Dialoguing on the Future of Livestock by Dr Sagari Ramdas

Dialoguing on the Future of Livestock:

Participation of Social Movements from IPC, in the Livestock Multi-Stake holder Dialogue Platform on the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, FAO. Cali, Colombia. Oct 7-10 2014.

IPC Livestock Dialogue Team from Asia, Latin America, and Europe

October 7-10, 2014 in Cali, Colombia, I participated in the Livestock Multi Stake-holder Dialogue platform on the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (FAO). I am based in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh with the Food Sovereignty Alliance and I participated in the meeting on behalf of LVC South Asia. This is LVC’s first time participating in the Livestock Dialogue, through the International Planning Committee on Food Soveriengty (IPC). In this article, I will first lay out the myths of the Livestock Revolution and its threats to small-holding agriculturalists and pastoralists. Then I will report the critique of these notions by social movements present and give a summary of our experience in the meeting.

The dialogue, began with a series of presentations on October 7thand 8th, by scientists, government officials, researchers both from within and beyond FAO who set out the context of global livestock production and described future projections and recommendations to transform livestock production systems, so as to meet a projected demand of growing consumption within a declining natural resource and fragile environmental context. The presentations re-iterated a narrative that has been constructed over the last 2 decades; a narrative, which in our analysis spells the death of peasant, pastoralist, and indigenous peoples livelihoods- with livestock.

“Livestock Revolution” Narrative

The narrative began in the early 2000s- with a code word “Livestock Revolution”, wherein international livestock sector analysts projected a massive growth in demand for animal protein (milk and meat) globally, with the majority of this demand coming from the low-income and emerging economies (such as India and China). This demand, they argued is largely driven by increasing urbanization, increasing incomes and increasing populations, and it can only be met through economies of scale.

If “smallholders” are to be part of meeting the demand, then the only option suggested is to “move up the value chain”, “vertically integrate into higher value chains”, and intensify production with technologies and “better management”, to participate and be “integrated” into the expanding and emerging markets for meat, milk, and other livestock products. The International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) scripted the Livestock Revolution narrative.

Livestock grazing in sugarcane fields at 275-acre agroecological farm El Hatico near
Cali, Colombia

In 2007, this international narrative added another dimension through a report known as “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, where scientists from FAO concluded that the Livestock Sector contributes significantly to Climate Change impacting land, water, air and biodiversity. It pointed to how livestock contribute 18% of Green House Gas emissions in CO2 equivalent, with 3 primary sources: methane from enteric fermentation, nitrous oxide from manure management and carbon dioxide from deforestation. Diabolically, the report singled out extensive grazing based systems followed by mixed systems, as the source of highest intensity of carbon emissions, with the least emissions emerging from intensive industralised systems. 

Finally the report identified South Asia, East Africa and Latin America as the geographic areas with highest mitigation potential – as these have high emission intensities per unit of protein and high emission intensities per unit of area. These are areas, they said, with high cattle densities and low animal productivity. They conclude that mitigation can be achieved by :

i) Improving animal performance (improved genetics and health )

ii) Improving feeding practices (enhancing digestibility of ration and protein content),

iii) Improving  herd structure management (reducing animals which are non-productive),

iv) Improved manure management (storage, application, bio-digestion)

v) Improved land management (improved pasture management).

The solution to these two seemingly irresolvable and opposing drivers namely: meeting increased consumption needs within a declining natural resource base,  whilst reducing GHG emissions, translates into key policy recommendations to farmers of our region : further intensify and specialise as intensive systems are more efficient than traditional peasant-pastoralist- indigenous peoples livestock production systems!  

The FAO proposes a supposed “win-win” scenario: If “small holders” (the term used to refer to us who feed the world) are to benefit from the growth opportunities and the climate change challenges, we must specialize in the commodity we hope to produce, vertically integrate ourselves into the intensive system, enter into contract farming arrangements so as to reduce transactions costs, and be open to technological changes in out production practices such as adopting so-called improved breeds (including GMO technological solutions), feeds, health services. Deforestation and soil degradation elements should be addressed by market mechanisms, such as recongnising grasslands as carbon sinks which can be regulated and restored through payment of Environmental Services. FAO concludes by suggesting that governments and regions frame policies that will shape the above, and that such policies emerge through livestock dialogue platforms such as this 5th one being held in Cali, Colombia.

We must remember:  the reference to South Asia-directly implicates indigenous peoples, peasant and pastoralist livelihood systems (which constitute the bulk of the livestock production of the region), for being the source of high intensity levels of carbon emissions. In turn, it is our livelihoods that will certainly be targeted with global and national policies geared to force us to comply with the intensification package of mitigation strategies. 

