Livestock Advisor, Agriculture and Natural Resource Department, World Bank

LEAD Livestock, Environment and Development initiative


While the contribution of grazing systems to the world's meat supply is limited (nine percent of the global beef and thirty percent of the global mutton production), grazing systems have the most direct interface between livestock and land, water and bio-diversity, and cover the majority of the usable surface of the earth. They thus merit considerable attention in the livestock-environment debate. This presentation will first highlight the vast differences between the different grazing systems in the various ecological zones, and then define, for each of these production systems, the main pressures it is subjected to, the main evolution of the world's grazing resources, and the key responses needed to arrive at their more sustainable use. As such, this presentation closely follows the Pressure State Response model, outlined in an earlier presentation.

The need to differentiate

Grazing livestock can provoke beautiful images of animals completely in harmony with nature, but is also often associated with overgrazing, clouds of dust and desertification. A good understanding of the nature of grazing systems, and their differences is therefore essential. In this study, we distinguish basically four production systems: the arid, the semi-arid and sub-humid, the humid and the temperate/highlands grazing systems.

The arid grazing system (less than 75 growing days) is the most extensive system in terms of areas it covers. It is probably also one of the most debated and “high profile” systems, as it is directly associated with desertification. Recently, a group of ecologists and sociologists from the US and the UK, i.e. Behnke et al (1994), building on earlier work of Ellis and Swift (1988) and Westoby et al (1989), have contributed significantly to a better understanding of the arid grazing system. These scientists argued that the key determinant of the arid grazing system is its variable climate, which causes the system to be in a continuous state of dis-equilibrium. Thus, for the annual vegetation, not the biotic pressures, such as caused by man and animals, but abiotic factors, and especially rainfall, determine the state of the vegetation and next year's state of the resources. As will be seen later, this dis-equilibrium theory leads to completely different policy and investment requirements.

1 This is a summary of Chapter II of De Haan C., H. Steinfeld and H. Blackburn (1997). Livestock and the Environment: Finding the Balance. Wrenmedia, U.K.

The semi-arid and sub-humid zones are defined as zones with a 75–270 days growing season. As precipitation increases, the dis-equilibrium characteristics of the arid areas turn into a more stable equilibrium environment, and progressively biotic factors, such as human pressure and the resulting land use, define the state of the natural resources. There is a continuum from the semi-arid zones, which are generally densely populated, to the sub-humid zone savannas, which have been rather empty until recently, as their access was impeded by human and livestock diseases, such as river blindness, African sleeping sickness in men and tick-born diseases in animals. This sub-humid zone is the area in which there are still opportunities for increased production, especially through mixed farming.

In the humid zones of the tropics, (a growing season of more than 270 days), rainforest becomes the climax vegetation, and livestock and grasslands mostly compete with that forest. Ranch encroachment in tropical rain forests has been the other “high profile” livestock-environment interaction, as it was exemplified as the case of conspicuous consumption of meat at the expense of bio-diversity.

The fourth and final system concerns the temperate and tropical highlands grazing system. Because of their high potential, the tropical highlands almost universally are dealing with a high population pressure, and that is why there are few real tropical grassland systems left, most having been converted to mixed farming systems. This group has to contend with extreme forms of nutrient imbalances: from the highly nutrient deficient grasslands in the East African Highlands, to the heavily nutrient surplus pastures of North Western Europe and the eastern US.

Pressures factors on the world's grazing resources

(a) Arid grazing systems

The overriding underlying pressure for the arid grazing system is population growth, compounded by poverty. The population growth mainly concerns exogenous (non-livestock or non-pastoral) ethnic groups, which grow at a substantial higher rate than the pastoral population. This causes the encroachment of these groups in so-called key resources, such as dry season grazing areas and water resources, and as such undermines the critical mobility, and therefore sustainability of the eco-system. These fundamental causes have often been worsened by policy interventions, most notably by:

Institutional deficiencies often affecting arid grazing systems are centralized planning (pastoral projects were often planned without active pastoral population) and the absence of drought preparedness capabilities. Drought is an integral part of dryland management, and the main resource degradation occurs especially during drought. Still, very little experience exists on how to prepare pastoral populations for these recurring droughts.

