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Minding your three E’s: From ‘economically viable’ to ‘ecologically sound’ to ‘ethically acceptable’

Herding village livestock to pasture at dawn

Across most of Africa and South Asia, most cattle, buffaloes, sheep and goats are still raised in the open, in rangeland, common land or backyard  systems, and are still largely ‘grass-fed’. But that is changing fast as farm land holdings get smaller and range and common lands and migratory herding corridors disappear under development. Above, in Tete Province, Mozambique, livestock are daily herded to pasture in the early morning (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

For 40 years the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has been working to make smallholder livestock production and mixed crop-and-livestock farming in developing countries more productive. In the last two decades or so, an increasingly large part of our work has been directed towards finding ways to help farmers make their livestock and mixed production systems more efficient. In recent years, we’ve enlarged our agenda again to make these livestock-enhanced systems sustainable over the longer term, healthier for the consumers of livestock foods, and adaptable to climate change.

The three Es: From economically viable to ecologically sound to ethically acceptable?
This trajectory might be expressed as moving from a dominant concern for small-scale livestock production to be economically viable to one that it also be ecologically sound. Is it the right time now to add a third E concern: ethically acceptable?

That’s what a group called the World Society for the Protection of Animals is proposing in a new brief, Livestock matter at Rio+20 and beyond, which it used to help get sustainable livestock and animal health included on the agenda for the UN Earth Summit (Rio+20), which concluded last week in Rio de Janeiro.

Many might say that our need to increase livestock as well as other kinds of food production is so great now and in the coming decades—when we’ll add another 2 to 3 billion people to the planet by mid-century, with 1 billion people already hungry today—that we can’t afford to add animal welfare concerns to an agenda already burdened with responsibility for simultaneously reducing poverty and environmental harm. But of course that’s just what many people said when environmentalists and green NGOs started to argue for more sustainable ways of producing food: They argued that we can’t do both at the same time. But it appears that global opinion has matured and shifted on that, with plans for the UN Millennium Development Goals to be transformed into Sustainable Development Goals.

So can we work towards a triple bottom line in poor countries—better animal profits, environments and welfare? Can kinder farming also be smarter farming? Do we have practical and cost-effective ways to do this, bearing in mind that some one billion people in poor countries today are themselves surviving on severely inadequate income, food, shelter, health care, education and livelihoods?

The World Society for the Protection of Animals thinks so. It is ‘calling on global leaders to recognise the importance and benefits of humane animal farming practices in ensuring we can feed the world sustainably and urging them to set goals to ensure animal welfare is core to future’.

The Society argues that:

Ensuring the welfare and responsible use of animals is an effective tool to help achieve sustainable development, deliver poverty alleviation and enhance wellbeing. It is central to tackling specific environmental and public health issues including climate change, disaster management, deforestation, pollution, water, food security and gender equality.

To ensure we can feed the world’s growing population sustainably, the outcomes of the Rio+20 process on the future of food and farming must specifically recognise the importance and benefits of humane livestock systems for achieving sustainable development in agriculture and food production.

The Society is making the following five recommendations:

1 Recognise that good local and global animal welfare farming practice and policies are key to safeguarding people, animals and the environment.

2 Give formal government support to farmers who rear their livestock humanely and sustainably and phase out subsidies and investment to those farmers who do not.

3 Make it clear that farm animals reared on humane, sustainable farms are vital to a country’s economic development and lifting people from poverty.

4 Address the challenge and highlight the local and global implications of the unsustainable demand for meat, eggs and dairy products.

5 Support and invest in research and development that shows how animal-friendly farming systems protect and develop rural economies.

The Society says it has no intention of disadvantaging poor or hungry people. ‘Smallholders produce 80% of food in developing countries, and need to be supported rather than out-competed by big businesses.’ But it goes on to say, ‘And we do not believe that further growth and intensification of farms in developed countries is beneficial for animals, the environment or consumers—or for most farmers.’ One reader’s response to this statement is that ‘Not until larger farms became the norm was food available to all [in the USA]. Your fantasy land of small farms will not feed the world never has and never will.’

What do you think? Do the world’s small-scale farms need to stay small? Grow to middle size? Get big? Is there a ‘third way’ for livestock development that would follow neither the subsistence nor the industrial model?

Here are some views from ILRI on a ‘third way’ for livestock production:
ILRI News Blog: Farming extensively: A ‘third way’ for agriculture?, 23 Jun 2010.
ILRI News Blog: Animal agriculture can help sustain the new ‘food frontiers’ that should feed the world’s growing populations, 23 Feb 2010.

For more on this, visit this webpage of the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

And let us know what you think about this issue by commenting below. It’s a good time to give your inputs: ILRI is in the midst of developing its next long-term strategy. If you prefer, go straight to the ILRI Strategy Blog and make your comment there.

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