How rebuilding drought-stricken herds perpetuates starvation & poverty
PARIS, NAIROBI––The 2014 film documentary Cowspiracy was rarely mentioned among the many conspiracy theories pertaining to global warming and climate change that were bandied about in connection with the recent COP 21 Paris Climate Conference.
Most of the COPs, “COP” in this context being short for United Nations Conference of Parties, seemed to avoid any mention of livestock whatever.
“Let them eat beef”
But even as the COP 21 conference participants ate cake and sipped tea, the presence of 47,000 starving and thirsty cattle in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya testified that showings of Cowspiracy should have been part of the COP 21 main plenary sessions.
(See also Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.)
The suffering cattle in Tsavo, and 1.4 billion more cattle in both the developed and developing worlds, plus nearly 20 billion poultry and a billion each of sheep and pigs, stand or fall dead at the tipping point between food security and disaster for much of Africa, Asia, and everywhere else vulnerable to either hellacious drought or high water from rising seas.
Cows are “the elephant in the room”
Not even transportation contributes as much to greenhouse gas emissions as animal agriculture. Nor is any other aspect of human civilization as vulnerable to the effects of global warming and climate change as animal agriculture. Bluntly put, the livestock industry as we know it today is no longer sustainable, and would not be sustainable for much longer even if significantly downsized.
Yet, because no other industry is older, larger, and more culturally intertwined with almost every aspect of human life, direct discussion of animal agriculture was mostly avoided at COP 21, including by most of the multitude of observers from nonprofit organizations concerned with fighting poverty, hunger, promoting international development, and promoting human rights.
Taking the bull by the horns
Among the few COP 21 observers who did take the bull by the horns was World Animal Net senior policy and legal resource advisor Akisha Townsend Eaton.
“We at World Animal Net believe there is actually a simple solution to perhaps the greatest challenge facing civilization as we know it,” Eaton blogged afterward. “We must ensure that policy makers take action now to support and encourage food consumption and production systems that minimize climate change impacts, deliver food security and good nutrition, and preserve the well‐being of the planet, future generations and the animals.”
Milk & honey
At that, Eaton soft-pedaled the message that the developed world has to stop eating “high on the hog,” and indeed retreat from eating hogs and other livestock at all, if the rest of the world is to keep beans on the table.
Even more important, the developed world has to quit promoting to the developing world the notion that successful economic development is a “whole hog or no pork chop” proposition, for which the most important measure of prosperity is whether there is “a chicken in every pot.”
A more realistic measure was the Biblical notion of achieving “a land of milk and honey,” where animal products might be used, but sparingly.
“During the negotiations,” wrote Eaton, “there were some hints that the elephant in the room, namely animal agribusiness, would be addressed as a key contributor to climate change. Organized by Humane Society International and Brighter Green,” a side event entitled, “’Meat: the big omission from the talks on emissions. Public understanding and policy options,’ brought together leading experts and government officials to discuss the environmental impacts of meat and dairy consumption, as well as potential policy and behavior-change solutions.
“Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also traveled to Paris,” Eaton continued, “urging leaders at COP 21 to act,” making “strong statements in favor of plant-based eating to curb climate change.”
Setting the woods on fire
“Fortunately, animal protection organizations need not wait for policymakers to act,” Eaton concluded. “As we turn to post-Paris implementation and awareness, it will be up to the movement to carry the torch,” an unfortunate metaphor for what animal protection organizations need to be doing in an ever drier world.
Climatologists expect 2016 to be the third year in a row of record average global temperature. A human transition away from a meat-centered diet and from national economies based on animal agriculture has already become inevitable, for ecological reasons. The only question is whether the transition will come before or after a catastrophic collapse of carrying capacity for livestock, including for producing fodder and extracting water.
Unfortunately, while a handful of vegan and vegetarian organizations are encouraging a shift away from animal agriculture, many of the organizations constituting the rest of the universe of animal advocacy are not only carrying the torch in the wrong direction, but shedding sparks along the way.
