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close this book SPORE No. 58 - August 1995
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Are beasts a burden?

Feeding a growing population from a limited land area is a challenge, and one that scientists and farmers alike have striven to meet. To feed a growing population from a decreasing land area, and simultaneously to satisfy the rising expectations of increasingly urbanized populations without further degrading land resources, will be much more difficult. It will require increased productivity, but on a sustainable basis. Some believe that this can be achieved only if more people become vegetarian, while the pro-livestock lobby maintains that livestock are essential to developing sustainable agricultural systems in Third World countries.

Traditional agriculture, wherever climate and pests permitted, was a mixed crop-livestock system. Pure livestock systems predominated only where annual rainfall was too low or too uncertain to support settled crop cultivation, whereas pure arable systems developed where pests and diseases precluded livestock husbandry. However, even in notionally pure livestock systems some pastoralists developed seasonal cropping, sometimes on an opportunistic basis, harvesting a crop in some years but not others. And, in primarily arable systems, even where ruminants were absent, farmers usually had pigs or poultry, which scavenged around the homestead.


Mixed farming offers advantages

Mixed farming offers a more varied diet and mixed diets that incorporate foods of animal and vegetable origin are more nutritious than diets based purely on crop products. There are many examples of vegetarian diets, but most include eggs and fish, if not meat and milk, and it is difficult to formulate a diet totally free of animal products that is nutritionally adequate for the very young and the elderly.

Mixed farming also provides greater variety in diets, which most people appreciate, and it is clear that as living standards improve there is an invariable swing towards a demand for greater variety in diet, including a greater demand for livestock products.

Economic risk is reduced by mixed farming systems, food security is enhanced, and such systems also offer farmers the opportunity to optimise the use of all that they produce by recycling materials that would otherwise be wasted in all-crop systems: straw, stovers and haulm are a no-cost feed for ruminants, while harvest winnowing such as broken grains and chaff can be fed to ruminants or left to be scavenged by pigs or poultry. Over-ripe or damaged tubers, vegetables and fruit are fed likewise, while ruminants can be grazed or zero-fed in stalls on grass and other vegetation including tree foliage that would not be utilized otherwise.

Finally, farmers have long appreciated the non-food benefits of livestock, which include their fibre (wool and mohair) and skins for leather. Larger animals (cattle, buffalo, camels, horses and donkeys) are also a source of power and energy in many parts of the world, not only cultivating land but providing transport, powering grinding mills for grain and sugar cane and pumps for irrigation. Their dung has been valued as a fertilizer for arable crops or as fuel, and more recently for the production of biogas.


Specialization a modern trend

Specialization in agriculture, as in most other activities, has been a product of industrialized societies. It has offered economies of scale in production and marketing and the introduction of the internal combustion engine has offered an apparently more efficient source of power for cultivation, transport and machinery than animal draught. Chemical fertilizers have seemingly replaced the need for animal manure. And the benefits of soil fertility and pest control provided by crop rotations have been overshadowed by artificial fertilizers and pesticides. But while such all-arable farming systems dependent on only two or three crops have flourished in countries where mechanization, fertilizers and pesticides have been readily available, they have not proved generally appropriate in the majority of ACP countries. In practice, attempts to apply such specialization in the tropics has often led to degeneration of land where fertilizers have not been available to restore fertility, and to pest problems where sole-cropping on an extensive scale has not been adequately protected by pesticides.


Disadvantages of livestock

A major consequence and manifestation of specialization has been to separate livestock and arable production. As a result intensive dairy, pig and poultry farms have developed on the basis of having to purchase most, or all, of their feed. They have also been faced with an embarrassing accumulation of manure. It is not surprising that livestock production in these countries has been seen increasingly as both a large-scale consumer of grain, which is perceived by the public to be potential food for the world's needy peoples, and as a major pollutant of the countryside with dung and slurry washed into waterways.

In addition, media attention has highlighted the conversion of Amazon forest to pasture for beef herds, to overstocking in the Sahel and the spread of soil erosion, and to the fact that ruminants produce methane gas, one of the more potentially damaging 'greenhouse' gases.

As a consequence, there has been a tendency to decry livestock and to suggest that they be limited or eliminated from food production. Investment and donor-funding of livestock in agricultural development projects has been , declining in recent , years. In constant 1991 dollar terms ' World Bank funding to livestock projects 'and the livestock element in integrated projects declined substantially from 1974 to 1992 (see fig. 1). In the World Bank Report for 1993 only 4% of the loans given to the agricultural and rural development sector were classified as livestock projects, although livestock were components of other projects.

