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Belgian veterinary group message to Bill Gates: Herding livestock makes more sense than growing crops in arid lands

NP Kenya 211011_8

A herd of livestock cross the drylands near Marsabit town, in northern Kenya; some farmers in the region took out livestock insurance, and this year are receiving the first payouts after a prolonged drought (image on Flickr by Neil Palmer/CIAT).

Below is part of an open letter / press release brought out by Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VSF), member of the Coalition of European Lobbies on Eastern African Pastoralism (CELEP), in reaction to the views on foreign aid recently expressed by Bill Gates in an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

VSF-Belgium notes how much it supports the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). And staff of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which support the views of both VSF and BMGF, remind readers that Bill Gates is not saying in his opinion piece that improved seeds are the only solution to hunger in Africa, but rather just one option needed. As Segenet Kelemu, director of Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA), a hub hosted and managed by ILRI, says, ‘The BMGF recognizes the full importance of livestock in African farming—and for that reason is doing more and more in the livestock area.’

But ILRI concurs with the VSF-Belgium opinion piece about the general neglect of livestock in food security discussions; some of that argument is copied below.

Bill Gates, seeds alone will not end poverty
02 Feb 2012

VSF Belgium would like to stress that livestock is often forgotten, although it is one of the most sustainable and economically viable ways of living in arid and semi-arid lands. These areas constitute almost half of the African continent and have been affected most by the recent food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

‘As a Belgian NGO aiming to improve the well-being of disadvantaged African livestock farmers, VSF Belgium supports Bill Gates’ reaction to the anti-foreign aid establishment that is using the report of Oxfam and Save the Children to argue that aid doesn’t work. According to this report, emergency aid in the Horn of Africa came too late, at high costs in terms of lives and money. In fact, prevention is always better and cheaper than cure. . . .

‘If we want to fight poverty and hunger through foreign aid, we need to support small-scale farmers. According to FAO almost 80% of undernourished people worldwide live in rural areas, and most of them depend on agriculture, which includes livestock keeping. However, if we only focus on the crops, we forget that more than one billion poor people depend on livestock to provide essential nutrition and livelihoods.

‘New seeds to increase crop production will not eliminate hunger. In fact, hunger is caused not only by a lack of food availability or productivity, but also by a lack of access to food. There is enough food in the world to feed everybody, but poor farmers don’t have access to it, partly due to a lack of revenue or infrastructure. . . .

‘Arid and semi-arid lands are less suitable—and sometimes not suitable at all—for growing crops. They constitute 80% of the Horn of Africa; with an estimated population of 70 million people. Here, herding livestock often makes better technical and economic sense than growing crops. In the drylands, crop cultivation needs intensive irrigation, which is expensive and often impractical—indeed wasteful of precious water. And, be conscious, over 90% of the meat consumed in East Africa comes from pastoral herders. Encouraging all pastoralists to switch to growing crops or to move to cities is not realistic and may even have dangerous economic, social and environmental consequences.

‘. . . Pastoralists move with their herds in order to take advantage of erratic concentrations of resources within and between years, whereas obviously they would not be able to move their crop fields.

‘Over the years, pastoralists are faced with a gradual decline in available grazing lands and watering areas as a result of conversion to other uses. Although these areas are essential for feeding animals during periods of drought and in the dry season every year, they are now often converted to irrigated cropland or nature reserves or have been monopolised by private companies or foreign governments through “land grabbing”. . . .

‘. . . Pastoralists get little support, livestock trade across borders is hindered, veterinary services are inadequate and badly coordinated and certain areas are inaccessible due to conflicts or inappropriately sited infrastructure. Numerous African countries aim for the “modernisation” of pastoral communities by encouraging them to settle. However, there is ample scientific evidence that pastoralism is one of the most sustainable ways to exploit drylands.

‘Taking into account the important role and opportunity of pastoral livestock keepers for arid and semi-arid lands in Africa will improve foreign aid efficiency and the global fight against hunger and poverty. . . .’

Read the whole article: Bill Gates, seeds alone will not end poverty, by Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VSF) Belgium, 02 Feb 2012.

This article is a reaction of Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium and CELEP [Coalition of European Lobbies on Eastern African Pastoralism] to the opinion of Bill Gates—The truth about foreign aid—that appeared in the New York Times online (26/01/2012) and in The International Herald Tribune (27/01/2012).

Read an opinion piece by ILRI director general Jimmy Smith on ILRI’s News Blog, which refers to the Oxfam and Save the Children report cited above on responses to the Horn of Africa food crisis in 2011: Turning defeat into new destiny–Going beyond food aid in the Horn of Africa, 24 Jan 2012.

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