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Livestock: which way?
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You are here: Home Magazines Global edition Livestock: which way? The 'Livestock Revolution' and its impact on smallholders

The 'Livestock Revolution' and its impact on smallholders

Written by Leah Garces last modified Feb 08, 2011 11:01 AM

With the global demand for meat increasing, the system of meat production is changing and will continue to do so. Smallholders in the South traditionally raise animals in non-intensive multi-purpose systems. However, industrialised factory farming is on the increase in some regions, and this article raises concerns about the future negative impacts of this intensive system.

LEISA Magazine • 18.1 • April 2002

The ‘Livestock Revolution’ and its impact on smallholders

Leah Garcés

Two-thirds of the world’s livestock are found in ‘developing’ countries. Most farmers in these countries practise multiplepurpose, non-intensive methods of animal production. Animals are critical for their livelihoods, cultures and social status. Many of these animals graze areas not suitable for crops or scavenge freely, often consuming garbage and harmful insects. Small farms that combine livestock and crops use the land relatively sustainably: crop residues are fed to animals; manure provides good fertiliser and fuel; and animal draught power reduces the need for fossil fuels. Smallholder livestock production makes a substantial contribution to the economy.

In India, for example, livestock contributes about 30% of the total farm output, and 80% of livestock products come from small farmers with 3-5 animals and less than 2 ha of land (Rangnekar 2001). It is estimated that one-quarter of the world’s total land area is being used for grazing livestock, including extensive grazing systems. A further one-fifth of the world’s arable land is used for growing cereals to feed livestock. This makes livestock production the largest user of land in the world.

The ‘Livestock Revolution’

But livestock production systems in these countries are changing fast, due to the so-called ‘Livestock Revolution’. The global demand for meat is expected to more than double over the next twenty years, creating an increased demand for cereal feed. Southern countries are expected to become the main producers of meat and animal products for the rest of the world, with increasing dependency on imported grain. It is expected that there will be a shift from livestock being kept for multiple purposes and local food supply to animals being raised under factory farming conditions for export. Many small-scale farms will be out-competed and replaced by large-scale industrial farms (Delgado et al 1999).
The rise of factory farming in Southern countries, as seen here of laying hens kept in battery cages in Thailand, is proving detrimental to food security, the environment and animal welfare.
Photo: CIWF
This Livestock Revolution will provide new opportunities for agriculture in the South. But, who will benefit from it, what will be the cost to small farmers, food security, the environment, farm animal genetic diversity and farm animal welfare? Compassion in World Farming Trust (CWFT), a research-based farm animal welfare organisation that investigates the development of factory farming at an international level, recently studied the effects of the rise in factory farming on Southern countries, their farmers and farm animals (Gracés 2001; Cox and Varpama 2000). An overview of the results is given below.

Small farmers are loosing

The leading agencies working on hunger alleviation admit that rural small farmers are being pushed out of business by factory farming. Farmers in the UK, US and Europe have already experienced the painful consequences of the so-called ‘vertical integration’ of livestock production, in which specialised enterprises such as feedlot farms, animal feed traders, and meat packers, all merge under one giant company. This leaves very limited market opportunities for small, independent farmers, many of whom have been forced to leave the business altogether. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there were 5.7 million farms in the USA, in 1950. Today, the number has decreased to about 2 million farms.

This same pattern is quickly taking hold in Southern countries. Brazil’s poultry industry is a good example. Between 1970 and 1991, Brazil’s poultry industry grew from small backyard farmers to a multi-national mechanised industry, becoming almost entirely vertically integrated. Originally, small family farmers were given day-old chicks by major companies and were paid to raise them. Sadia is an example of a familyowned company, which employed 14,000 smallholder farmers to raise chickens on their mixed farms with a clear benefit to these farming families. The chickens were brought back to Sadia, who processed and distributed them to consumers.

Unfortunately, this system began to change four or five years ago, due to financial troubles of family owned companies, such as Sadia, which were taken over by financial interest groups and foreign companies. Now, Sadia is raising, providing feed for, and processing its own chickens in large production units. Certainly, most of the 14,000 mixed farmers, who once raised chickens for the Sadia industry, do not benefit from this new ‘development’ initiative.

Harm to import-dependent developing countries

There are many examples that support the view that the introduction of industrial livestock rearing not only harms the individual small-scale farmer but also the developing countries as a whole. As a consequence of industrial livestock rearing, these countries have become more import-dependent. Grains, tractors, fuel, fertilisers and special animal units and processors are required for intensive livestock rearing, none of which a developing country starts out by making itself.

Over the last decade, Asia has begun to import large amounts of grain to feed its industrially-produced farm animals. Likewise, machinery, oil and production units are being imported and subsidised by the government. The Asian economic crisis of 1999, that raised prices of imported feeds and depressed urban demand, proofed that being an import-laden economy can be disastrous and unsustainable.

