Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture

Editorial – Ecological livestock

Livestock forms an important livelihood support system for about seventy million rural households in India, especially in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country. They are infact integral to rural life, supporting agriculture, contributing to the household nutrition, supplementing incomes and offering employment opportunities. They are the best insurance against the vagaries of nature due to drought, famine and other natural calamities.  Majority of the population dependant on livestock for livelihoods are the landless, small and marginal farmers. Traditionally, local communities, livestock and local cultures have been strongly linked.

With changing diets and lifestyles, the demand for livestock products is growing faster than demand for other foods. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) projected livestock production to increase by 117% from 2000 to 2050, along with a doubling in grazing intensity in pasturelands and massive growth in cattle numbers (from 1.5 billion animals in 2000 to 2.6 billion in 2050) (IAASTD 2009).

This increased demand for protein foods in turn triggers the need to increase livestock production at a faster pace. To meet the demand, livestock is being produced in a factory mode, forgetting the fact that they are living beings. This industrial mode of production has further weaned them away from being part of the farming system. Both agriculture and livestock operate as separate entities leading to unsustainable production systems. Production intensification is contributing to a host of problems like disease spread leading to epidemic levels, shortage of fodder and feed, global warming etc. Research done by GRAIN shows that it is the industrial meat and dairy complex that causes this tremendous damage to the planet, not traditional livestock reared by smallholders. Deforestation, industrial feed crops, use of chemical fertilizers, transport and refrigeration, and massive waste are all central elements of the industrial meat and dairy complex, responsible for huge amounts of climate gases. The FAO calculated that, today, meat production alone – especially that of the industrial type – generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined.

How then do we strike a balance between meeting increasing demand while limiting the negative effects of commercial production? How do we use the limited resources available? How do we use modern technology and increase production efficiency without damaging our planet’s resources? How do we make the ecosystems sustainable while using their services for crop and livestock production? Ecological livestock system seems to be a solution.

Moving towards an ecological livestock system

Ecological livestock systems integrate cropping and livestock production. Such integration allows for better management of nutrient flows and recycling of limited resources. Here, manure is not a waste but serves as a valuable input that needs to be returned to soils. Crop wastes serve as fodder. Biological diversity is enhanced for greater resilience. Local breeds that are hardy and survive in difficult conditions are reared rather than going in for exotic breeds which need expensive external resources. Focus will be on improving overall animal health. Such integrated systems which will be knowledge intensive, as well, will value the local traditional knowledge.  Farmer participation and innovation will be key to such systems.

Ecological systems are not technology intensive. It encompasses fine tuning the current practices with sensitivity towards the local ecology, culture and community needs. There are many positive examples of communities moving towards ecological livestock systems, which go unnoticed amidst commercial production systems. A few of those inspiring initiatives are presented in this issue.

Local livestock breeds are being lost at an alarming rate, and this a matter of serious concern. While not enough efforts are being made by the government to conserve these traditional breeds, there are many champions in local communities, who are conserving local breeds and making a living out of it. SEVA, an NGO in Tamil Nadu has been identifying, documenting and recognising the efforts of such champions. Breeds like Umblachery cattle, malabari goats, Belahi cattle, Chevvadu sheep etc., are being protected by these local communities. Its time for the government and policy makers to recognize such initiatives and support them. (P Vivekanandan, p.9)

Women play a major role in livestock production. They take care of the animals, their feed and health. Community initiatives have shown that improvement in access to technologies for higher productivity, financial and health services, active participation in different stages of value chains, collective action to achieve the economy of scale in production and marketing through organizing in to groups etc., have brought positive changes in gender roles and relations at individual, household and society levels.(Manjula M et al., p.15). In another instance, a community led livestock extension service delivery was tried and the capacities of women rearers were strengthened. With access to knowledge and inputs, the goat rearers of Gondia district were able to make a decent livelihood with goat rearing. Being a women centric initiative, it also brought out a positive change in the lives of women and in the communities. (Sanjeev Kumar, p.6).

There are a number of innovative farmers like Baskaran (Suresh Kanna, p.27) who are practicing crop-livestock integrated systems, following an ecological approach. Baskaran rears a local breed, Umblachery and feeds it with grasses and crop residues. Research results from Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts of Karnataka has also shown that higher roughage feeding results in higher milk production while high proportion of concentrates leads to subclinical ketosis (S Rajeshwaran, p.20). Feeding cattle therefore need to be based on the understanding of rumen physiology and nutrient requirements, but not on standards and prescriptions. This is not only cost effective but also sustainable.

We see that even the traditional pastoralist communities are adapting themselves to changes that are happening around them. Traditionally the pastoral communities in the higher altitudinal zones of the Himalaya, such as the Bhotiya, Bakarwal, Van Gujjar, Gaddi, Lepcha, and Monpas have been practicing livestock herding by migrating from one ecological zone to another on seasonal basis. But with declining pastures and grazing lands, they are adapting to changing situations by altering their livestock numbers and livestock management practices.(Maikhuri R K. et al., p22,  Amandeep Singh and Pranav Kumar, p.25)

Concerns and need for supportive policies

In countries like India, livestock management invariably refers to the role of women, small farmers, landless and the poor and the pastoralists. Unless the concerns of these groups are taken into account and efforts made to support them, people-centered growth in the livestock sector will be a distant dream. Livestock policies in India, over the years, have moved from their focus on “enhancing productivity and efficiency” to “inclusiveness and equity”. However, a lot needs to be done to convert these intentions into ground reality. (Manjula M et al., p.15). CSO initiatives like “The Pastoral Parliament” has shown that when the collective spirit of the pastoralists is mobilized, they are empowered  to assert their identity, identify as a collective, and generate political momentum (Monika Agarwal and Jessica Duncan, p.34). Learnings from such positive and empowering initiatives need to be integrated while formulating policies.

The industrial production of livestock, to meet the growing demands of meat all over the globe, is contributing to the climate crisis. Reports state that if heavy eaters of industrial meat reduced their unhealthy levels of consumption to the World Health Organization’s recommended amounts, the world could eliminate 40% of all current greenhouse gas emissions (GRAIN, p.12). As a society, we need to move towards a low meat and dairy diets. This will have a tremendous positive impact on the climate, and most importantly on the human health. This shift can occur if we take meaningful steps towards agroecology and food sovereignty.

Key facts

* Around 1.3 billion people depend on livestock for their livelihoods, among which are 600 million poor farmers.

* Global demand for livestock products will increase by 70% to feed a population estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.

* Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions.

(source: FAO)




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