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Editorial – Livestock for sustainable livelihoods

Keeping livestock is traditional and closely linked to rural culture, indicative of the fact that rural families have always realised the importance of livestock.

The central role of livestock in natural resource based livelihood strategies, particularly that of poor women and men in rainfed regions of India is well acknowledged. Rainfed agriculture alone supports 60% of the livestock population. In view of low productivity and high uncertainty in crop production, majority of the people in rainfed regions depend on livestock.

It contributes to the livelihood of the poor in many ways – income from products, insurance against drought, emergency cash requirements, household nutrition, fuel for cooking, manure for crops, draught power for farming etc. Evidence shows that smallholders obtain nearly half of their income from livestock.

The smallholders and landless together control over 75% of country’s livestock resources. Since the livestock wealth is largely concentrated among the marginal and small landholders in India, it is expected that any growth in the livestock sector would bring prosperity to the small holders. But the trends in the livestock sector provides a different picture altogether.

The landless poor are becoming increasingly marginalized (in terms of ownership as well as share in livestock population) with respect to small ruminants, pigs and poultry. There is an increasing exodus of the landless households out of livestock production, mainly because of reduced access to grazing resources, lack of access to non exploitative market and credit and other services. While the landless livestock keepers are dropping out of the livestock sector, the livestock ownership of large landowners is growing at the fastest rate, giving way to emergence of commercial production systems based on high producing animals and external inputs.

For most small scale farmers, for whom it is important to make optimal use of available resources, livestock still has an essential role to play. Factors that smaller livestock such as sheep, goats, rabbits, ducks, chickens and many others have in common, are that they are relatively undemanding in their feeding requirements and easy to house and manage. They are less risky, are easier to replace as they are not so costly and reproduce faster. By optimising the management of the animals as well as the integration of the animals into the farming system, the total production of the farm can increase considerably. The raising of small animals also offers opportunities for a regular cash income throughout the year.

Integrated systems are sustainable

In the conventional agriculture of today, however, the major focus has been on simplifying the production process and on maximizing the yield of the final product, be it grain, meat or milk. In this process, an increasing amount of external inputs have been used to achieve the production goals and research has been focused on developing animal breeds, which respond well to increased amounts of nutrient rich feed. As a result of this, grain production and livestock production have become increasingly specialized and separated from each other.

The grain is grown with inorganic fertilizer and the livestock are fed on this grain. In this way, livestock production has lost its role as a complement and support to agriculture and has become a competitor for grain which could otherwise be consumed by humans.

Agriculture and livestock systems are highly integrated. While livestock becomes a source of organic manure to the crops, the crops and the crop residues are a source of feed to the animals. Experience on the ground shows that production systems which integrate both crops and livestock are highly sustainable. For instance, young farmers in Ratnagiri are making a decent livelihood by combining agriculture with animal rearing (Nitya Ghotge, p.6).

Millions of poor people in the drylands of western India, the Deccan Plateau, and in the mountainous reaches of the Himalayas, depend only on livestock for their livelihoods. These pastoralists depend heavily on the natural resources like forests and common lands for rearing their livestock.

Over years through their traditional institutions they have been conserving these bio-reserves by striking a fine balance between animal population and natural resources. But today, the natural bio-reserves remain deteriorated and neglected with increasing state control on the common resources and lack of community involvement.

Long drawn struggles over restoring rights on common resources, supported by local NGOs are gaining attention with some interesting results. For instance, KRAPAVIS, a Rajasthan based NGO, has been involving local communities in restoring about 100 Orans, a source of food, fodder, water and fuels to the pastoralists living in the foothills of Aravallis. (Singh and Gupta, p.18).

People’s initiatives

There are some limitations and challenges in livestock promotion among poor farmers – inadequate feed and water resources, low productivity and limited availability of health services, and poor management practices, and these need to be addressed. While the mainstream research and extension hardly reach the small farmers, there are some efforts made by the Non-Governmental organizations as well as some specific projects, which can serve as examples to be emulated. All these examples bring out the importance of a participatory process and how peoples initiatives can bring about sustainable solutions.