Critique from IPC Social Movements

i) There is sufficient and more global evidence, of “intensification and specialisation” triggering the exit and exodus of millions of peasants, pastoralists and indigenous people from rearing livestock, and a facade of “equity” amongst those who remain as livestock producers. The FAO meeting in 2012 in Bangkok on Asian Livestock: Challenges and Opportunities, succinctly illustrates how in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc, small holders began to “specialize, enlarge their herd sizes, and take up new technologies, and vertically integrate themselves into supply chains”,  got trapped into complex and chronic debt cycles, and were forced to leave production altogether.

ii) The FAO approach to “Livestock’s Long Shadow” has ignored the critical multifunctional role of livestock reared by peasant, pastoralists and indigenous people, in calculating “intensity”. The contributions or “output” of the animal, cannot be simplistically reduced to a kg of meat or a litre of milk. The animals contribute to soil health, biodiversity, life security, cultural integrity, spiritual well being, food security within the home, community and further beyond, energy through transportation and agriculture operations, fibre, and as a bank on hooves, in times of need. They are also an adaptation response to climate change. Assess the carbon emissions across these multifunctional contributions and then let us get a realistic representation of intensity of carbon emissions across different production categories.

Increased soil fertility and diversity

iii) A large number of peasants and pastoralists who were already pushed by global and national economic policies to intensify their production, are today making concerted efforts to de-intensify and revert to agro-ecological livestock rearing practices. This is being done as a strategy to respond to climate change (local indigenous breeds are more resilient and adapted, require reduced quantities of fodder and water and care, are more resistant to diseases), to adapt to scarce natural resources, and to be economically resilient and protection from unreliable global trade policies and regimes, that distort prices in national markets.

iv) The big lie of demand: the projected demands of animal protein in the global south,  that form the basis of the argument of an urgent need to augment production of milk and meat industrially, need to be questioned. The issue is not of production, but of access and distribution. In the Indian case, the current consumption levels of the rich Indian cannot be used as a parameter/ thumb rule to project national demands. Nor can one use the completely unhealthy and medically inadvisable meat and milk consumption patterns of the global north to project future demands. Similarly peasant, pastoralist, indigenous and working class India, have the right to enjoy milk and meat (including beef) consumption according to their cultural and traditional customs and norms. In India, the existing milk produced in the country is infact more than sufficient to meet the national milk average per-capita intake.

Finally, even if we accept the projections of increasing protein consumption demand, there are two issues to be affirmed:

a) The protein needs can be met in diverse ways, including meat and milk. In India the huge protein deficiencies we witness today amongst an overwhelming number of citizens, has been directly attributed to declining cultivation and availability of staple pulses (dals), which have always been our primary source of protein.

b) Peasant, pastoralist, and indigenous people’s production systems through their decentralized and local “LEISA” (low external input systems of agriculture) of production, and networks of local markets, are well positioned to meet these increasing protein needs  (be they from plants or animals).


At El Hatico a variety of agro-eco practices, have helped to raise the stock under extremely water scarce conditions. Even the agro-silvipastoral systems of  livestock rearing were similar to our  traditional systems of grazing: between forests, fields and grazing grounds, through which animals feed on tree leaf fodder, natural grasses, harvested crop residue, shrubs, climbers and creepers.  The impact of all these practices: increased biodiversity (insects, plants, wild life, birds etc), healthy soils, diverse micro-bacteria in the soils, increased work generated for people, soils rich in nitrogen and other nutrients and above all a spiritual relationship that the people share with their land, and the conviction to share this with future generations.

We participated and spoke. It was often extremely difficult to get our points recorded. Other times when we spoke, our points got lost or diluted in the process of these being summarized as outputs from group discussions. When we felt these did not get reflected in the smaller group summary presentations, we raised the points once again in plenary sessions. A large number of participants applauded our views and the points we raised. A large number were distinctly uncomfortable, and possibly viewed these as a threat to industry/ corporations, or to the emerging global consensus amongst national governments.

The third day of the workshop: the most significant part of the dialogue was the visit to a large Family Farm Business near Cali. 9 generations, of the Familia Molina Durken, have been farming at the Natural El Hatico. Today they rear cattle, sheep, buffaloes, and grow sugarcane across nearly 275 acres… The family has pioneered agro-ecological production practices on their farm. The best part: the impacts of agro-ecological practices are being recorded and data analysed by the research institution CIPAV.  As one of the family members shared: “ for us it is the sacred relationship we share with the land and people, over and above the monetary income.” 

We shared how this visit, re-enforced in our minds the strength and the power of our peasant, indigenous and pastoralist food webs based on agro-ecological practices. The difference was the practices here were being documented and evidence of their impact generated by research institutions, whereas our agro-ecological production systems and practices were systematically marginalized and undermined. We were being asked to intensify, whereas the farm demonstrated they had moved from intensive chemical systems to our practices: the practices of the people.

On the final day, we were able to draw strength from the previous day to constantly re-iterate the importance of agro-ecological production practices and the power of people’s indigenous knowledge. 

The struggles continues. Jai Bhutalli ! (In praise of mother earth) .