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Essay four: The value of livestock and animal protein in the fight against poverty and malnutrition

What it means to keep animals

The meat industry’s big players these days are major corporations, many of them quoted on the world’s most important stock exchanges. They are the source of the bulk of the hides and skins that the world’s tanners transform into leather and are often far from free of criticism from groups who campaign against livestock farming and against meat. Asking for better standards and greater sustainability in the meat and livestock industry is a good thing, and this essay in the Nothing To Hide series shows that there are many reasons why communities continue to raise animals and continue to eat meat. In this case, we explain the importance livestock and meat have to health, wealth and wellbeing of people in the developing world.

Livestock farming has become relatively sophisticated and industrialised in the most 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. This often seems like the way of the world. But not the whole world. According to United Nations (UN) 1.2 billion people were still living in extreme poverty in 2010, which it defines as living on less than $1.25 a day.

Specialist UN agency the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has said 900 million of these people living in extreme poverty, which is to say 75% of the total, live in rural areas and, as their communities have done for generations, most 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. This is a small share of the global total that the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) put at 26 billion in 2010, up enormously from the 1970 figure of nine billion animals1. We believe all of these points ought to have an effect on the conception the richest people in the world have of why it is important to raise cattle.

A crucial source of food

The first consideration is food. These animals are a source of food 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 paper published in June 2014, the Ethiopia Strategy Support Program (ESSP), a collaborative programme run by the IFPRI and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, focused on milk. It said 85% of the milk produced by dairy cows in rural parts of Ethiopia is never sold, but consumed by the families that own the cows. This is significant because 80% of Ethiopia’s population of more than 90 million people live in rural communities.

Following a survey of almost 8,000 households in four regions of the Ethiopian highlands, ESSP concluded that children in families that own a cow are likely to have a height per age that is likely to be almost 40% greater than that of children in cowless households because external access to dairy products is poor2. Consumption of dairy products is particularly important in this context because, even though Ethiopia has the largest livestock herd in Africa (in 2012, Washington DC-based non-profit international development organisation CNFA put the herd size at 52 million head, including 10.5 million dairy cattle, putting Ethiopia in the top eight livestock-producing countries in the world)3 average meat consumption there is very low, at just 4.6 kilos per person per annum4. IFPRI has said that over the next several decades, virtually all 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 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.”5

The institute has no concerns about people in the most developed economies decreasing their meat consumption, mainly because it believes this will lower prices and make meat more affordable for poor people. It says that if, by 2030, the developed world cuts its meat consumption by half, global meat prices will come down by enough to boost meat consumption in the developing world by around 7%. This, in turn, would help reduce malnutrition among children under five across the developing world by about 700,000 cases per year.

Equality for women

In much of the developing world, 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-borns. 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. 

The same organisation highlights a series of reasons why looking after livestock is important for women. This is very much in the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals, even if goal number three, which pertains to gender equality and empowering women, specifies increased access for women to non-agricultural paid work as one of its objectives. First, 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, and in many communities it is women who use them to make and sell products such as clothes, household goods or fuel.

“Processing these materials can be an important source of additional employment and income for poor rural women,” IFAD says. The organisation also argues that owning, controlling and benefiting from livestock production increases women’s self-esteem and strengthens their role as producers and income-generators6. In its Millennium Development Goals report for 2014, the United Nations said men still hold 80% of all salaried jobs outside the agricultural sector in North Africa7. Until this gap narrows, this example shows how important it is for rural women to continue to have access to livestock ownership. 

How animals and finance work together

According to a recent IFAD paper8, agriculture remains the backbone of most African economies for men and women, and employs between 70% and 90% of the continent’s total labour force. In addition, agriculture supplies up to 50% of household food requirements and up to 50% of household incomes. Most of the income is generated by beef cattle, dairy cattle, goats, sheep and chickens. Altogether these five animals generate 92% of the total revenue from livestock across Africa. Because of their ability to improve people’s financial security, livestock animals also play an important role in determining access to financial services.

IFAD and other agencies who take on similar work have begun offering advice on financial services to small-scale livestock farmers in an effort to help people learn the best ways to restock after an animal has died or been slaughtered, to improve the quality of their herds by investing in better breeds, and to look after their animals by investing well in feed, veterinary medicine, shelter and so on. IFAD argues that this strategy has also made it possible for small, livestock-related micro-enterprises to become established, helping them put in place a firm financial footing and then add marketing and other elements9.

Conventional financial institutions often have little to do with poor, rural communities, where the prospects for profit look bleak. Infrastructure is insufficient, communities are spread out, cash is scarce.

But if people have livestock, they can achieve what IFAD refers to as “financial self-reliance”. This applies not just in Africa but all over the developing world. In one recent project, IFAD was instrumental in arranging for better-off families in Mongolia to give animals to poorer people as a loan in kind. The families selected to receive the loans were already herders with between 10 and 20 ‘bods’ of livestock (a ‘bod’ means one head of cattle, one yak or seven sheep) because previous projects showed herds smaller than this not to be a viable means of securing a family’s livelihood in the long term.

Because winters are harsh and food can be scarce, part of the project was to pre-finance insurance on animals surviving, with the premiums being repaid when herd-sizes increased, allowing the beneficiaries to pay back the animals donated and raising money from the sale of others. As well as helping families meet basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, fuel, water, education and health, IFAD reports that most of the herders who took part have continued to take out insurance on their animals, paying the premiums themselves.

1.The Meat of the Issue, Jennifer Weeks, IFPRI, 2012
2. Cows, missing milk markets and nutrition in rural Ethiopia, ESSP, 2014.
3. Agricultural Growth Program-Livestock Market Delvelopment CNFA, 2012.
4. Consumption Patterns of Livestock Products in Ethiopia, ESSP, 2012
5. The Meat of the Issue, Jennifer Weeks, IFPRI, 2012
6. Gender and livestock: tools for design, IFAD, 2010
7. The Millennium Development Goals Report, the United Nations, 2014
8. Livestock and climate change, IFAD, 2010
9. Livestock and rural finance, IFAD, 2010

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