It has also been a perception that the majority of livestock projects have failed to meet their initial objectives and the apparent reasons have been identified. For example, the Asian Development Bank (ADB 1993) observed that, "the principal cause of poor performance and even failure in publicly and donor-funded livestock programmes and projects lies in the use of inappropriate technology." Criticism has been directed, in particular, to the importation of high performance exotic breeds, which proved incapable of adjusting to local conditions, notably feeding and disease. And yet the World Bank reported improvements in the percentage of successful livestock projects, which rose from 43%, in 1974-83 to 64% in 1988. In contrast, the success rate of purely agricultural projects decreased from 75% to 55% in the same period. In the opinion of René Sansoucy, a Senior Officer of the FAO's Animal Production and Health Division and author of the FAO Working Paper: Livestock, a driving force for food security and sustainable development, a case can be developed for increasing loans for livestock development within major agricultural projects. This would be profitable economically, socially and environmentally, Sansoucy concludes, and would benefit both small-scale farmers and national objectives in a great many countries.


Livestock for food

The most obvious contribution of livestock is as a direct source of food. Animal products are an important source of proteins and amino acids and also contain vitamins and minerals. They also contribute a significant proportion of total calories - more than 30% in diets in developed countries and 10% of developing countries. In developed countries about 60% of dietary protein is from animal products compared with only 22% in developing countries but the demand for, and production of, animal products in the developing countries is increasing.

Despite criticisms that many livestock projects have failed, increases in livestock products in developing countries appear to be even more spectacular than those achieved for cereals from the 'Green Revolution'. The most noticeable increases have been in egg production (33% over the last 20 years) and in meat production (127%). In contrast, cereal production has increased by 78%. Of the different animal species, meat production from monogastric animals (poultry and pigs) has increased faster than from ruminants in developing countries. This trend for greater consumption and production to meet demand is despite the many vegetarians that comprise the population of developing countries.

Livestock also help alleviate seasonal food variability. Milk and eggs are produced almost year-round while animals, particularly small stock, can be slaughtered for food or income as the need arises. Simple technology enables milk to be converted to clarified butter, curds or various types of cheese, all of which can be stored for weeks and even months. Meat can be preserved by drying, salting, curing or smoking for use when other food sources are scarce.


Income and employment

Livestock offer economic stability by acting as a capital reserve, as a hedge against inflation and, in mixed farming systems, they reduce the risks associated with crop losses.

Livestock also provide income generating opportunities directly and indirectly. The sale of surplus animals or animal products is obvious enough but the employment opportunities on and off the farm for processing livestock products is seldom fully appreciated. Livestock food products represent 27% of total agricultural output. This sub-sector of agriculture has achieved the greatest growth in production over the past 30 years and it is expected to continue to grow faster than any other agricultural subsector in the next 20 years. The total value of milk and meat represents 1.8 times the value of wheat and rice and about twice the value of fish (see fig. 2).

Estimated Value (Million US$) Food Commodities (1990-92 average)

























Meat & Milk




Examples of successful livestock projects in Africa include a dairy project around Kampala that has become a reliable source of fresh milk for Uganda's capital and a source of income for pert-urban milk producers; in Burkina Faso an FAO/UNDP dairy project has assisted some 100 families to increase their monthly income by about US$80; and in Niger micro cheesemaking units have provided several hundred women with work and income.

Small-scale milk-processing and marketing are labour intensive, with one work-day required for 50-100 kg of product handled. Meat processing also provides significant employment and the value added through processing and marketing exceeds the value of the primary production. Hides and skins also generate employment and there is considerable potential for increasing output from Africa.

Overall, livestock products not only contribute to gross national product but also have the potential for substituting imports much more than they do, so reducing the outflow of scarce foreign exchange. Imports of dairy products in particular have increased dramatically over the past 30 years (US$3 billion in 1960 to US$42 billion in 1990) partly because of low-cost exports from major milk producing nations. However, the prospect for local dairy production in Africa and the Caribbean has become more favourable recently following the reduction of subsidies on milk production in developed countries. Also, more realistic exchange rates have been introduced in several countries. These changes provide many ACP countries with the opportunity to develop milk production, primarily through smallholders. This could have a major beneficial impact on levels of disposable cash income in rural areas and on national economies.

Most ACP countries are also short of meat products and imports remain high in many countries where there is potential for increased production. Greater local production would again improve diets, increase rural incomes and save foreign exchange.


