problems caused by too high level of fertilizer input, soil erosion and river water pollution from over-cultivation, underground water depletion and cutout of river water due to irrigation. The current development goals should be better balanced with consideration given to the sustainability of the natural and environmental resources. Problems from the encroachment of agriculture on lakes and semi-arid grassland, and the investment in drilling deep wells for irrigation, in the North China Plain, for example, have taught China to pay much more respect to the environmental rules of nature.
Development of the feed processing industry is very important for increasing the efficiency and productivity of the livestock sector. Shortage of feed resources is a crucial bottleneck for the development of livestock production in China. On the one hand there are still two-thirds of concentrate feed being fed directly to animals without processing. On the other hand, large amounts of crop by-products such as straw, remain unused or burned in the fields."
Ke Bingsheng, China Agricultural University

The value of livestock
Photo credit: FAO

"Many who have livestock do not in fact own them: many who have nothing else, have livestock. For the landless, livestock provide one of the very few opportunities for their own agricultural activities, whilst for those who do not own the land they farm, livestock are often the only asset they can accrue to themselves and take with them when they leave. And for many of the really poor, the single cow, the goat, the chickens or the donkey form the mainstay of their survival. Indeed, it is now becoming a generally accepted fact that the smaller the farming enterprise, the proportionally greater the importance of the contribution made by livestock to its viability and its sustainability."
Guy Freeland, Senior Animal Health and Production Advisor, Department for International Development (DFID), UK

Remove the emotional conjecture, lack of objectivity and over-simplification from the debate on livestock-environment relationships; acknowledge the need to correct unsustainable livestock production systems; accept the ample evidence that the contribution of livestock to sustainable development can be greatly enhanced, provided that the appropriate enabling environment is created; take full account in future policy planning of the dramatic changes transforming the global livestock sector . . . Only then can we expect to feed future generations with the type and quality of food they desire without depleting natural resources.
Excerpts from conclusions of Livestock & the Environment - Report of a study coordinated by FAO, USAID and World Bank.

"The multi-donor study failed to address the question of environmental objectives in a systematic way. When objectives are not clear, it is difficult or impossible to find appropriate indicators for monitoring and evaluating to what degree the objectives are being reached."
Wolfgang Bayer, Consultant for Tropical Animal Husbandry and Forage Management, Germany

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