(b) Semi-arid and sub-humid grazing systems

Population growth and immigration, facilitated in the more humid areas by disease eradication (sleeping sickness, malaria and river blindness), also are the key pressure factors in the semi-arid and sub-humid areas. These are the areas of the Cerrados and Llanos in South America, and the Guinea savannas and Miombo woodlands in Sub Saharan Africa. Land degradation is the result of a combination of fuel wood collection, crop expansion and overgrazing, and is especially strong in the semi-arid areas. The key policy forces, promoting such practices, include perverse incentives, such as subsidies on fuel, machinery and fertilizer. Such incentives induce cropping in areas, which are marginal for arable use, but are crucial for grazing. Crop encroachment thus affects the sustainability of the entire eco-system. A case-study will be presented in this Conference on how these incentives affect resource degradation in North Africa and West Asia (Oram, 1997). The absence of a reliable banking system for reinvestment of savings, now still often invested in livestock, is one of the key institutional weaknesses causing overgrazing by livestock.

This is a grazing system which covers areas with great wildlife diversity. A key issue here is how this bio-diversity is priced and how the revenues are distributed. Often, communities do not get sufficient incentives for bio-diversity conservation, as revenues from tourism and eventual game cropping are often diverted to local or national government coffers. With no rewards, but considerable potential losses, because of crop damage or livestock predation, there is little incentive to preserve this bio-diversity. The control of the tsetse fly is a much debated issue. Reduction of the fly pressure, either as a result of human pressure or through chemical control methods opens up areas for crop and livestock production, and puts pressure on wildlife populations.

(c) Humid grazing systems.

Ranch induced deforestation in tropical rainforests has been extensively studied, and will be presented in a case-study (Faminov, 1997). In summary, the transformation from tropical forest to crop and pasture land brings about substantial losses of soil fertility and soil erosion, and in many tropical rainforest areas, pastures can only be sustained for rather short periods. Soil nutrients are rapidly depleted after clearing, and weeds rapidly displace the grasses.

Probably more than for any other livestock-environment interaction, inappropriate incentives, land tenure and institutional policies have played a major role in deforestation, land degradation and erosion of bio-diversity in the humid tropical areas. Many of the factors are exogenous, however. Road construction globally led to accelerated deforestation, and is possibly the single most important direct cause of deforestation. Arable farming, in the rainforest areas usually takes the form of “slash and burn” agriculture, especially in the forest areas of Africa and Asia. In those areas, livestock comes in rather late, if at all, in the land use system of the cleared areas. Forest over-exploitation is also an important factor in deforestation, especially in Asia and Africa, where about 20 percent of the areas are over-exploited. Livestock is a main force in deforestation in the Americas, but again mainly as a result of inappropriate policies. Especially in the seventies, the livestock sector in Brazil and Central America secured a disproportionate share of credit at subsidized rates and with lenient re-imbursement conditions and control. Most of these loans were invested in land which was cleared, and in turn increased land prices even more. Beef exports to the USA, frequently quoted as one of the main causes for ranch development in Latin America, (the “hamburger connection”) were important in Central America in the 1960s and early 1970s, when international prices were high. But the Amazon area never produced more than 5 percent of the total beef supply of Brazil, and not for export. Furthermore, declining global prices in the eighties, and increased protection in the US market, especially following NAFTA, have reduced exports from the other Latin American countries.

(d) Temperate grazing systems

The temperate and highland grasslands cover a wide variety of vegetations and uses. They range from the Central Asian and Central European areas, where changes in fuel prices and privatization of land are the driving forces causing overgrazing. Previously in these areas, the annual stock movements were made possible by low energy prices. After the transition to a market economy, the greatly increased prices have changed the traditional cycle of seasonal grazing and rest periods into year-round grazing. The phasing out of feed subsidies in Central Europe has been introduced recently to carry a measurable effect.

However they also include the grazing systems of Western Europe and the United States, where policies promoting intensification are the key driving forces behind the environmental effects of livestock on temperate grasslands. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union(EU), which particularly subsidized dairy production heavily, led to intensive production, with high stocking levels and excessive use of fertilizer and concentrate. In contrast, the debate on grazing on public lands in the western United States is being driven by a large concern over how public lands should be utilized (ecotourism vs ranching, mining and/or timber). It now focuses in particular on stream sides and deterioration of water quality and the degradation of vegetation, because of overgrazing. In the past, the importance of these riparian areas was underestimated and they were largely viewed as sacrifice areas, while upland grazing (>95% of the area) was the focus of range improvements. The ensuing degradation of these riparian areas is exacerbated by the inappropriate conversion of sheep permits to cattle permits. Sheep use the entire area, but the areas are often too steep for cattle to utilize properly, and the shift to cattle causes a concentration of animals in the lower riparian areas. One important topic of debate in the US has been the costs associated with grazing public lands. Use of public grazing lands is now the centerpoint in conflicts between opposing national environmental and livestock interest groups, with active involvement of the federal Government, as both groups claim that some form of public administration is required.