Subsidizing animal agriculture
Proclaims World Animal Protection, for instance, formerly called the World Society for the Protection of Animals, “The treatment of farm animals is the world’s biggest animal welfare issue – and it’s getting bigger. By 2050, livestock production will be twice what it was in 2000.”
Accordingly, World Animal Protection promotes “farm animal welfare” and “humane slaughter,” but not eating less meat, or none.
World Animal Protection in 2013, while still called WSPA, spent $12.8 million to promote “humane and sustainable agriculture,” including projects and campaigns that critics identified as neither humane nor sustainable, plus $8.3 million on “disaster management,” chiefly to feed livestock after disasters that were worsened by environmentally inappropriate animal husbandry. Altogether, about half of the WSPA budget for hands-on program work in effect subsidized animal agriculture––as it had in 2012.
Pastoralists invade Tsavo
Meanwhile in Kenya, “At least 400,000 head of cattle have invaded the Tsavo West National Park, depriving wildlife of pasture and water,” reported Mathias Ringa of The Daily Nation.
In truth the number of cattle was closer to 47,000, Africa Animal Welfare Network founder Josphat Ngonyo told ANIMALS 24-7, after a week of making inquiries. But that was steeply increased from 3,500 cattle reported illegally grazing in July 2015 and 15,000 cattle who were actually impounded in August 2015, while 28 children and 23 adults were arrested for allegedly driving the cattle into the park.
Tsavo East National Park is comparably overrun. Tsavo East and Tsavo West, combined, reportedly hosted 20,000 illegally grazing cattle between them as far back as November 2014. The entire situation reprised comparable invasions that occurred in other recent drought years, perhaps most notably in 2009.
Eating elephants out of house & home
“Hundreds of herders damaged an electric fence before driving the massive number of cattle into the expansive park from northeastern Kenya, Kajiado and Tanzania, “ said Kenya Wildlife Service assistant director Robert Obrein.
Added Obrein, “Campaigns to drive out the massive number of livestock are in top gear. However, our efforts are being hampered by herders who drive more animals into the park. Everywhere you go in the park, you spot cows. The watering points for wildlife have dried up after the cattle consumed everything.”
Sixty to seventy thousand cattle may not sound like many in habitats of 8,500 square miles, between the two Tsavo National Parks, and the total is only about .03% of the 19.5 million cattle in Kenya, but the cumulative impact of the cattle might be greater than that of the estimated 11,000 elephants in the Tsavo region.
Pastoralists meanwhile were blamed for poaching at least seven elephants in mid-2015, about 10% as many as professional ivory hunters were known to have killed, yet a worrisome indicator that the herders and hunters might have begun collaborating.
South African drought worst since 1982
In South Africa, reported Pierre Donadieu in November 2015 for Agence France-Presse, “A devastating drought is claiming thousands of livestock in Africa’s most developed economy and prompting many to fear famine. The drought, blamed on the global cyclical extreme weather system El Nino, is the country’s worst since 1982.”
The Molatedi dam, near the South African border with Botswana, “is now only 5% full,” Donadieu wrote. “On the cracked earth, hundreds of cattle wander in search of the last drinking hole or that rare blade of grass. According to meat producers, tens of thousands of cattle have died or are being culled due to the drought. Farmers are now auctioning their stocks before they die on their own and nearly a third more animals are being butchered compared to the same time last year, ‘mainly because of the drought,’” Red Meat Producers Organisation chair Lardus van Zyl told Donadieu.
Blow to the breadbasket
While cattle ranchers were downsizing their herds from necessity, fodder and grain farmers were unable to plant due to lack of rain. The projected South African corn harvest was down about 40% from the recent annual average. “The impact of the drought is massive for South Africa, the region’s breadbasket,” Donadieu summarized, “but could be dire for the rest of the countries in southern African region that traditionally import from it. Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana warns of a ‘regional disaster’ if the drought persists. Five of South Africa’s nine provinces have already been declared disaster areas.”
The present crisis in sub-Saharan Africa may be only the beginning of what may be coming.
