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Livestock in a changing world


Dr P G Marais & Dr PCV du Toit

Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, Private Bag x529, Middelburg 5900


The association between humankind and animals dates back to prehistoric times but, although the environment may previously have been hostile it is only in recent times that it has become necessary to consider how to satisfy human needs for food without destroying the environment in which that food production must take place. The domestication of animals and their integration with cultivated crop agriculture have provided the main avenue for agricultural intensification and this, in turn, has allowed for unprecedented economic and human population growth. Livestock production, mainly as a result of pressures in this process, has become an important factor in environmental degradation. Large land areas have become degraded through overgrazing and deforestation because of ranching. Biodiversity is affected by extensive as well as intensive livestock production. Water availability in low rainfall areas is affected by livestock. Where animal concentrations are high, land and water may be polluted through waste from animal production and processing. Livestock are an important source of gaseous emission, contributing to global warming, which is projected to increase by 1.80 Celsius worldwide over the next 35 years (Houghton, et al., 1995). All these pressures on the environment are the result of a process of change in which the rising demand for livestock commodities is creating a new role not only for livestock but also for the environment. In essence, the conflict between livestock and the environment is a conflict between different human needs and expectations


The world's livestock sector is growing at an unprecedented rate and this growth is only taking place in developing countries. Livestock are not only important as producers of meat, milk and eggs, which are part of the modern food chain and provide high value protein food, but other non-food functions, although of declining importance, still provide the rationale for keeping the majority of the world's livestock.



For millions of smallholder farmers, animal draught power and nutrient recycling through manure compensate for lack of access to modern inputs such as tractors and fertilizer, and help to maintain the viability and environmental sustainability of production. Often, livestock constitute the main, if not the only, capital reserve of farming households, serving as a strategic reserve that reduces risk and adds stability to the overall farming system. As such, livestock can satisfy a large variety of human needs. Yet, in many places, livestock production is growing out of balance with the environment or denied access to traditional key resources and degradation is the result.


The driving force behind the surge in demand for livestock products is a combination of population growth, rising incomes and urbanization. The world's population is currently growing at 1.5 percent; the growth rate is 1.8 percent in the developing countries and stagnating at less than 0.1 percent growth in the developed countries. The real incomes of consumers in the developing countries have doubled since the early '60s. With the exception of the '80s, per capita GDP has grown annually by over 3 percent per year. There is a strong positive relationship between level of income and consumption of animal protein. As people become more affluent, consumption of meat, milk and eggs increases relative to the consumption of staple food. Diets become richer and more diverse, and the high value protein that livestock products offer improves the nutrition for the vast majority of people in the world. Incomes have increased in most countries over the past five years, particularly in Asian countries. In the developed countries, however, increasing incomes are no longer associated with incremental consumption of

animal protein as markets have become saturated. On the contrary, higher income often leads to a decrease in animal food consumption because of human health concerns particularly the incidence of heart and blood circulation diseases associated with excessive consumption of animal fats. There is also a shift from red to white meat, and away from animal fat.


Urban populations differ from rural populations in having a higher consumption of animal products in their diets, further fuelling demand (IFPRI, 1995). Currently, over 80 percent of the world's population growth occurs in the cities of developing countries. Worldwide, urbanization has risen from 30 percent of the population to 45 percent in 1995 and is projected to reach 60 percent by 2025 (UNFPA, 1995). In the developed countries, urbanization rates have levelled at 80 percent while in the developing world urbanization still averages 37 percent with marked differences between the regions: 74 percent in Latin America but only 34 percent in Africa and Asia. In the past, many governments tried to slow down urbanization but it is now increasingly recognized as a rational pattern of development as economic activity at higher levels of development benefit from agglomeration.


