Why we need to continue livestock farming…

Your correspondent, Andrew Tyler (‘Evidence against animal farming,’ Letters to the Editor, Thursday, December 1), displays a woeful ignorance of the reality of small-scale subsistence farmers in developing countries in his diatribe against livestock.

Livestock underpin subsistence farming systems around the world. Their manure is commonly the only fertilizer available to small-scale farmers – it is a traded commodity in the Kenyan highlands, for example.

They are an integral part of mixed crop-livestock farming systems. Far from being an “inefficient user of agricultural land” they are often the only sustainable user of marginal, fragile land that cannot be cultivated, because of poor productivity, the risk of erosion or lack of labour.

They commonly consume by-products of crop production, or rely on grazing rough pasture that has no other economic use.

They are a store of wealth, a walking savings account.

In Syria, for example, sheep graze on barley crops early in the spring and feed on weeds that are pulled by hand from the fields (reducing the use of herbicides), and then move on to open steppe land as the crops begin to mature.

This gives value to the steppe, discouraging its exploitation as farmland, for which it is unsuited given low and erratic rainfall, poor structure and low nutrient content. After the barley is harvested, the sheep return to the fields, grazing on the straw. The sheeps’ urine and manure are returned to the cropland as they graze, reducing the need for chemical fertilizer, and they trample and break up the coarser straw, returning organic matter to the soil. This is a system that has been working for thousands of years.

Similarly, in Ethiopia, subsistence farmers grow teff, a cereal crop that looks to the untutored eye much like hay. The grain is a staple part of the people’s diet, in the form of injera, a pancake made of fermented teff dough. The straw is highly nutritious for livestock, adding value to the crop produced – in fact, straw and grain are seen as co-products.

Again, the livestock manure is returned to the soil, or dried and used as fuel on cooking fires.

There are numerous such examples in almost all parts of the developing world.

Yes, livestock are polluters and consumers of valuable food resources – in the intensive, grain-fed production systems of the west. But not in the developing world. Far from Mr Tyler’s assertion that there is mounting evidence that livestock are environmentally destructive polluters, there is clear and growing evidence that they have a vital role to play in the food security and well-being of millions of smallholder farmers in the developing world.

Please, don’t let Mr Tyler’s uninformed opinion of the importance of livestock in the developing world undermine efforts to improve the lot of subsistence farmers around the world.

Paul Neate

Development communications specialist