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Essay four: Animals for life and livelihoods

What it means to keep animals

The value of livestock in the fight against poverty and malnutrition is impossible to exaggerate. The nutritional, social and economic importance of animals to people in the developing world is clear. In many parts of the world, evidence is growing of livestock’s contribution to keeping the soil productive and effective in the fight against climate change.

Livestock farming has become relatively industrialised in developed economies. Farmers raise cattle, build up their herds and, when the time seems right, sell some of the calves, cows, heifers and bulls to feedlots or to packer companies for fattening up and slaughter. Grain farmers devote much of their land, labour and time to producing crops to supply feed for these animals, causing harm in many regions to the soil through over-production, which is often subsidised, and the use of synthetic chemicals. This often seems like the way of the world. But not the whole world: many farmers do not have the option of being part of these large-scale operations, and for some, whom this system is an option prefer to have nothing to do with it.

Numbers of people living in extreme poverty had been in decline for 20 years, The World Bank said in 2020, until the covid-19 pandemic1, which it said was likely to push the total to almost 700 million people in 2021. The World Bank defines people who live on less than $1.90 per day as living in extreme poverty. This amount of money constitutes what it calls the international poverty line. It warns that close to a quarter of the world’s population lives on less than $3.20 per day and that more than 40%, a total of more than 3.25 billion people, live on less than $5.50 per day. In 2018, four out of every five people below the international poverty line lived in rural areas. This, too, is The World Bank’s data2.
Specialist UN agency the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has said that, as their communities have done for generations, millions of these people rely on livestock to help feed themselves and their families. Furthermore, the IFAD calculates that 800 million smallholder farmers in these communities combine to look after a billion head of livestock.

Safety net

Ceres2030, a joint programme run and funded by Cornell University, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), refers to livestock as a safety net for the rural poor. Ceres2030’s work involves evaluating academic literature to draw out from published papers what the most effective interventions might be to help smallholder farmers and end hunger. Funding from the programme is from the German government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Principal scientist and programme leader at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Dr Isabelle Baltenweck, leads the livestock feed solutions research team for Ceres2030. In 2020 she said: “Livestock are crucial for people’s livelihoods, especially in developing countries. In these areas where we see significant hunger, livestock are integrated into farm production: the cow creates manure, which fertilises the maize, which both the humans and the livestock eat. Livestock is a key piece of maintaining this system.” She pointed out that, in the event of drought or civil unrest, people are able to move their livestock with them when they move and still have an income and a food source. 

Food for thought

And not just any food source. These animals are a source of sustenance that, even if in limited supply, is of high nutritional value. In these communities, this nutrition is of particular importance to children, for mental and for physical growth, and to pregnant women. In a 2018 paper written by researchers from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the IFPRI, data showed that the problem of faltering growth among children often begins between the ages of six months and two years3. The authors said that many families in the developing world are only able to give these small children complementary foods that are low in high-quality protein and micronutrients. These foods frequently include rice, wheat, maize or starchy roots and tubers. They agree with earlier research that draws a clear connection between low consumption of animal-sourced foods (ASFs) and faltering growth among these small children during this critical phase of development. 

A specific study the authors carried out in Bangladesh found that almost half of the children living in rural communities in the Asian country suffer from stunted growth. They reach a similar conclusion to those that earlier studies focusing on East Africa have drawn: “Increasing dairy consumption among children and women of childbearing age should be a central priority for nutritional strategies in Bangladesh.”

Meat matters

As far as meat is concerned, IFPRI has said that over the next several decades, a large proportion of the growth in demand for meat will come from the developing world. By 2050, according to IFPRI modelling, annual per capita meat consumption will reach 77 kilos in Latin America, 52 kilos in Asia-Pacific, and 24 kilos in regions of Africa that are south of the Sahara. These figures compare to amounts for the year 2000 of 58, 28 and 11 kilos respectively.

This shift could improve nutrition in developing countries, the organisation has said. The issue is clear for Dr Marie Ruel, director of IFPRI’s Poverty, Health, and Nutrition division. She says: “Meat is especially important for young children, who go through a critical phase of accelerated physical growth and brain development in the first two years of life, and for women, who have high iron requirements during their reproductive years. Meat and dairy products contain micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins A and B12, in forms that are readily available and taken up by the body more easily than when they are obtained from plant sources.” 4 

The institute has no concerns about people in the most developed economies decreasing their meat consumption if they want to, mainly because it believes this will lower prices and make meat more affordable for people in developing countries. Dr Ruel points out that many vegetarians are unable to meet their nutritional needs without taking vitamin and mineral supplements or consuming fortified foods, most of which are in shorter supply in developing economies. “In populations that don’t have access to specially formulated fortified foods or products, infants and young children should be consuming ASFs daily,” she insists.

Equality for women

Raising animals in much of the developing world drives greater equality for women. ILRI’s Dr Isabelle Baltenweck has made the point that livestock are important in helping women become economically empowered. “If a woman can access a few chickens, she can earn some income and improve her family’s nutrition. Then maybe she can save up and invest in a few goats, then a few cows.”

