Extensive pastoral production covers some 25 percent of the world's land area and produces 10 percent of the meat used for human consumption, while supporting some 20 million pastoral households. Pastoral production is split between the extensive enclosed systems that are typical of North America, Australia and parts of South America, and the open access systems of Africa, the Andes, Asia and Siberia, which are still largely the province of "traditional" producers. The breakdown of the command economies of Central Asia probably increased the numbers of households depending on pastoral production in the last decade of the twentieth century. Although pastoralists, along with foragers (with whom they have much in common), represent an almost archetypically vulnerable social group, donor interest in the sector is minimal.
The rangelands exploited by pastoralists often cannot be used by conventional agriculture, although as technical advances spread cultivation into remoter regions, pastoralists are forced into increasingly inhospitable terrain. Although spontaneous settlement is quite common on the fringes of the pastoral domain, national governments are often hostile to pastoralists. Many countries have policies of sedentarization which derive as much from political considerations as from a concern for the welfare of those they aim to settle. However, compelling pastoral nomads to settle has a very unsatisfactory history and is unlikely to meet with long-term success.
Pastoralists make substantial contributions to the economies of developing countries, in terms both of supporting their own households and of supplying protein - meat and milk - to villages and towns. The governments of these countries rarely respond to the contributions made by pastoralism by investing in the sector. The pastoral economic system is under increasing threat from globalization of the trade in livestock products and unpredictable import policies in many countries. Broadly speaking, the trend in the twentieth century was for the terms of trade to turn increasingly against pastoralists.
Marginal lands that were previously the province of pastoralists are increasingly coming into focus as reserves of biodiversity. Their very inaccessibility has permitted the survival of species that have been eliminated from high-density agricultural areas. Consequently, there is pressure on governments to declare large regions protected areas, in response to the conservation lobby and the potential income from tourism. Uncertainties about pastoral tenure have made it difficult for pastoralists to lodge effective land claims.
The future of pastoralism will depend heavily on political decisions made by national governments in countries with extensive grasslands. Enclosed pastures are unlikely to see any significant extension, but conditions for existing pastoralists will become more difficult as both farmers and the conservation lobby expropriate land. Work with pastoralists, and a more sympathetic understanding of their production systems, could act to protect their ways of life and enhance their capacity to produce protein on otherwise marginal land.
Experience to date suggests that technical inputs will have only a very limited impact on overall output. Only a major policy reorientation can protect and support pastoralism during the next millennium. The following are some of the elements that are likely to become important: