AG's Animal Production Service (AGAP) recently collaborated in a global study to identify ways of helping the livestock sector satisfy future demands while preserving the natural resource base. Addressed to both policymakers and technicians, the study pointed out that if, as a result of livestock production, forests are cut down, rivers polluted or soil overloaded with nitrates, animals themselves are blameless: "Livestock do not destroy the environment - people do. Ignorance, indifference and policies that misguide resource use are responsible for environmental degradation. Individual livestock owners, particularly in developing countries, often have very few options. It is up to policy makers to ensure that these options are environmentally sound." The study analysed several environmental "hot spots" where livestock-environment interactions are particularly critical.
Livestock on grazing lands. About 60% of the world's agricultural land is used for grazing some 360 million cattle and more than 600 million sheep and goats. Grazing animals supply about 10% of world production of beef and about 30% of sheep and goat meat. For an estimated 100 million people in arid areas - and probably a similar number in other zones - grazing livestock is the only feasible source of livelihood.
The great advantage of livestock grazing is that it converts to useful products resources what would otherwise be wasted. In the process, grazing animals play a positive environmental role: they improve the diversity of grasses by dispersing seeds, and break up the soil crust. This is why arid rangelands are a dynamic and highly resilient ecosystem, provided the number of people and animals that the land can support remains in balance. Indeed, the ability to recover after drought is one of the main indicators of long term environmental and social sustainability in arid grazing systems.
Today many of the world's grazing areas - especially in semi-arid and sub-humid zones - are threatened with degradation. As a result of population pressure and policies that favour marginal cropping, much of the best pasture is being turned over to crops for which the land is not well suited. When, after a few years, the land is exhausted and returned to fallow, it does not revert to good pasture. Furthermore, it is only by herding animals between grazing lands that pastoralists make best use of the resources. Not only does cropping reduce the area of grazing, but moving between grazing lands may be restricted. When animals are kept for too long in the same place, land degradation is inevitable.
People most closely involved in the use of land must have more say and more responsibility in its management. This would encourage stewardship of natural resources and regulate access. Usually, this needs to be supported by policy/institutional measures, such as increasing the cost of rangeland grazing to encourage owners to sell their animals at a younger age, charging realistic prices for water and animal health services, and introducing, where appropriate, the right to own land.
Another environmental "hot spot" linked with grazing is deforestation. Since 1950, some two million sq km of rainforest and its associated biodiversity has been lost, with livestock ranching being a major culprit, especially in Latin America. But again the root causes are complex, and are often more the results of policy distortions than livestock production itself. These include subsidized credit and other tax advantages which have favoured ranch development, and land speculation linked to road construction and government-financed colonization schemes (in many countries land must be shown to be under some agricultural use before it can be registered to an owner).
Many of these inappropriate incentives have now been removed. Increasingly, land use is governed by the actual demand for food, with ranching being introduced after soil fertility is depleted by crops. Intensification, through a combination of fiscal incentives (e.g. land taxation) and research and extension, will be the main strategy for reducing deforestation.
Livestock in crop land. Most of the world's agriculture is mixed crop-livestock farming, which covers about 2,500 million hectares of land. Important not only for meat, milk and hides, livestock provide the draught power to cultivate more than 25% of the world's arable land. Throughout the world, animal numbers are growing but it is in the humid and sub-humid regions that growth is most rapid. Irrigated mixed farming systems, especially in the humid regions of Asia, have shown the greatest increase in productivity.
Mixed farming makes very efficient use of natural resources. Crop residues feed the animals and the animals' manure fertilizes the soil. By keeping livestock, farmers add value to low value or surplus food, use labour more efficiently and diversify risk. By adding manure to the fields, not only are nutrients recycled but the improved soil structure reduces erosion. Less often recognized is the benefit to biodiversity of more varied land use - livestock fodder trees and grass strips provide habitats for many kinds of wildlife, including micro-fauna and flora.
In other areas, policy bias towards crop production actually prevents integration of crops and livestock. Many countries - for example in the Near East - impose high import duties to protect domestic cereal production, which in turn encourages farmers to grow crops on marginal land previously used for livestock grazing. Cheap, subsidized mineral fertilizer and fuel are replacing farm manure and animal traction, while cheap feed in Southeast Asia has favoured industrial forms of livestock production.
Removing subsidies on feed, fertilizer and mechanization would stimulate greater use of home-grown feed, animal draught power and manure. Even in developed countries - where mixed farming is more intensive and, therefore, more likely to be suffering from a surplus than a shortage of nutrients - removal of subsidies on feed and fertilizer would help alleviate environmental damage.
Industrial production can create enormous pollution problems because it brings in large quantities of nutrients in the form of concentrate feed, then disposes of wastes in nearby land. As a result, land and groundwater are polluted. Key forces encouraging this trend are poor infrastructure and weak regulations. Where roads are inadequate and transport costs high, industrial units are usually based close to urban centres. This has happened in Asia, where industrial livestock production has developed very quickly and where a weak regulatory structure compounds the risks to human health.
The challenge is to obtain higher efficiencies without overconcentrating livestock. With improvements in transport and storage, it is possible to move livestock production closer to feed sources - i.e. back to rural areas - allowing for wastes not only to be absorbed, but returned as nutrients. Re-establishing this link would thus help to reduce the soil nutrient mining caused by feed production.
Finally, livestock and livestock waste produce gases. Some, such as ammonia, are local but others - including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides - affect the world's atmosphere by contributing to global warming. Still, the trend to intensive production of pigs and poultry has helped to keep livestock gas emissions steady (pigs and poultry do not emit significant amounts of methane as ruminants do), and technical solutions are available for limiting the emission of these greenhouse gases, particularly nitrous oxides and methane. For example, methane can be recovered from lagoons and used directly as fuel or to generate electricity.
Challenge for policymakers. Interactions between livestock and the environment are many and complex - a challenge for policymakers for whom socio-economic factors are likely to be far more pressing and politically sensitive. Putting the environment in the forefront does not mean that only environmental objectives count. On the contrary, environmental goals can only be effectively tackled if accompanied by sound economic policies.
Measures that tackle only the superficial effects of environmental damage will never be as effective as a policy that addresses underlying causes. The crux of the issue is that those who benefit from overexploitation and degradation of the environment have not paid the full cost. Those who preserve natural resources, or who pay the cost of conservation, gain few of the benefits.
How can this be reversed? One way is to ensure that the price of livestock products is not artificially subsidized by ignoring the environmental costs incurred in its production. This difficult task will fall to policymakers who, by a combination of reducing subsidies and imposing taxes and regulations, can encourage the use of environmentally-friendly livestock production technologies. They will face powerful interest lobbies - not least, consumers who may well be reluctant to pay more for animal products. Strategies might differ according to the stage of development of a country. Lower income countries, for whom increased food production is the over-riding priority, cannot be expected to impose the same regulations and taxes that richer countries can afford. Still, with better information, the public is more likely to be sympathetic to environmental concerns.
The scope of technology for increasing livestock production, while simultaneously reducing the use of natural resources per unit of product, is enormous. What is required is a willingness to safeguard the natural resource base, followed by the introduction of the necessary policies and institutions that will induce technology adoption.
Opportunities to tap the immense development potential that livestock offer, while nevertheless minimizing environmental damage, are many. Awareness, political will and readiness to act are growing among all those involved and should ensure that the problems are no longer ignored but effectively tackled.
Published September 1998