We often worry about human population growth and its effect on the planet. But a much more potent population bomb is represented by our farm animals whose numbers have grown almost twice as fast as those of people, due to our ravenous appetites for meat and milk. While the number of people doubled during the last half century, the number of farm animals grew 3.6 times, and the number of slaughtered animals even multiplied by the factor of 7.1.
This trend is putting an unprecedented strain on the earth’s resources, with devastating effects on the environment, soil fertility, climate, and biodiversity. Public health – the massive use of antibiotics and growth promoters, as well as the rapid spread of diseases around the globe – is another major concern.
And it seems that there is no end in sight to what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has termed “Livestock’s long shadow”: It is predicted that the demand for livestock products will double again by 2050. This predicament has motivated the FAO, and some other major public players, to initiate the Global Agenda of Action for a Sustainable Livestock Sector (www.livestockdialogue.org).
Most of the farm animal population growth has happened through an increase of poultry and pigs – the so-called mono gastrics - whose production now proceeds in an industrial fashion and in the form of huge units with thousands, ten thousands or even hundred thousands of animals. These are fed with soy and corn sourced from the Americas that are transported to all parts of the world.
This creates problems on both ends: in the exporting countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, rain forests and pastures are converted to soy plantations with an enormous loss of biodiversity, as well as the collateral damage caused by the routine application of herbicides (glyphosates). In the importing countries, such as China, huge amounts of manure accumulate, leading to the seepage of nitrogen into groundwater or spill over into rivers and oceans, and causing enormous growth of algae that kill fish and coral reefs.
The global Phosphorus cycle is another is another affair to watch: This non-renewable resource is rapidly depleted, but pollutes aquatic ecosystems in feed importing countries.
While this type of ecologically disastrous livestock production is on a rapid expansion course, the more sustainable forms of livestock production - that make use of local resources through integrated farms or by means of grazing remote areas - are losing out.
Over the last twenty years, I have lived among and worked with the Raika pastoralists of Western India who raise sheep, goats, camels and cattle entirely on feed resources that would otherwise not be used and who have developed a whole culture around the sustainable use of land for their herds.
They, and a myriad of other pastoralist groups in India, make an enormous contribution to food security and the national economy by converting crop by-products and the natural vegetation in even the remotest nook and cranny, such as the far reaches of the Thar desert or in high alpine pastures of the Himalayas, into meat and milk, as well as providing fertilizer to farmers fields. T
hey cause practically no carbon emissions, as they and their animals walk hundreds and thousands of miles to access pasture areas. But this contribution is not valued by the government and ridiculed by much of society, despite being profitable for both livestock keepers and the country. As a result the cultural base and the underlying knowledge systems are unravelling before our own eyes.
My advice for a greener livestock economy: support and create incentives for those livestock keepers, such as the Indian pastoralists and their colleagues in other parts of the world that keep animals in tune with the availability of local resources.
These decentralised systems of livestock production can be strengthened through the provision of services and better connection to markets – interventions that would also do their bit in terms of poverty alleviation. On the other hand, create controls to ensure that industrial systems internalize their costs in terms of pollution, biodiversity loss and damage to public health – to create a level playing field for the small-scale livestock keepers.
Equally important: we need to reduce our consumption of livestock products. Economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have calculated that this would not only reduce environmental pressure and greenhouse gases, but also lift 60 million people out of hunger.