Livestock boom

Poor farmers can benefit from it, only if there are appropriate regulations in place

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Livestock boom

-- In the global livestock sub-sector, a revolution is taking place that has profound implications for poor producers, people's health and the environment. In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the demand for food derived from animal origin -- such as milk and meat. The phenomenon has been particularly conspicuous in developing countries such as India and China. India's annual per capita milk consumption, for example, has increased from 62 kg in 1997 to 104 kg in 2000; the per capita meat consumption in the same period has increased from 4 kg to 7 kg. This offers a unique opportunity to increase incomes of poor farmers since it's they who are most often associated with livestock. At the same time, absence of appropriate policies in favour of the marginalised livestock keepers and the environment could further marginalise the poor and damage the ecosystem.

Land degradation Land degradation is the main livestock-associated environmental issue in India. The landless and pastoral livestock keepers depend on common land for grazing their animals. But these resources are constantly shrinking. Consequently, the concentration of animals per unit area has gone beyond the land capacity -- which varies according to the intensity and distribution of rainfall, topography, soil, type of vegetation. This works to the detriment of both farmers and the environment. For instance, overgrazing is an almost inevitable consequence. And, this can cause soil compaction and erosion, decrease soil fertility, deplete organic matter content, and reduce the soil's water storage capacity.

The fast growing industrial production system is another livestock-associated problem. Large industrial cattle farms are on the rise in many parts of the country, especially in urban and peri-urban areas. Managing cattle manure is difficult and the possibilities of the waste getting into our water bodies cannot be ruled out. This is a small problem at present, but can become acute if appropriate measures are not taken immediately.

Greenhouse gases Another concern related to livestock in India is the emission of greenhouse gases by ruminants. Domestic livestock produce co2 and methane, directly as well as indirectly. They also produce small quantities of nitrous oxide. Methane gas is 24 times and nitrous oxide is around 320 times more aggressive than co2 in contributing to climate change. Livestock is estimated to contribute about 15 per cent of all methane gas emitted in the country. Indian farmers do store manure in dried form, and this ensures that less amount of gases are released. Even then, it is important to take the issue seriously.

How to address the problem? Development of institutional mechanisms for biomass generation and utilisation of common lands is one way to address land degradation by overgrazing. This requires a conceptual shift. Mobilisation of resource poor farmers into user groups, providing them required user rights on common lands and allowing them to evolve their own norms for sustainable use and maintenance could be the first step in this direction. This should be followed by framing regulations.

Fiscal measures The government would also do well do consider fiscal measures such as taxation for environmental damage, removal of subsidies on inorganic fertilisers and on fossil fuel-based tractors and machineries. The money thus generated can be used to pay producers for their ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and maintaining clean water and fertile soil. It can also be used to offer incentives for mixed farming and pastoral production systems, and for investing in technologies to reduce ruminant methane production.

The environmental problems related to livestock production can be surmounted. What is required is an alternate perspective for a low external input product production system.

V Padmakumar is with the Capitalisation of Livestock Programme Experiences India, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, New Delhi

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