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Livestock: a blessing or a burden?

Not everyone agrees on what role livestock should play in development today

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Rural smallholder farmers, like Lorenzo Rodas Ischalon from Peru, rely on livestock for their livelihoods. Photo: Paul Brigham/Tearfund

From: Livestock – Footsteps 89

The importance of livestock and how to treat and manage animals well

Not everyone agrees on what role livestock should play in development today. Let’s think about some of the evidence to help us answer the question of whether livestock are a blessing or a burden. First, what do we mean by livestock, and then, what are the problems that arise in livestock production?

‘Livestock’ generally refers to domestic animals, which are often divided into groups. The principal groups of animals are cattle, buffaloes, camels, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, mules, donkeys, rabbits, chickens and other fowl (eg guinea fowl, ducks, geese, turkeys, ostriches). Other groups are common in specific geographical regions: guinea pigs, fur animals (eg mink), deer and reindeer, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos. Usually we do not include fish or bees.  

Conflict and migration

Since ancient times, the use of natural resources by livestock has been a source of conflict. The Bible records the separation between Abraham and Lot ‘because the land could not support them while they stayed together’ (Genesis 13:6) and also recounts a later quarrel between the herdsmen of Isaac and those of Abimelek over water resources (Genesis 26:19-20).

Competition for land and water resources, often among livestock-keeping pastoral peoples, is at the root of some conflicts today in the drylands of Africa. Leading up to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the indigenous Nuba tribe in Southern Kordofan complained about the damage caused by the camel-herding Shanabla tribe who had been forced to migrate south in search of grazing land. Conflict followed.

Land, soil, water and deforestation

My first encounter with the problems caused by livestock production was the evidence of land degradation I saw in Southern Africa where I began my overseas work as an agricultural scientist. The soil of Swaziland was being washed into the Indian Ocean at an alarming rate. We now know that overgrazing is a big problem in many farming systems and loss of vegetation over large areas probably leads to negative impacts on rainfall patterns.

In large parts of Central and South America, forests have been cut down to increase the pasture available for large-scale ranching to provide beef for international markets. Such deforestation contributes to environmental damage, including loss of biodiversity and the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Often, the benefits are only financial, short-term and are only shared by a few people.

Research from across the world (including Colombia, Niger and Somalia) has shown that it is very important to use local knowledge to manage pastures in a sustainable way.

It suggests that livestock grazing should be balanced with other uses of the land, such as growing crops, housing, pathways, forests etc.

Livestock often consume feed grown on land suitable for human food production, and sometimes compete for food that can be used for humans. Livestock convert feed into food in an inefficient way compared to crops. Much research also shows that waste, including livestock manure and gases from ruminants (particularly from intensive production systems) causes pollution of water resources and is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases from agriculture.

What are the benefits?

Are livestock worth these costs? Part of the answer is that livestock provide income and can improve people’s health and the environment. In some regions there may not be an alternative way of making a living. The principal economic outputs of livestock production are:

  • human nutrition: meat, milk and eggs
  • non-food products: fibres such as wool, hair and silk; hides, skins, feather, furs, bones and horn; manure for fertiliser
  • feedstuffs for other animals: meat, bone and blood meal
  • other functions: animal traction and human transport, recreation, social exchange (ceremonial gifts etc.) and welfare and economic security.
Geoff Crawford/Tearfund

Poultry are found in almost every corner of the globe, providing eggs and meat to many families. Photo: Geoff Crawford/Tearfund

Livelihoods, food and waste

Many of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas of developing countries and most keep livestock which are among their most important economic assets. Livestock production is one of the fastest growing enterprises in developing countries, already accounting for a third of agricultural output. According to the World Bank, in Pakistan, livestock now account for almost 40% of agricultural production and about 9% of the total national economic activity.

This scale of industry is only likely to increase with the growing demand in developing countries for livestock products, which is expected to double over the next 20 years. Livestock production could provide several hundred million people with the opportunity to raise themselves out of poverty.

Livestock products can meet important dietary needs. Many vegetable foodstuffs help to provide a balanced diet, but eggs, meat and milk provide concentrated sources of some important nutrients, particularly for the diets of young children and breastfeeding women. Small livestock in both rural and urban environments can make a big difference to nutrition and health in poor communities.

Livestock can also consume agricultural and household waste products, converting them into human food. Manure from livestock improves soil fertility, and can boost the local economy through biogas production.

Using animals helps reduce the physical hard work of agriculture which is often undertaken by women, and helps with personal transport. And more than that, hides and wool and other products have multiple uses in the home, for clothing, for craftwork and for sale to larger manufacturing industries. Selling animals can provide income to help families in times of crisis. However there is always a risk that livestock will become ill or die, causing financial difficulties for their owners.

Another way that livestock can be a burden to families is in the area of children’s education. If children tend to livestock rather than attending school, their education will suffer. Young children should not be used to contribute to the livelihood of their families or work unsupervised as this could be dangerous to their safety and well being. However they could contribute to household chores suitable to their age and physical abilities or even tend to small animals outside school hours.

The bigger picture: changing patterns of food consumption

What we produce and what we eat affects patterns of agriculture, health, the environment and economic development on a worldwide scale. For example, much of the international trade in maize and soya flows from countries such as Brazil, to feed livestock in East Asia. Many other developing countries are undergoing significant changes in food production and consumption.

Indonesia is a good example: today there is a population of nearly 250 million people, and the country is urbanising rapidly with more than 60% of the population expected to be living in urban areas by 2025. As people shift from farming areas to the city, and as incomes rise, there will be greater demand for livestock products. A short walk around the shops in towns and cities in Indonesia shows that more and more of the national food demand is being met by imports from China and elsewhere. But local livestock production is one of the few ways that smallholder farmers can escape rural poverty – and avoid migration to urban poverty. It is important that local farmers are able to take hold of these opportunities. Forming cooperatives may be one way to compete in these international markets.

Lifestyle and identity

Finally, there is a fundamental difference in animal production between industrialised and traditional societies. In the former, the main aim is to make a profit. In the latter, livestock have a cultural importance to pastoral peoples as part of their social and cultural identity. Managing livestock can cement and encourage important community relationships and exchange mechanisms such as wedding dowries, and may even have religious significance.

Problems of lifestyle and diet have become extreme for communities such as the Inuit of Canada. Traditionally, they have hunted over wide areas and domesticated livestock species, but recent policies have forced people to live in particular areas, changing the hunting, gathering and trapping lifestyle of the people to sedentary village life. This process of cultural and physical dispossession has caused a decline in physical and mental health and in community life. The whole existence of such minority peoples is threatened by the changes to their relationship with livestock that have been forced on them by others.

Tearfund partner ZOE works with child-headed households in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, providing them with goats to generate income. Photo:Eleanor Bentall / Tearfund

Tearfund partner ZOE works with child-headed households in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, providing them with goats to generate income. Eleanor Bentall/Tearfund

Summing up

So what can we say: are livestock a blessing or a burden? There is no simple answer to the question and of course, the type of livestock production practised and the ecological context both matter. But think about one of the most common livestock problems, which is this: if someone else’s cow eats my crops, is it the fault of the cow? Maybe the problem is not with livestock but with people. Livestock were created to be a blessing, but we need to manage them well otherwise they can turn into a burden for our communities and our world.

Dr Nigel Poole works on a range of issues of international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He worked for Tearfund from 1980–1991 and is a long-standing member of the Footsteps Editorial Committee.

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