From being research centric, many institutions are moving towards farmer-centric research and extension. For example, under the Indo-Swiss project, the government of Sikkim involved farmers in a Participatory development Technology process, enabling farmers chose a right feed management option (C K Rao, p.14). Innovative farmers are also bringing out a number of innovations in feed management. Veerakempanna (p.29) a farmer in Karnataka combines open grazing with stall feeding his sheep and plans to promote fodder pellets in future.

It is being increasingly realized that technological options are not sufficient in bringing about sustainable change. Building social institutions and networks becomes important. The Fodder Innovation Project contends that building networks and putting institutional arrangements in place to enable innovation is a better way of addressing the fodder shortage problem. This is all the more important while dealing with the issues of common resources. Experience of FES shows that investments in institutional arrangements in common property resources can contribute to better access to fodder and water to poor livestock keepers (Rahul Chaturvedi and Sanjay Joshie, p. 26).

Modern production systems depend heavily on a few strains, thus neglecting the local breeds. Local breeds, are well adapted to the environment and to the farmers’ management practices. However, to realize the genetic potential of indigenous breeds better quality feed and selective breeding is necessary, but unfortunately research and extension has so far shown little interest. At present, many financial institutions provide incentives and loans for the rearing of exotic or high-yielding crossbreeds, but do not provide similar assistance for indigenous stocks.

Encouraging the propagation of native breeds will progressively increase their sustainability and they will be automatically conserved. Progressive improvement in the production potential over a period of time is an in-built security for the survival of breeds. The women livestock keepers in South India, find improvement of local breeds a better option to the exotic breeds of livestock. For them, rearing of local breeds is hassle free, add-on and a part time activity requiring low investment and giving higher returns. Moreover, these local breeds are hardy and have high prolificacy.

Livestock and climate change

The concerns over environmental effects of livestock production in India are of relatively recent origin. On one hand there is a concern that changing climatic conditions will severely affect the livelihoods which are based on natural resources like agriculture and animal husbandry. Promotion of sustainable agriculture and livestock rearing will be vital to ensure that the impact of climate change is minimized on the communities. This will involve rearing of animals which are more sturdy, heat tolerant, disease resistant, and relatively adaptable to the adverse conditions. In such a situation some of the indigenous breeds will be able to cope much better than the cross breeds.

On the other hand, livestock is being seen as one of the culprits of environmental degradation. Large ruminants are being accused of releasing large quantities of methane emissions, NATCOM (India’s National Communication to UNFCC on Climate Change) has estimated that out of the total quantity of methane produced in India, emission by livestock due to enteric fermentation is the highest (49% – 188 million tons CO2-eq). Small ruminants like goats are increasingly being seen as a threat to the environment.

Environmentalists are of the opinion that goat has an aggressive grazing habit which causes severe damage to vegetation and accelerates desertification. But small ruminants can improve soil and vegetation cover as well as help in dispersing seeds through their hooves and manure. Although blamed for negatively impacting environment, livestock will continue to remain as a livelihood option for the majority of the poor in India. The solution lies in promoting adequate measures to ensure sustainable development without causing damage to the environment.

Need for new policy paradigm

Since landless, small and marginal farmers are dependent on common property resources often they get negatively impacted by policies of forest department. In the absence of pro-poor policies, these common property resources are under severe degradation and are subjected to encroachment and conversion into national parks and sanctuaries etc. The Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes that the local communities are the real custodians of biological diversity and have vital stakes in conservation. They should thus be involved fully in conservation programs. Farming communities should also share the benefits from sustainable utilization. The development of Livestock Keepers Rights and Bio Protocols will be important tools for preserving the biodiversity they have managed over centuries (p.35).

Livestock are not merely production instruments. We need to see livestock in the context of livelihoods of the poor and their vulnerability. Hence there is a need to have a holistic view and a collaborative effort to have a pro-poor, pro-environment development, which will produce an inclusive and sustainable growth.

This issue of the magazine brings out small examples where collaborative efforts and people-centric processes have created a good impact on livelihoods. Efforts of such nature should continue in a big way in the years to come.


– 2004. India’s Initial National Communication to the UNFCC-Executive Summary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

– DBV Ramana, Shalandar Kumar, K Kareemulla, CA Rama Rao, Sreenath Dixit, KV Rao and B Venkateswarlu, Livestock in Rainfed Agriculture – Status and Perspective – 2009, Policy Paper, SEPR Series 2, CRIDA, ICAR, Hyderabad, November 2009.