In the world of animal production, we observe a rapid growth and intensification of production processes. The concentrated and landless animal production systems now established in many parts of western Europe are good examples. Although successful in meeting human demand for tailored products at economic prices, the hidden costs of such systems cannot be ignored. They extend from the consequences of demanding huge feed imports from developing countries, to environmental degradation, to concern over animal welfare and to the emerging diseases that may affect man and livestock. They raise an all important question: Should this type of livestock production continue to be encouraged globally or should alternatives be sought?
Emerging diseases. Examples of the real threats posed by this "modernization" of livestock production are the recent slaughter of millions of poultry in Hong Kong, due to fears over avian influenza, the outbreak of Classical Swine Fever in the Netherlands - which temporarily devastated the pig industry - and the crisis caused by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow Disease") in the UK. The crowding of animals into intensive units coupled with a sharp rise in international trade will no doubt exacerbate the risks of new emerging diseases, food borne diseases and zoonoses.
The problems that intensive livestock production may cause through the growing need for feed imports are equally alarming. Feed production requires land and water resources which are becoming particularly scarce in densely populated developing countries. With land pressures increasing, there will be more competition for agricultural land in proximity to urban areas and markets. Pastoral and other rural societies that are unable to compete with this intensification may well become marginalized. Subsistence-level livestock keepers and producers are already being gradually driven out of areas that are potentially agriculturally productive and forced towards more remote, and often harsh, environments, where support and extension services do not reach due to remoteness, lack of infrastructure and the absence of economic incentives. A vicious circle of poverty and misery is thus created and sustained.
An additional complication is that created by vector-borne diseases such as malaria and trypanosomiasis, and those carried by ticks, all of which are becoming increasingly difficult to control due to the lack of investment in sustainable disease management programmes. The increasing contrast between more densely populated and economically productive areas and the relatively uninhabited marginal areas where rural people seek to survive at subsistence level offers diminishing economic justification to pursue such schemes.
Model for developing countries? It is against this background that we must examine more closely the ongoing trend towards the intensification of livestock production. We may take, as an extreme example, the intensive animal production in the Netherlands, where some 20 million pigs and cattle are confined on a land area of about 33,000 km.sq and where milk output alone is equal to that of the whole of developing Africa.
Perhaps we should welcome the decision by the Netherlands government to reduce the number of pigs by 25% by the year 2000. It should be acknowledged, though, that the main reasons for this decision were the local health and degradation risks presented by manure disposal, groundwater pollution and the general impact on other living animals and plants. There are reasons for concern when we consider that the same intensive livestock production systems are now being widely adopted by developing countries.
There is, perhaps, one apparent conclusion: livestock form an invaluable resource to many people, in particular the rural societies living in more remote environments, and yet at the same time livestock may be manipulated, perhaps unnaturally, to meet the specific and sophisticated demands of the higher income classes and, in the process, contribute to inequality, to environmental degradation and to public health problems. The FAO Animal Production and Health Division has tasked itself with addressing such fundamental issues in order to contribute to the future development of the livestock sector towards the challenges of the next century.
This comment appeared in the latest issue of World animal review (No. 90, 1998/1), which is published annually by the FAO Animal Production and Health Division (AGA)
Published December 1998