Threat to food security

A World Poultry study (Gueye 2001) done in sub-Saharan Africa indicates the importance of family-level poultry rearing for food security, poverty alleviation, environmental health and genetic diversity. While the one or two breeds of broiler chicken used for chicken meat in factory farms are generally imported, 85% of rural families keep several species and breeds of poultry of indigenous types. The products of these local breeds are often preferred to those from exotic breeds by local consumers. Furthermore, the local breeds are better adapted to local diseases, pests and climate. Poultry are usually raised in extensive systems, while some families specialise in semiextensive and small-scale intensive poultry systems.

In extensive production (backyard) systems, birds are reared with little land, labour or capital, can be accessed by even the poorest social communities in rural areas, and are of great importance for women, especially in female-headed households. The study indicated that an average flock of 5 chickens enabled a woman in Central Tanzania to earn an additional US$38 per year or a 9.5% increase in income. Poultry raising has contributed to the ‘greater empowerment of women by improving their financial status, if socio-cultural and religious environments allow it'. As such, the loss of family farming to industrial farming could seriously affect women and children.

Effects on the environment

Factory farming was developed in Europe with the aim of ending food shortages after the 2ndWorld War. Science and technology were promoted, farmers were given subsidies to encourage production increases, and consumers were given cheaper food. But, these policies of production at all costs can no longer be supported. As far back as 1997, the chief of the FAO's Asian Pacific Regional Office declared that it was time to move away from the 'Green Revolution' livestock model, as the environmental problems of this approach were already obvious.

Industrial animal farming has proved to have detrimental effects on the environment both in the short and the long term (Haan et al. 1998). For example, the production of cereals for the livestock industry often takes place far away from where the animals are raised. This is leading to depletion of soil fertility where cereals are produced, and pollution at the other end of the trading spectrum where cereals are used for animal feed. Soya and maize are major products of the US supplied to industrial animal farms around the world. Such monoculture systems, though strongly promoted by governments, have unintended consequences for soil and water quality. Thirty percent of the total cropland in the United States is now eroding at excessive rates, according to the Soil and Water Conservation Society (

Globally, farm animals produce 13 billion tonnes of waste per annum (Turner 1999). Animals on industrial farms consume high-protein feeds and produce waste that is extremely environmentally damaging. Industrial animal farming contributes 5-10% of the total of greenhouse gases in the world, accelerating climate change. Moreover, large amounts of water and fossil energy are required to grow, process and transport industrial farm animal feed and treat the animal waste (Pimentel et al.1997).

Measures to benefit the poor to better compete with the livestock industry (LID 1999)
• Access to credit (to allow for the purchase of animals);
• Access to appropriate (community based) animal health services and simple preventive measures such as vaccinations and improved hygiene;
• Secure grazing rights and access to water;
• Access to markets;
• Trade policies and frameworks that allow smallholders and pastoralists to compete with industrial animal production. For example: support to cooperatives, levying taxes from animal producers based on their ecological and social impacts;
• Improve feeding to increase the performance of local breeds (Haan et al 1998);
• Support livestock production based on local resources (feeds, breeds, indigenous knowledge and institutions) and integrated farming systems;
• Stop subsidising intensive animal production in the North and the South;
• Stop export of subsidised products of the livestock industry to developing countries.

German NGO Forum Environment and Development, Am Michaelshof 8-10, D-53177 Bonn. Fax: +49 (0)228-359096; E-mail: ;

Loss of genetic diversity

The FAO (2001) reports that the greatest threat to the world’s domestic animal diversity is the export of specialised breeds of farm animals from developed to developing countries. Crossbreeding with and eventual replacement of local breeds has resulted in a situation that around 1,350 domestic animal breeds (30% of all domestic breeds) are at risk of extinction. Every week, two breeds of farm animals disappear.

One of the greatest misjudgements of the ‘Livestock Revolution’ is to deny the importance of genetic diversity for food security. For example, in 1996, some 942,000 inseminations have been carried out in the Netherlands alone, with semen from a single Holstein Friesian bull, named Sunny Boy. In that period the Dutch dairy sector averaged 1.7 million milking cows! (Compas Magazine, Oct.1999, p.26.) Semen of this bull was also used in many other countries.

Nearly 12,000 years of domestication and breeding under different environments have resulted in some 4000 breeds of farm animals. The genetic diversity of these breeds has made it possible for humans to thrive in all corners of the globe, facing a range of environmental challenges including varied climates, diseases, parasites and pests. Unlike imported industrial breeds, local farm animals in given environments have developed resistance or adaptations to these challenges.