The rapidly increasing demand for livestock products pushes against a traditional resource base for livestock production that cannot expand at the same pace. Diversity is a main characteristic of traditional livestock production. A wide array of feed resources is being used, most of which have no or only limited alternative value. These include pastures in marginal lands, crop residues and, to a certain extent, agro-industrial by-products and waste from households. The scope for increasing the traditional feed resource base is limited. Firstly, across the world the most productive pasturelands are being turned into cropland as the demand for high potential arable land continues to increase. Likewise, degraded cropland is fallowed and reconverts into poor pastures. As a result, the overall pasture area may not change much but the land productivity is likely to be lower. Technologies that increase pasture productivity have shown impressive results in Latin America but, globally, productivity growth is marginal.


Secondly, the basic principles of crop research are to optimize the transformation of land resources, solar energy and inputs into high value products, for example, into grains. Consequently, the availability of crop residues for animal feed does not increase with rising yields.


The desire for greater productivity from livestock is resulting in a change in the use of animal genetic resources. Traditional genotypes, which have developed through exploitation of harsh environments, cannot match the sector's demands for higher productivity. Now that the means exist to modify the biophysical environment, even in the tropics, exotic genotypes are being introduced which provide a higher return on external inputs. Consequently, the use of indigenous breeds is diminishing.



As the world economy develops and many countries industrialize, people seek different uses for livestock. The association between man and livestock has undergone many changes over time and will keep changing. For example, the empire of largest geographical expansion ever, was based on transport and communication by horses (the Tartars in the 14th century). Today, non-food functions are generally in decline and are replaced by cheaper and more convenient substitutes. The following trends may be depicted:

Grazing systems offer only limited potential for intensification and livestock production is becoming increasingly crop based. Thus, the importance of roughages as a feed resource is decreasing at the expense of cereals and agro-industrial by-products. There is an important species shift towards monogastric animals, mainly poultry and pigs. While ruminant meat accounted for 54 percent of total meat production in the developing countries in 1970, this has gone down to 38 percent in 1990 and is projected to further decrease to 29 percent in 2010 (FAO, 1995). This species shift reflects the better conversion rates for concentrate feed by monogastric animals.


Livestock production is becoming separated from its land base, urbanized and is beginning to assume the features of industrial production. In recent years, industrial livestock production grew at twice the rate (4.3 percent) of that in mixed farming systems (2.2 percent) and more than six times the grazing system production growth (0.7 percent) (Sere and Steinfeld, 1996). This trend has accelerated in the past five years.


In agro-ecological terms livestock production is growing more rapidly in humid and sub humid zones than in arid tropical zones and the highlands. The growing human population largely explains the expansion of livestock into the more humid zones because, when people move into an area, land is cleared thereby reducing the threat of animal diseases which would otherwise have precluded livestock production. It is in these zones, therefore, that pressure on the environment will build up most rapidly. The complexity of livestock environment interactions makes generalizations difficult and has left a void in the development of comprehensive policies in this regard.


In some regions, such as the Americas, livestock ownership is severely skewed in favour of the wealthier groups in society. For example in Southern Africa and Central America, political decision is often influenced by livestock owners. In the European Union and the USA, the livestock lobbies belong to the most powerful political action groups. Yet in many other regions, such as the Indian subcontinent and North Africa, livestock is especially owned by the poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, herders are politically marginalized.


Typically, livestock products have a high elasticity of demand but traditionally a low elasticity of supply, particularly in land based smallholder production. Because of this demand pattern, it has been argued that livestock development tends to favour the higher income sectors of society an isolated view, yet one that has deterred potential donors but does not adequately take

account of benefits on the supply side. These factors have created a policy void which is further exacerbated by the general move, in developing and developed countries alike, to reduce the presence of governments and to liberalize markets and trade.


Improved management of the world's natural resources is essential if they are to continue to provide the basis for life support and human wellbeing. Only with improved management can the dual objectives of sustainable agricultural production be fulfilled to feed the world's growing population while sustaining its natural resource base. Livestock production is the largest land user and is about to turn into the most important agricultural activity in terms of economic

output. Left to uncontrolled growth, not only will the environment suffer but also human welfare is also likely to be compromised. However, this is unlikely to happen. The opportunities not only to mitigate environmental damage but to tap the immense development potential that livestock offer, are large.




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