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Let's give smallholder livestock farmers of the developing world a chance

by Antonio Rota | IFAD
Wednesday, 17 October 2018 08:26 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Debate about environmental cost of livestock is legitimate but let's not lose sight of needs in the developing world

Antonio Rota is a senior expert in livestock at the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

In developed countries, many people are cutting their meat consumption driven by health or animal welfare concerns or a wish to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But elsewhere in the world it is a different story. A combination of population growth, urbanization and rising incomes is driving up demand for meat, dairy products and eggs.  An  emerging middle class in developing countries can now afford to consume livestock products on a regular basis for the first time.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had – based on evidence – about the environmental cost of livestock in parts of the world. But we should not lose sight of the basic needs of others with whom we share the planet and that smallholder production can be sustainable.

In the developing world, many children, women and men don't consume enough protein. Many more depend upon livestock for their livelihoods, such as many pastoral people and communities. And for them raising and tending animals, and processing or selling dairy products, can be a route out of hunger and poverty.

Today, 155 million children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 52 million from acute malnutrition. Millions of children and women in developing countries need to eat more animal proteins, especially young children whose cognitive and physical development requires crucial micronutrients such as zinc and iron.

The economics are also compelling. An estimated one billion smallholder farmers in developing countries depend on livestock for food and income. Their production frequently generates up to 40 percent of agricultural GDP. Livestock provide food for families, generate an additional income and act as a buffer where a crisis arises. Livestock also supply manure for crops, and draught power for tilling, and transport for products and families.

Demand for livestock products is expected to more than double during the next 20 years. This offers an immense opportunity for a profitable and sustainable increase in livestock production – in particular in Africa – by smallholders who already produce the lion's share of the continent's milk, meat and eggs. Further development of the livestock sector could spur employment and economic growth in rural areas where millions of young people are currently unemployed.

Today, large scale commercial farming only produces a minor share of the food consumed in most African towns and cities. But this is changing fast. We need to make sure that the concentration of livestock production in large-scale units does not displace most smallholders, as happened in industrial countries over the past 50 years.

To meet surging market demand while protecting the environment, smallholders' production will need to become more productive, efficient and sustainable. They will also need to meet quality, safety and supply reliability requirements.

Smallholders and pastoralist have a solid traditional expertise in looking after their animals, and understand the  benefits of raising crops alongside their animals. But  we have complementary and affordable tools and technology that can help them raise their productivity (e.g. vaccinations against major diseases) and encourage sustainable forms of meat and dairy production (e.g. silvo-pastoral production  systems). But we can also simply help them in building shelters for their goats or chicken, grow more fodder on their farms and preserve it for difficult time, and introduce better selection process to identify more productive animals even within local breeds populations.

But besides helping livestock farmers achieve higher productivity and more sustainable practices, we also need to help smallholders develop and access more modern value chains and markets. This requires better transport, a flow of market information, reliable power supplies and advisory services to educate farmers. We also need to facilitate the development of strong and viable farmers’ organisations to provide the leverage needed for them to become significant players in value chains.

The livestock industry in developed countries has tarnished its own image and discouraged many consumers. But we must recognize that in low and middle-income countries, smallholder producers can offer valuable and importantly sustainable solutions to the challenge of nourishing growing populations and lifting families out of poverty. That is why we urgently need to invest in smallholder livestock farmers in developing countries.