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Livestock on grazing lands
About 60 percent of the world's agricultural land is grazing land, supporting about 360 million cattle and over 600 million sheep and goats. Grazing animals supply about 10 percent of the world's production of beef and about 30 percent of the world's production 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 possible source of livelihood.
Arid rangelands are a dynamic and highly resilient ecosystem provided that the number of people and animals which the land supports remains in balance with their environment.
The great advantage of grazing livestock is that they convert to a useful product resources which would otherwise be wasted. Indeed, grazing animals can improve the diversity of grasses by dispersing seeds with their hooves and in their manure. By trampling the soil they also break up the crust and stimulate the growth of grass. Arid rangelands are a dynamic and highly resilient ecosystem provided that the number of people and animals which the land supports remains in balance with their environment. Indeed, the ability to recover after drought is one of the main indicators of long term environmental and social sustainability of arid grazing systems.
HOTSPOT: OVERGRAZING AND DEGRADATION. Many of the world's grazing areas are threatened with degradation, especially in the semi-arid and sub-humid zones. As a result of population pressure, and policies which favour cropping, much of the best pasture is being turned over to crops, to which it 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 is the area of grazing reduced by increased cropping but moving between grazing lands may also be restricted or even prevented. This means that animals are kept for too long in one place and the land becomes degraded.
Policies which have been introduced for social or economic reasons, but whose environmental impact has either been ignored or not recognized, are indirectly degrading the environment:
Fuel and fertilizer subsidies, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, have often encouraged the conversion of pasture to marginal cropping land.
Development of water points often opens up arid lands and upsets the ecosystem by encouraging higher animal and human population densities.
Bringing in feed grains in times of drought, in order to sustain livestock density at the very time when it should be reduced to allow the vegetation to recover, may be harmful in the longer term.
Many countries have pursued a policy of attempting to settle pastoralists. Even now, as the state farms of the Middle East and Central Asia are being privatized, pastoralists are being prevented from following their traditional way of life.
Land ownership policies, which prevent livestock farmers from owning the land they use, can be very damaging. Farmers are naturally unwilling to improve land unless they are sure that they can reap the benefits. Customary land use practices have been replaced by "free for all" access to communal lands. This has overturned what once was a highly regulated system that helped to ensure a sustainable balance between livestock and the environment.
Sugarcane can be used as an alternative to cereals for animal feed. Here draught animals are being used to crush the canes. The juice can be fed to pigs and the tops can be given to ruminants. Sugarcane can be grown in the humid and sub-humid tropics where feed cereals may be in short supply and, because it is a perennial, it has the further advantage of reducing soil erosion.
What could be done:
Those people who are 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.
Not only is the area of grazing reduced by increased cropping but access between grazing lands may also be restricted or even prevented.
This needs normally to be followed by another series of policy or institutional measures, such as:
increasing the cost of rangeland grazing. Although difficult to achieve, especially on communal lands, this would encourage owners to sell their animals at a younger age than they would have been sold had it been possible to keep them for longer at little extra cost. In a similar vein, charging realistic prices for water and animal health services would also encourage quicker turnover.
introducing, where appropriate, the right to own land.
HOTSPOT: DEFORESTATION. Since 1950, 200 million hectares of rainforest and its associated biodiversity has been lost, with livestock apparently being an important cause, especially in Latin America. But again the causes are complex and are often more the results of policy distortions than livestock production.
In many countries, before land can be registered to an owner, it must be shown to be under agricultural use.
Subsidized credit and other tax advantages favoured ranch development.
Land speculation linked to road construction and government finance colonization schemes.
Land speculation linked to road construction and government-financed incentives, has been the main reason for deforestation.
What could be done:
Many of these inappropriate incentives have now been removed. Land use is now governed by the demand for food of a growing population, with ranching being introduced after soil fertility is depleted by crops. Intensification, through a combination of fiscal incentives (land taxation) and research and extension will be the main avenue to reduce deforestation.
HOTSPOT: WILDLIFE AND LIVESTOCK INTERACTION. Often, in particular in Africa, livestock and wildlife are grazing the same lands, and a large part of wildlife is living outside the protected areas. Traditionally, attitudes towards the protection of wild animals has been unimaginative, and the benefits of wildlife, through tourism or trophy hunting, have not been shared with the local populations that have had to cope with the damage. This is in the form of many important diseases transmitted by wildlife (such as Foot-and-Mouth Disease, rinderpest, trypanosomiasis and tick-borne diseases), livestock loss to predators and damage to crops.
What could be done:
Making greater efforts to encourage local management of wildlife, in combination with livestock production, is already raising the income of pastoralists and ranchers as well as resulting in greater biodiversity. Livestock-wildlife combinations do not usually mean that livestock numbers must be greatly reduced. In many cases, a reduction of only 20 percent of the cattle stocking rate is enough to create a niche for most wildlife species to prosper. This is a classic example of how both livestock owners and the environment can benefit.
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