November 25, 2017

FAO’s projections for livestock

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is envisaging huge increases in livestock numbers and meat production worldwide. But nowhere does it stop to ask, what the impacts will be on the environment, or indeed on the rural poor.

See also the longer critique of Toward 2000: “FAO’s plan to feed the world” and “Letter to the directors of FAO”.

Written with Patrick McCully, co-editor of The Ecologist. Published in The Ecologist Vol. 21 No. 2, March–April 1991.


“World Agriculture: Toward 2000″ projects high growth rates in meat production in the Third World over the next decade: 20 percent of the growth is to be achieved by increasing the number of animals, 46 percent by increasing yields per animal and 34 percent by increasing the off-take rate, which, it is assumed, will be made possible by “improvements in pasture carrying capacity, health and feed”.

If this intensification of livestock production is achieved, it will lead to severe environmental problems and will do little to help feed the poor. As Toward 2000 admits:

“The slow evolution from extensive to intensive production points to consequential increases in environmental degradation. Because in many countries livestock numbers are already in excesses of the carrying capacity of unimproved natural grassland, the greatest danger lies in overgrazing.”

Indeed, overgrazing is one of the most serious environmental problems in many parts of the world, a problem, which, in many cases, can be traced directly to the intervention of aid agencies such as FAO.

Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, $625 million was invested in African livestock development projects. Almost without exception these projects have totally failed to achieve their stated aims of raising the living standards of pastoral peoples and the productivity of their lands.

The sinking of permanent wells to replace seasonal water sources; the privatisation of communal lands; and the appropriation of lands for huge commercial ranching schemes have greatly increased overgrazing and desertification. More seriously, they have accelerated the destruction of the elaborate socio-economic systems, which have enabled nomadic pastoralists to raise their herds on Africa’s fragile and drought-prone rangelands for thousands of years.

In 1980, an international conference on the future of nomadic peoples concluded that:

“A multitude of Western technologies have been tried in country after country with only the most limited success… Increasingly, it is being seen that the optimal use of semi-arid range resources may involve continuing animal husbandry through extensive pastoralism, rather than radical shifts to new technologies of intensive commercial husbandry or dry-land agriculture”.

Yet almost no mention is made of pastoral peoples in World Agriculture: Toward 2000. No mention of the contribution they can make to sustainable livestock production; and no mention of the devastating impact which the polices espoused by FAO will continue to have upon them.

FAO’s projected increases in yields per animal are partly to be achieved by increasing veterinary inputs, so as to control “the major epizootics and various disease vectors, such as ticks and tse-tse fly.” But there is little evidence that these diseases can be held in check; in fact, the further intensification of livestock raising would be likely to increase the problems of disease and the need for expensive veterinary services and drugs such antibiotics.

FAO’s programme against the tse-tse fly, which transmits trypanosomiasis to both humans and cattle, has been extremely ineffective. The programme was originally aimed to eradicate the fly from an area of 9 million square kilometres in 37 different African countries. To achieve this end, huge amounts of lethal pesticides, such as DDT, lindane and dieldrin, were sprayed onto savannah and woodland, contaminating wildlife and water supplies and doubtless poisoning many people. However, there is little evidence that this had any effect upon trypanosomiasis and mention of the hugely expensive spraying programme seems to have disappeared from FAO literature. FAO now concedes that,

“in warm humid areas the best that can be hoped for. . . is restricted animal husbandry with drugs or breeds of trypanotolerant livestock.”

In any case, if the programme had been successful, it would have resulted in the clearing of huge areas of forest and savannah, and the establishment of ranching schemes on totally unsuitable soils. Land degradation could only have been increased.

Toward 2000 projects that the demand for cereals for animal feed will increase by 5.5 percent annually up to 2000, diverting even more food to feeding animals rather than people. Intensive piggeries and poultry farms, the produce of which often cannot be afforded by the poor, can have especially damaging consequences on local nutrition. Pigs and chickens, unlike cattle and other grazing animals, eat very much the same food as humans and so compete with them for available supplies.

In Latin America, the expansion of cattle ranching has often led to a reduction in local meat consumption. Between 1960 and 1974, expanding exports led to falls in per capita beef consumption in Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay of 15.4, 19 and 44.7 percent respectively, despite large increases in cattle numbers.

Increases in cattle numbers can also lead to less consumption of foods other than beef, as the land taken over for ranching is often land previously used for producing food for local people. Good quality land can yield as much as 10 times more protein if used to grow root crops, pulses, cereals and green vegetables, than it can if used to support beef cattle.

Edward Goldsmith and Patrick McCully.

The Ecologist.

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