Drought sparked war in Syria
Reported John Wendle in the December 17, 2015 edition of Scientific American, “Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—is drying out. Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers. In the process, it touched off the social turmoil that burst into civil war, according to a study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
“Back in the 1970s,” Wendle recounted, “the military regime led by President Hafez al-Assad launched an ill-conceived drive for agricultural self-sufficiency,” meaning in part that Syria tried to produce enough fodder to avoid importing livestock while increasing per capita meat consumption. Cattle production increased 66% from 1993 to 2007, while sheep and goat production more than doubled. But the animals and fodder growers needed water that desertified Syria did not have.
Driving off a cliff
“Farmers made up water shortages by drilling wells to tap the country’s underground water reserves,” Wendle continued. “When water tables retreated, people dug deeper. In 2005 the regime of Assad’s son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad, made it illegal to dig new wells without a license issued personally, for a fee, by an official—but it was mostly ignored, out of necessity.”
Conflicts over water use and access exploded into insurrections against the Assad regime.
Warned Colin Kelley, lead author of the study that Wendle referenced, “What’s happening globally—and particularly in the Middle East—is that groundwater is going down at an alarming rate. It’s almost as if we’re driving as fast as we can toward a cliff.”
The current catastrophes had recent precedents.
Wrote Katharine Houreld of Associated Press on September 1, 2011. “In central and western Kenya, farmers have had a bumper crop of corn and potatoes. Yet in the north, skeletal children wait for food aid amid a growing emergency,” which put 3.75 million Kenyans at risk of starvation, along with eight million people in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.
The most afflicted nations––Kenya and Ethiopia––remained net food exporters, with thriving crop sectors despite the ecological and economic collapse of the Horn of Africa region.
Cattle as inflated currency
“Small farmers in western Kenya––which has had steady rains and a good harvest––say they don’t move their crops to the drought-ravaged north because it costs too much to store and transport them and they are not assured of a market,” explained Houreld. “Many wouldn’t be able to afford to buy the produce in the north because drought killed their cattle. The pastoralist communities there use their herds like bank accounts, selling off animals when they need cash. Oxfam says in some areas between 60-90 percent of livestock have already perished.”
Overwhelming as was the human suffering in 2011 in the Horn of Africa, livestock suffered and died there in far greater numbers than people. Much of this misery was manufactured by aid agencies which should have known better––and then re-manufactured as the same aid agencies helped many of the stricken pastoralists to rebuild their herds.
The 2015 and 2011 disasters followed many similar episodes, occurring with increasing frequency.
Shorter drought cycle
Summarized The Economist in 2009, “The drought cycle in east Africa has been contracting sharply. Rains used to fail every nine or ten years. Then the cycle seemed to go down to five years. Now, it seems, the region faces drought every two or three years. The time for recovery––for rebuilding stocks of food and cattle––is ever shorter.”
The Economist mentioned “food and cattle” as separate commodities because in truth they are. Despite the prominence of livestock in the culture and economy of the Horn of Africa, the residents eat less meat than the people of almost any other nations except India and Sri Lanka, whose Hindu and Buddhist majorities include tens of millions of people who are vegetarian by choice.
Americans eat 16 times more meat
Ethiopia ranks tenth in the world in heads of cattle, according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization, with nearly three times as many cows as Kenya, yet Kenya produces 20% more beef. But Kenyans also eat very little meat compared to Americans. While Kenyans eat about twice as much flesh food as Ethiopians, all species combined, Americans on average eat nearly 16 times as much as Ethiopians and eight times as much as Kenyans.
About 45% of Ethiopians and 30% of Kenyans, most of them in the Horn of Africa region, were malnourished in recent non-drought years. The 2011 and 2014 droughts have only intensified the ongoing disaster.
People in the Horn of Africa raise cattle and other livestock they cannot feed and water, and mostly cannot afford to slaughter until the animals are already dying, chiefly because livestock are their currency. They are as culturally wedded to livestock––including as the price of arranging a marriage––as western cultures were wedded to the gold standard until former U.S. President Richard Nixon decoupled the value of the U.S. dollar from the price of gold.
