Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Animals - much more than meat

Young boys attending cattle (instead of going to school), Karamoja 2013
The role of animals in the life of humans and in our self-appointed job of taking care of the planet extend far beyond supplying us with meat and milk, wool and skins. Livestock is providing us and other species with a number of valuable "ecosystem services". But the industrial model of animal production is only concerned with the production of commodities, which is why it disregards animal welfare, why it destroys the environment, why it pose risk to human health and don't produce any of the much needed values that traditional livestock systems did.

This and many more interesting things can be gleaned from the report ECOSYSTEM SERVICES PROVIDED BY LIVESTOCK SPECIES AND BREEDS, WITH SPECIAL CONSIDERATION TO THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF SMALL-SCALE LIVESTOCK KEEPERS AND PASTORALISTS by Irene Hoffmann, Tatiana From and David Boerma  written for the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The report gives several interesting perspectives on livestock production and a much more nuanced picture than the dominating "cows are climate hooligans", "meat consumption is bad for health" or "eating meat destroys the rainforest" discourses.

The report is built around the concept of ecosystem services, a terminology which I have some issues with (see for instance here) but still use now and then (and will use here when discussing the report). Ecosystem services can be divided into those that can be converted into and marketed as private goods (e.g. provisioning services such as food) and those that are of a non-market public good nature (e.g. regulating, supporting and most cultural services).

Livestock provide approximately 26 percent of human global protein consumption and 13 percent of total calories. Foods of animal origin, such as meat, eggs, milk and dairy products, supply essential,  nutrients, such as protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc. They provide a critical supplement and diversity to staple plant-based diets, and are particularly appropriate for combating malnutrition and a range of nutritional deficiencies. Livestock products, such as milk, can be very useful for children.

Important other "provisioning services" include draught power, manure and urine for fertilizer, manure for methane and energy, skins, hides, fiber, as a genetic resource itself, including for biotechnical and/or medicinal purposes.

Less well understood is the tremendous importance of livestock, and in particular of the grazing ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc.) for the many other critical ecosystem services such as:

  • waste recycling and weed control; 
  • biological control and animal/human disease regulation; 
  • maintenance of soil structure and fertility (nutrient cycling and distribution, organic matter, etc.);
  • prevention of land degradation and erosion; 
  • climate regulation; 
  • regulation of water flow and quality;
    moderation of extreme events (shrub control and maintenance of fuel breaks, prevention of landslides
    and avalanches); 
  • pollination and seed dispersal; 
In a wider sense livestock are land stewards and landscape managers facilitating the life cycles of animals and plants, preventing the succession to less valuable ecological states through encroachment of bush and/or invasive species, and the conserving wild-life and protected areas.  There is a close overlap of livestock grazing with nature conservation areas.

Many discuss "nature" and "agriculture" as if they are separate and even opposites. This has probably never been true, as agriculture developed within nature. And it is certainly not true today. The natural environment has co-evolved with agriculture practices. And in grassland management this is most apparent. Considering that grasslands cover up to a third of the terrestrial area, it is apparent that management of grasslands is a key for how we humans manage the planet at large. And tame livestock are the dominating managers of grasslands today.

There is a huge difference in resilience between traditional livestock systems and the industrial ones. The high productivity in modern systems is not only based on neglect or destruction of ecosystem services it is also a result of a meticulous management of inputs to reach the highest efficiency. But this efficiency makes the systems more and more vulnerable, and the modern breeds developed are dependent on this industrial model for their life and production. This is in stark contrast to the traditional systems, where maintaining the ecosystem and regenerating resources were part and parcel of the system. This is also reflected in the breeds, the report concludes:
Generally, the more complex, diverse and risk-prone peasant livelihood systems are, the more they will need animal genetic resources that are flexible, resistant and diverse in order to perform the required functions.
The report also make very clear that the discussion of feed versus food is far too simplistic and that there is a big difference between traditional livestock systems and the industrial model. The industrial model uses huge amounts of human edible crops as feed for livestock and therefore it consumes much more human edible protein than it provides. But traditional livestock systems have not been like that. Grazing ruminants provide much more human edible protein than they consume, and therefore such production don't compete with humans for food. On the contrary, if we also take into account the use of such animals for manure, fuel, draught power and transport it is apparent that it is a very efficient way of using resources. The same goes for animals that largely live on waste products.

Globally, however, industrial livestock systems are on the rise. And what many don't seem to understand is that this is also a main driver  for why traditional livestock systems are disappearing. The industrial model simply produce many more kgs for lower costs. This is assisted by low prices of grain and soybeans, produced with massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Pastoralist using traditional methods have more or less the same production costs today as they had hundred years ago. But the relative price of meat is much, much lower today. This means that with all things equal, they have become poorer. Governments also lend a hand to agri-business with (perhaps well intended) regulations on compulsory slaughterhouses, meat inspection, traceability and prohibition of using food waste as animal feed.

1 comment:

  1. Such thinking will do wonders ,i am sure.Vegetarianism also needs to be explored.