Animal power

Livestock remain a major source of draught power in agriculture in developing countries despite tractorization. Indeed, during the past 10 years there has been a 23% increase in numbers of cattle and buffalo used for draught as well as for milk and meat production. Several governments in Africa and Asia (Benin, Malawi, Togo, Indonesia and Philippines) have requested FAO assistance and, in collaboration with FAO, have developed field programmes for smallholder farmers on the use of work animals. This trend, encouraged by research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, has demonstrated the economy of using cows for draught instead of oxen. Benefits include reduction in the cost of maintaining the larger herd necessary for oxen replacements, increased milk production overall (though less per cow used for work) and better beef from surplus young males rather than oxen that have grown old and tough in harness.

Draught animal power utilizes locally produced animals, harnesses, implements and feed. In contrast 90% of tractors and their implements are produced in industrialized countries and this, together with fuel, is a drain on foreign exchange. Draught animals and their implements also compact soil less than tractors, and it has been demonstrated in the Dominican Republic that where sugarcane is cut manually and transported by animal drawn carts the period between replanting of cane can be extended by two years. Less compacted soil also usually yields bigger crops.

The role of livestock manure as a source of fertilizer should not be underestimated and if sustainable agricultural systems are to be developed that are largely independent on external inputs it will become even more important to recycle secondary crop products through livestock and to convert them into dung to fertilize and add structure to soils. One tonne of cow dung contains about 8kg of nitrogen, 4kg of phosphorus and 16kg potash.

In many situations where alternative fuels are scarce, dung is burned. This is regrettable since it deprives soils of natural fertilizer but it also reduces the pressure on limited timber resources. Furthermore, new developments in simple low-cost biogas digesters in a number of countries including Ghana, Mali (see Spore 55) Cambodia, Tanzania and Vietnam should result in improved utilization of dung: 25kg of cow dung produces about I cubic metre of biogas and the solid residue retains its efficacy as a soil conditioner and fertilizer.

In fully integrated agricultural systems, which include fish ponds, animal dung can also be used to fertilize the ponds and encourage the growth of fish.


For or against?

Even where the benefits of livestock are accepted, criticisms of livestock remain and the most widespread criticism is that livestock consume grains and plant proteins that would be better utilized for human consumption. Almost 50% of all grain produced world-wide is fed to livestock, as are substantial quantities of soya. However, 85% of this is fed to animals in developed countries where either grains are widely grown, or there is the purchasing power to buy them. Such 'surplus' cereals are rarely available to the poor, who cannot afford to buy significant amounts of grain for themselves or their animals. Instead, livestock in ACP countries should be fed on home-produced feeds including crop by-products, agroindustrial processing by-products (sugar molasses and bagasse and fruit canning, fish and abattoir wastes) and trees, shrubs and annual crops interplanted with human food crops.

The criticism that demand for pasture for cattle results in deforestation is generally not true in Africa where livestock are not important components of forest agricultural systems. Livestock have also been criticized for over-grazing and erosion, particularly around watering points. However, FAO experts challenge these sweeping generalizations and independent opinion has also questioned and refuted much of this received wisdom. The Winrock International Institute in 1992 reported "Heavy grazing has changed vegetative cover, but has not seriously decreased the productivity of range-lands. The greatest threat to this region comes from human populations and expansion of cultivation." Andrew Warren of the University of London reporting to the UN in 1991 commented, "The view that cattle watering points act as centres or poles of desertification is now questioned. Only under extreme densities of cattle is soil erosion serious. Overgrazing has been greatly over-estimated as an environmental problem."

Other perceived environmental problems include pollution of soil and water with dung and of the atmosphere with methane. In ACP countries it is rare for farmers to have sufficient dung for their needs and it is only where livestock are kept intensively and in very large numbers that there is a problem with pollution of soil and waterways. As for methane, it is true that methane is a product of ruminant digestion and, as a so called 'greenhouse' gas has the potential to increase global warming. However the contribution of ruminants is only 2.5% of the total greenhouse gases produced; emissions from cars, power stations, industries and domestic fuel burning is many times greater. Moreover, if the increase in livestock production continues to be primarily from non-ruminant species there should be no significant extra production of methane by farm animals.

In conclusion it appears that livestock ruminants and monogastric species - have much to contribute to food production in the immediate future. They are complementary to arable crops, agro-forestry and agro-psiciculture systems (see Spore 53) and policy-makers and donors could usefully re-evaluate the role and benefits of farm animals. Increased policy commitment, funds and resources linked to livestock development could help achieve greater food security, improve diets, increase employment opportunities and reduce import costs. Last but not least, the degeneration of soils in Africa could be halted and even reversed with many further benefits.

Further rending: FAO Working Paper Livestock, a driving force for food security and sustainable development by René Sansoucy (1994)