The Horn of Africa may be where cattle were first domesticated. The Horn of Africa had not yet become desert when the pastoralist way of life evolved, nearly 10,000 years ago. Back then, at the dawn of civilization, when humans were few, possession of cattle and other livestock actually measured wealth. Big herds illustrated the amount of meat and milk accessible to the people who kept them, and of the grasslands the herders could protect against predators and human marauders.
Prophecy becoming history
That was before millennia of overgrazing and deforestation induced the present aridity, before the herds kept by the now impoverished pastoralists came to mean little more than numbers in a bank book measuring currency inflated to meaninglessness, and before the ongoing reliance on animal agriculture plunged the region into intractable ecological and economic debt.
“Currently, 1.6 billion people live in areas of water scarcity. This could easily grow to two billion soon if we stay on the present course,” warned the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Water Management Institute in a 2009 joint report entitled An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security.
Then just a projection, the report is now rapidly becoming historical prophecy.
“Almost all of the Middle East, more than a third of Africa, and half of India are considered dryland,” UNEP and the IWMI explained. “This means that in these regions, on average, the amount of water evaporated from the Earth’s surface and transpired by plants exceeds rainfall. Drylands support one third of the global [human] population, up to 44% of all the world’s cultivated systems, and about 50% of the world’s livestock. Hunger, malnutrition and poverty are high in these areas.”
UNEP and the IWMI noted that historically “grazing animals capture the benefits of sparsely distributed rainfall by grazing on rainfed pastures” over large areas, but this was before the runaway growth of human population that began in the early 20th century.
“In recent decades,” the UNEP/IWMI joint report continued, “the expansion of cultivation along with the establishment of international boundaries and barriers across traditional migratory routes have diminished herd mobility and forced herders to adopt more sedentary livelihood strategies. The result has been an increase in severe land and water degradation and aggravated poverty, poor health and food insecurity. Unintentional trade-offs associated with livestock production include impacts on water scarcity, nutrient cycling, climate change and land degradation.”
UNEP and the IWMI were optimistic in 2009 that “Opportunities exist for the sustainable management of livestock systems that maintain ecosystem services,” but only if “herders are able to get the same benefit from a smaller number of animals.”
Hoped UNEP and the IWMI, “Management strategies to improve animal health and survival can reduce herd sizes.”
Scrambling to repeat inadequate response
Asked the Heifer International web site in 2011, after quoting the 2009 Economist article cited above, “The catastrophe is here. Will we hand out aid again and not dig deeper to long-term solutions? Will the images and stories fade until two years from now, when it all happens again, we’ll scramble to repeat the inadequate response?”
These were the necessary questions, but Heifer International went on to promote more of the same mistakes that put the Horn of Africa into crisis in the first place, and does not appear to have updated the web page in question.
“Heifer’s camel projects in Kenya and Tanzania have already helped farmers and pastoralists recover from loss of cattle,” Heifer International boasted. “We’re studying ways to expand our model in Kenya to Ethiopia and Somalia.”
Introducing livestock better suited to desert, such as camels, may slow the rate at which animal agriculture fails. If fewer animals are kept, the habitat has a better chance to recover from overgrazing––but only if rain falls.
The Heifer International model calls for “zero grazing,” which fights soil erosion by introducing intensive confinement husbandry, the same approach called “factory farming” when practiced on a large scale. This requires that animals who formerly grazed must instead be fed crops.
Raising crops requires water––and the same crops could feed many times more people if made into food for human consumption, instead of being processed through the bodies of animals.
Agricultural economists Muyeye Chambwera and Simon Anderson warned––abstractly––that the Heifer International approach is unsustainable in an August 2011 briefing commissioned by the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development.
“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” wrote Chambwera and Anderson, “land area suitable for agriculture, length of crop growing seasons, and yield potential––particularly along the margins of semi-arid and arid areas––are all expected to decrease. National agricultural yields are likely to fall over the next 70 years. Africa’s population is expected to rise,” meanwhile, “from one billion today to 2.1 billion by 2050.”