Trends in the state of grazing resources

(a) Arid grazing systems

These systems can best be characterized by their resilience. This is demonstrated by:

(b) Semi-arid and sub-humid grazing systems.

Land degradation, loss of bio-diversity and water pollution is much more serious in the semi-arid and sub-humid grazing systems. For example, recent data on China (CAS, 1996) shows that in the arid areas, only five percent of the area is degraded, whereas in the semi-arid areas 52 percent and in the sub-humid areas 63 percent is degraded. The word desertification, which provokes images of advancing deserts, and degradation of arid lands, is therefore a misnomer; the real problem clearly lies in the semi-arid and sub-humid zones. As said before, a key component of livestock - environment interactions in this zone is the interaction with wildlife. Key results, which seem to emerge from the review are:

Case-studies on institutional issues concerning wildlife-livestock integration (Aveling, 1997) and disease will review these issues in more detail.

(c) Humid grazing systems

Although there is a lack of reliable land-use information, there seems to be declining ranch investments for land speculation in most rain forest areas. As already mentioned, ranching induced deforestation occurs only in the Americas, and even there, deforestation by large ranchers seems to be on the decline. Some investment in large scale ranching in South America remains, especially from illegal sources such as the drug trade, but most deforestation now seems to come from subsistence farmers, who first crop and, as soil fertility declines, start to graze some cattle.

(d) Temperate grazing systems

In the temperate and tropical highlands grazing systems, the natural resource trends are varied. Improving land quality and bio-diversity is reported by the General Accounting Office (1988). Moreover, the nutrient loading of some OECD countries is decreasing, but there is also serious degradation going on in the former planned economies of Russia, and Central Asia.

Response requirements for sustainable grazing systems use

Following the description, earlier in the Conference, of the different policy measures available, a summary overview of those measures to mitigate the negative effects and to enhance the positive effects is as follows:

(a) Property measures

For all grazing systems, security of access to grazing and water resources, and ownership of bio-diversity (wildlife) is extremely important. Without these securities there is less incentive to invest and conserve. The establishment of protected areas (parks) will be necessary in some areas, but the pressure on land will be so high, and the possibility of enforcing park boundaries so poor, that the opportunities for the establishment of new parks are extremely limited. Conservation of bio-diversity will thus have to be integrated in other forms of land use, including arable farming and livestock grazing.

Two specific aspects of tenure need to be mentioned:

(b) Financial measures

As seen before, the introduction of market pricing for all inputs and services generally saves resources, as it improves efficiency. For the grazing systems, this includes the introduction of grazing fees in communal areas. The main issue here is the method of collection. Grazing fee collection by government services (the cattle taxes from the colonial time could be seen as such) has just led to evasion by the producers and hindered communication between these services and the pastoralists. Hence the current emphasis on fee collection and use by the community. There is quite some experience with that approach in Asia, not very much yet in Africa. Proper pricing of grazing needs to be complemented with an equitable and complete distribution of the benefits of environmental services that grazing systems provide. This clearly does apply to wildlife conservation, but could also be expanded to other areas, such as carbon sequestration. New savanna technologies developed by CIAT in South America (Fisher et al, 1995) has shown the potential. Land taxation in, for example, the humid areas, might be another financial measure to promote intensification and eventually reduce the pressure on bio-diversity.

(c) Institutional measures

Decentralization and local empowerment, to a possible extent using traditional organizations, are central in sustainable grazing resource conservation. Sustainable resource management can not be dictated by a central service. However, this makes resource conservation very knowledge intensive, with multiple technological components. Still, most technology services (such as the research and extension services) are based on blanket coverage and single component technologies. Moreover, in few pastoral areas the framework and capacity exists to generate and disseminate such more knowledge-intensive technologies. Finally, drought preparedness, certainly needs to be part of resource conservation in the arid and semi-arid grazing systems.

(d) Information needs

There is clearly a need for more information on resource trends. Much of the debate on desertification and deforestation would have been more effective if a better database would have been available, and the linkages between livestock and these impacts would have been better understood. This Study was set out to provide more of such quantitative information, but as those responsible for the preparation of the background documents found out, the information simply was not available.

(e) Infrastructure needs

A varied approach is required here: In the arid grazing systems, road and market infrastructure is one of the most important tools in drought management. In that zone, however, water development should be handled carefully. In the humid areas, road development has shown to have a negative effect, and should therefore be handled with care.

The technology to follow.

If the appropriate policies are in place, some of the key technology thrusts which are most likely to follow are:

In all of those systems, it would hopefully lead to a shift in the use of grazing systems as a simple source of meat and milk to an eco-system with multiple functions (from a repository of animal and plant bio-diversity, to a tool in carbon sequestration, and an integral part of the landscape).


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