Women are key to the health and productivity of livestock as it is they, in many communities, who feed the animals and attend to the births of new-born calves, kids and lambs. IFAD has said that when women have access to the right resources and training, animals tend to be better fed, healthier and more reproductive; it has called on international bodies to help train women to carry out these roles better. 
Care of livestock, therefore, is an important driver in meeting the fifth of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Number five focuses on gender equality, even though improving women’s access to non-agricultural paid work is also an important priority. Owning livestock increases a woman’s decision-making and economic power within her household and in the community.

Livestock is also a source of money and can open up access to credit. The sale of sheep or goats is a useful way of raising money quickly for medical treatment or school fees, while selling milk provides a regular flow of money for everyday items, including food. By-products from these animals represent another important source of employment and empowerment for women. Hides, skins, wool, bone and manure are among the by-products that bring economic benefits to animal owners; in many communities it is women who use these materials to make and sell products such as clothes, household goods or fuel. 

Climate action

To return briefly to the SDGs, the goals that livestock ownership can help individuals and communities achieve are, at least numbers: one, two, three, five, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen and sixteen5.

SDG 13, which focuses on climate action, deserves a separate mention in this Nothing To Hide essay. There is ‘received wisdom’ that livestock cause desertification through over-grazing. In a now famous TED Talk in 2013, Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist, biologist and livestock farmer, compared this to the ‘received wisdom’ in earlier centuries that the earth was flat6. “Desertification only happens when we create too much bare ground,” he said in the talk. “There is no other cause. We were taught that this is caused by livestock and I loved wildlife so I hated livestock. Well, I have news for you. We were wrong then [about the earth being flat] and we are wrong about livestock now.”

He observed, in the US as well as in Africa, that in National Parks in which livestock had been removed in an attempt to halt desertification, the opposite had happened: there was more bare land over time rather than less. In some parts of the world, there is so much rainfall that desertification will never be a problem, “no matter what we do”, Mr Savory said. But a scarcity of water affects around 40% of the earth’s land-mass and there are areas, a large swathe of northern Africa, for example, in which 95% of the millions of people who live there can grow practically nothing and are dependent on animals for food. There are wet months and dry months. Poor soil makes it likely that moisture during the wet months will go to waste through run-off or evaporation.  

Herd mentality

Soil and vegetation developed and remained in place across large areas of the world not in spite of the presence of livestock, but because the animals were there. The reason over-grazing did not happen, originally, was that the animals made their stay in any given area relatively short before moving on. Allan Savory’s realisation was that these grazing animals developed with the threat of ferocious, pack-hunting predators hanging over them all the time. Bigger herds meant individual animals had a better chance of survival. This meant the areas where they were grazing soon became covered with the animals’ own dung and urine, trampled into the earth by their hooves. And after the grazing animals had moved on, healthy grasslands grew in their wake, equipping the land with a much greater ability to retain moisture during the wet months. Without the concentration of animals in a given area and without the animals soon moving on, there is a danger over-grazing.

He studied other professions and found planning techniques that he could take and adapt. From this he developed a holistic management approach centred on planned grazing. He concluded that “the only option left” is to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for the large herds of former times, to mimic nature. “After they move on, the soil is ready to absorb and hold rain, to store carbon and to break down methane,” he said, adding that the more industrialised agricultural systems we have in place at the moment are causing as much climate change as fossil fuels, and possibly more.

“This is causing hunger, poverty, social breakdown, violence and war,” he said. “Millions of men, women and children are suffering and dying. And if this continues, we are unlikely to be able to stop the climate from changing, even after we have eliminated fossil fuels. We can work with nature, at very low cost, to reverse all of this, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and safely storing it in grassland soils. If we do this on half of the world’s grasslands, it would take us back to pre-industrial levels of carbon while feeding people.”

Sealed with a kiss

By the middle of 2021, there had been more than 7.5 million views of Allan Savory’s TED Talk. It featured, and he featured, in a 2020 documentary called Kiss The Ground7, which extols the benefits of his holistic management and planned livestock grazing ideas as part of a wider philosophy of regenerative farming. In less than a year, Kiss The Ground won more than 40 film awards and its message spread across the world in schools and cinemas and on Netflix and Vimeo. 

This is important because campaigners who want to end livestock farming and meat consumption often have a high profile. There are others who confess themselves willing to tolerate livestock and meat because of the difficulty in replacing them in economies and diets, especially in the developing world. This attitude seems present even in important reports on climate change from bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It said in the build-up to the important 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris that methane emissions from livestock “are difficult to mitigate”8. The implication is that raising cattle, sheep and goats is a lesser evil than exacerbating global poverty, but that it would be good if we could find other ways to achieve the same outcome.

Allan Savory has shown, however, that this is wrong. Raising livestock as part of a regenerative agriculture programme is not an evil of any kind; it is an important weapon in the fight against poverty and against climate change. It is crucial to healing the soil in areas where dry seasons are long and few things grow and healing the soil is critical if we are to heal the climate crisis. “Much-vilified livestock,” as Mr Savory has called them, could be the key in helping the earth to remain habitable.

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