Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Producing meat (for export) or food for the people

Many see a contradiction between production of meet and producing food for the poor. I believe the issues are much more complex than such a simple either-or discussion.

I recently visited Namibia. Most of Namibia is too dry for crop farming. In addition, the rainfall is very variable over the year and between years, so the risk of total failure in farming is very high in most areas. Where crop farming is the best land use, it is already taken place. In the drier areas there is livestock production, and the rest is dessert.

But what about water use? We often hear that meat production needs a lot of water. Well it does need quite some water, but in the case of Namibia most of that water falls on the dry rangeland as pasture and only a smaller part is supplied as drinking water for the animals, and they use almost no bought in feed stuff. A borehole for cattle with a solar pump and a capacity of 2 m3 per hour (20 m3 per day) can service some 500 cattle. In reality this is often a bit less because of seepage, evaporation etc. so let us say 250 cattle. Those 250 cattle produce in the range of 75 full grown heads for slaughter per year which represent around > 20 tons of meat. The same water used for irrigating crops would be enough for irrigation of approximately a hectare of farm land (depending on natural rainfall pattern and temperatures). That hectare would produce considerable less food (say 8 tons of maize in good conditions, more realistically considering land quality 2-3 tons) and a lot less money. Of course, if one add all the rain that falls on the 1000 hectares of land that those cattle graze, the "water footprint" of the cattle production increases tremendously. If 300 mm of rain falls on 500 hectares that represents 1.5 million cubic meters of water, which would then correspond to 600 cubic meter per kg of meat. But this water has no alternative use, except for grazing by wild life.

Manufacturing, mining and tourism are potentially much bigger competitors for water for crop farming than livestock production. Each cubic meter used for agriculture purpose is estimated to produce a value of N$7 while manufacturing and tourism gain about N$272 and N$574 respectively (Atlas of Namibia 2002). Namibia has also invested money in two desalination plants to supply the uranium mines with water, while it simply doesn't pay to desalinate water for food production - it is cheaper to import food.

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