For example, in Rajasthan, India, non-industrial breeds of farm animals have benefited human food security even in a harsh desert climate, where temperatures can rise to 50ºC. This region counts 7 local breeds of cattle, 8 breeds of sheep, 4 breeds of goats, as well as camel and horse breeds. Through these local breeds Rajasthan significantly contributes to the national milk and wool output. Marginal lands can contribute to food security only by working with farm animals adapted to the local climatic conditions (Rathore et al. 2001).

Government interventions in Rajasthan have focused on ‘improving’ local breeds by crossbreeding them with exotic breeds from other climates. Not surprisingly, the crossbreeding of local sheep with exotic sheep has failed to achieve any improved yield, mainly due to high mortality and problems with feed supply. In the case of cattle, the government has realised the detrimental effects of crossbreeding, and in 1998 revised its policy to protect and improve local breeds.

Negative impact on farm animal welfare

Another negative impact of industrial farming is its impact on farm animal welfare. As recognised by the Treaty of Amsterdam, farm animals are living creatures capable of feeling pain and suffering. Industrial animal farming often closely confines the animals indoors, without light and with little or no exercise. This inhibits the natural behaviour of animals, and is known to create aggression, stress and injuries in animals. Industrial animal farming also carries out standard practices of mutilation: the hen is debeaked, so that she can no longer peck her cage mate, and the pig is tail-docked, so that his bored pen mates can no longer bite its tail.
Local breeds of farm animals, such as these cattle in the Gambia, are better adapted to their environment than breeds imported for factory farming.
Photo: CIWF
The surroundings of industrial animal farms can be dirty and poorly ventilated, leading to poor animal health. Moreover, selected breeding for large muscles and fast growth, especially in pigs and chickens raised for meat, leads to leg problems, cardiovascular inadequacy, increased risk of mortality and poor welfare.

Learning from the mistakes of the North

In superficial economic calculations, industrial animal farming is considered the cheapest and most productive form of animal production. But, these calculations do not include the ‘total costs’ of this production system. Industrial animal production looks viable only when selected aspects of the production – consumption system is viewed. In reality, the hidden costs of industrial animal production for future generations are enormous. It is therefore very important that policy decision makers examine questions such as: Is it acceptable to cause job losses by putting small-scale farmers in poverty stricken populations out of business? Is it acceptable to cause ecological degradation, environmental pollution, climate change and increased ozone layer depletion? Is it acceptable to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to farm animals?

The UK, for example, has been struck by diseases such as foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease (BSE) that has brought the industrial animal farming system under serious questioning by the public. Food poisoning connected with eating animal products is also higher than it has ever been in the UK, leaving consumers to doubt the safety of industrial animal products. More and more consumers are turning away from the products of industrial animal farming towards the products of more sustainable systems such as organic and free-range. The governments in Europe are now beginning to recognise this situation and the value of more quality-driven livestock production. The Netherlands government, for example, has recently begun to subsidise organic pig production by 30%. An editorial comment in World Animal Review in 1998 raised an all-important question: “Should this type of livestock production continue to be encouraged globally, or should alternatives be sought?"

Policy makers must now support more sustainable and humane forms of animal farming and realise that industrial animal farming holds no future for Southern and Northern countries alike.

Leah Garcés, Compassion in World Farming Trust, Charles House, 5A Charles Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3EH, UK. Phone: +44 (0)1730 268863; Fax: +44 (0)1730 260791. E-mail: ; Web site:

- Cox J and Varpama S, 2000. The ‘Livestock Revolution’ development or destruction? A report into factory farming in ‘developing countries’. Compassion in World Farming.
- Delgado C, Rosegrant M, Steinfeld H, Ehui S, and Courbois C, 1999. Livestock to 2020. The next food revolution. Food, Agriculture and the Environment Discussion Paper 28. IFPRI, FAO and ILCA.
- FAO In: Reuters,19 Sept. 2001. Biodiversity shrinks as farm breeds die out.
- Gueye EF, 2001. Marketing of family poultry products in Africa to be improved. World Poultry. Volume 17, No. 5.
- Haan C de, Steinfeld H and Blackburn H, 1998. Livestock & the environment: Finding a balance. FAO, World Bank, USAID.
- LID 1999. Livestock in poverty focused development. Livestock in development, Crewkerne, UK.
- Pimentel D et al, 1997. Water resources: agriculture, the environment, and society. An assessment of the status of water resources. BioScience Vol. 47 No. 2 - Rangnekar DV, 2001. Livestock production in rural systems and expected impacts of free trade. In: Vision 2020: Food security from the grassroots perspective. Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung, Bonn, Germany.
- Rathore, Singh H and Kohler-Rollefson I, 2001. Indigenous institutions for managing livestock genetic diversity in Rajasthan (India). In: Experiences in farmer’s biodiversity management. Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung, Bonn, Germany.
- Turner J, 1999. Factory Farming & The Environment. A Report by Compassion in World Farming Trust.

For a complete version of the report and the references therein, please contact Compassion in World Farming Trust.

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