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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 47 - Thursday, 15 May 2008
The Value of Livestock-Based Livelihoods
By Arthur Getz Escudero, Heifer International
Seventy percent of the world’s poor are livestock keepers, and livestock is often the only asset families own in developing countries. Yet for decades, governments and world financial institutions have ignored it as a tool to end poverty.

Until the unfortunate emergence of avian influenza, livestock had all but lost its place in development circles. The agriculture sector itself has languished in neglect for years as international institutions and funders came to favor health and education over the soil and animals that are equally as vital to sustainable livelihoods.

By unlucky accident, climate change, the world food crisis, desertification, drought and worsening conditions for Africa may be changing all that. Agriculture, livestock and the sustainable practices that weave them together into a healthy social and physical landscape are now being seen as important tools in mitigating the effects of climate change, preventing desertification, surviving drought and providing a pathway out of poverty. But if governments, international financial institutions and the world community at large allow agriculture and livestock agriculture to fall again between the cracks, humanity will have missed an opportunity to help the most vulnerable groups become more self-reliant – and to save the lives of those depending on the natural resource base.

Animal agriculture, irresponsibly pursued, carries with it a multitude of risks for humanity and the environment. But agroecologically sound livestock-based systems – whether small-scale farming or pastoral systems – can play a world-changing role.
Smallholders with well-managed, livestock-based integrated farming operations can maintain sustainable livelihoods, helping them to become net sellers of food, instead of net buyers at the mercy of price shocks and diminished food supply.

In areas with depleted soils, manure can often be as valuable as the animals themselves. Animals play an indispensable role in nutrient cycling, and successful crop production often depends on the soil quality and fertility that manure can help build. Manure can increase soil organic matter; improve soil structure and fertility; reduce erosion; improve water infiltration and increase water retention in soils. Livestock can help improve family nutrition, and profits from the sale of animals or surplus products help pay for health care, school fees and improved housing. Smallholders with only a few animals can join with neighbors to add value to their products by improving quality and by developing new local markets.

Sustainable pastoral systems are vital to grassland and rangeland health and improved community cohesion as well. Managing interactions among soils, plants and animals can result in healthy, fertile soils. Sustainable grazing systems can promote nutrient cycling and enhanced efficiency of nutrient uptake for grazing and fodder crops. Improved plant health provides biomass and higher quality grazing that also improves livestock productivity. Livestock provide services for sustained functioning and productivity of grazing ecosystems and resilience to land degradation and drought.

Well-managed livestock systems can also help mitigate effects of climate change. Soils are the planet’s largest terrestrial carbon sinks, and soil improvements can have valuable returns. Pasture is humankind’s largest land use and conscientious grassland management can help vastly increase carbon stores. When livestock density and pasture capacity are properly matched through the timing of grazing and when appropriate practices are employed, pastoralists can maintain sustainable livelihoods while maintaining environmental equilibrium. With planned grazing, pastoralists can ensure a productive soil cover that improves infiltration, capture and store of rainfall; make effective use of hoof action, dung and urine; control plant exposure to grazing and burning; improve plant abundance, diversity and land cover; improved livestock quality and productivity, and build community.

Livestock can be employed to sustain livelihoods. Animals can help improve family nutrition, and profits from the sale of animals or surplus products help pay for health care, school fees and improved housing and accumulating savings that are more resilient in times of inflation.

CSD16 has brought together a new coalition of groups seeking new recognition of livestock as a gateway to self-reliance and dignity for the world’s most vulnerable people. Through CSD17, we will continue building a community of interest to convince policymakers of the great opportunity that stands before us.
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