That combination of effects will not leave much crop production available to confined livestock, regardless of species, or leave much land for wildlife habitat.
Where are the animal charities?
International animal charities logically should be leading recognition that the epoch of animal husbandry in the Horn of Africa––and the rest of a hotter, drier world––is staggered toward a thirsty close. Yet so far there is scant sign that most of the biggest animal charities, with Humane Society International an exception, have paid much attention to the causes of the rapidly deepening disaster.
“Poor pastoralist communities depend on animals for their livelihoods–for milk, for trade, for transport. Without animals their future is bleak,” contends the British-based Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad, overlooking that keeping animals at huge ecological cost has already cost tens of thousands of humans and millions of animals of any future at all.
The also British-based Brooke Hospital for Animals and The Donkey Sanctuary focus on providing aid to donkeys, by far the most abundant working animals in the parts of the world most affected by global warming and climate change.
Unfortunately the Brooke Hospital and Donkey Sanctuary programs are unlikely to lastingly reduce donkey suffering.
Recounted Brooke director of international development Dorcas Pratt, describing conditions in Mandera, Kenya, on August 19, 2011, “Water vendors are driving donkey carts through dusty streets, carrying water from the river. Less than 1% of the population of approximately 40,000 has piped water. A water truck serves institutions with sufficiently large water tanks and those able to afford its services. The rest of the population rely on donkey carts bringing water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing clothes.”
In El Wak, about 100 miles south of Mandera, Pratt added, “The Brooke and Practical Action have been contributing to purchase fuel for five boreholes in the drought stricken region, where owners and their donkeys drink and fetch water for the wider population.”
The Brooke appears to have posted no follow-up.
Certainly donkeys and humans of Mandera and El Wak needed water. But expanding access to piped water and cisterns capable of holding a multi-day piped or trucked water supply would have reduced the need for working donkeys, would have provided jobs for displaced donkey drivers, and would have set a noteworthy precedent.
Ironically, one of the major projects of early humane societies in the U.S. and Europe was establishing pipe-fed water troughs in marketplaces.
Meant only to give thirsty working equines a drink where bringing water for them in buckets was difficult and often neglected by teamsters, these pipe-fed water troughs helped to introduce the notion of ever-available tap water, boosting the plumbing industry and hastening the end of the era of water-and-ice wagons. Several major humane societies still hold significant dedicated funds bequeathed to them to help install watering troughs.
Promoting animal power
Unfortunately, instead of encouraging the replacement of working donkeys with non-animal powered technology, the Donkey Sanctuary as of 2011 was “gathering evidence to convince the humanitarian aid agencies that working animals, including donkeys, are necessary to the survival of agricultural communities.”
Noted Donkey Sanctuary director of international operations Stephen Blakeway, “Donkeys are often used to plough [after severe droughts], once the rains return, in place of oxen who have starved to death.”
Tractors do not starve to death, can be repaired after down time, can be used in “no-till” cultivation which conserves water and prevents soil erosion, and just one well-maintained tractor could replace dozens of donkeys, at no more cost in fuel than the cost of running the pumps to water the donkeys from boreholes.
Why promote more donkey use?
So why is the Donkey Sanctuary perpetuating hard donkey use, where oxen starve? Why is the Donkey Sanctuary working to keep people engaged in ecologically damaging and only marginally productive forms of agriculture, including children who miss getting an education while driving donkeys and herding cattle and sheep?
Whether in the Horn of Africa, Britain, the U.S., or anywhere else, animal husbandry has become ecologically and ethically unviable. Arid regions may be able to support the people who presently live there, but not by feeding and watering livestock.
The U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia which have long sustained animal husbandry with the help of melting glaciers and undergound aquifers are also running critically short of water, and will likewise soon have no choice but to eventually reduce animal production and consumption
The question before us is whether animal advocates will step forward to demonstrate viable alternatives to animal husbandry, especially where they are needed most urgently, or will go on pretending that watering donkeys and keeping chickens in bigger cages represents adequate leadership.