Ill-considered food policies aggravate effects of global warming
The super floods in Pakistan may be the result of a global ecological shift, but the country is also suffering from misguided domestic food production policies, possibly based on bad advice from donor nations and international charities.
Has the world reached its limits on the production capacity of animal agriculture?
The floods inundating Pakistan illustrate both increasing impact of animal agriculture on the global environment and the extent to which promoting animal agriculture in inappropriate environments can lead to destruction.
Loss of water from the Indus
Though the greater portion of the flooding results from recent rainfall, the melting Himalayan ice and snow caps are a contributing factor-and as severe as the flooding is, the long term threat is drought.
Warned Steven Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, & Civilization, in an August 15, 2010 New York Times op-ed essay, “Flows of the Indus are expected to decrease as global warming causes the Himalayan glaciers to retreat, while monsoons will get more intense. Terrifyingly, Pakistan only has the capacity to hold a 30-day reserve storage of water as a buffer against drought.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observed in 2007 that the Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than [glaciers] in any other part of the world.”
“Worst disaster” U.N. chief ever saw
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon called the Pakistan flooding the worst disaster he had ever seen, yet it was a disaster he had anticipated. “The danger posed by war to all humanity-and to our planet-is at least matched by climate change,” Ban Ki-moon told the United Nations General Assembly on March 1, 2007.
The 2006 U.N. Food & Agricultural Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow estimated that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock production. The FAO estimate is conservative. World Watch Institute researchers Robert Goodland and Jeff Ahang in 2009 found that 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions might be attributed to livestock, fodder cultivation, and the use of livestock byproducts.
Suffering the brunt of the present ecological consequences of rapidly rising global meat consumption, Pakistan is also hurt by misguided domestic food production policies, based in part upon horrendously bad advice from donor nations and international charities.
No water for crops, let alone livestock
There are relatively few vegetarians in Pakistan, compared with India, where about a third of the population are lacto-vegetarian, but among the populations of major nations, only Indians eat less meat per capita than Pakistanis.
According to FAO data, Pakistanis currently consume about two and a half times more meat per capita per year than Indians, but only a fourth as much as Chinese, an eighth as much as Afghanis, and a tenth as much as Americans.
Thus nature dictates. Barely a fourth of Pakistan has water enough to grow crops. Sixty percent of Pakistan is too dry to sustain more than light grazing, again according to FAO data.
But soaring livestock herds
Yet Oxfam since 1973, Heifer International since 1994, and a variety of other international aid projects have sought to increase Pakistani consumption of animals and animal products. As the human population of Pakistan rose 17% in the 10 years from 1998 to 2008, the donkey population increased 19%, sheep production rose 14%, goat production rose 29%, buffalo production rose 40%, cattle production rose 51%, and poultry production rose 88%.
Pakistan is now among the world leaders in numbers of buffalo, cattle, and poultry raised for slaughter. But that has not helped much of the human population to get enough to eat. In January 2008 the United Nations World Food Program reported that food insecurity had come to afflict 37.5% of the urban population of Pakistan, and about 24% of the total population-far more than were at risk of hunger a generation earlier.
Yet not much more meat
Neither are Pakistanis really getting much more meat. Per capita meat consumption has increased by just 4% in 20 years. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council statistics show that when outside efforts began boosting the livestock husbandry, Pakistan produced about 53 million tons of fodder per year. Expanding irrigation and fertilization raised the output to a record high of 61.3 million tons in 1997-1998. Since then, fodder output has declined in all but three years, falling to about 55 million tons per year.
Some Pakistani environmentalists have blamed urban sprawl for taking prime farmland out of production. Indeed, about 10% less land is now used for fodder production than when output peaked. Government officials and international aid agencies blame the Taliban insurgency. Farmers in the hinterlands in turn blame a government prohibition on the manufacture and sale of nitrate fertilizers, to prevent the Taliban from making explosives.
Without mentioning the fodder and livestock issues, an April 2010 report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs hints that the rise of the Taliban itself may reflect increasing food insecurity in rural northwestern Pakistan. Taliban violence against women coincides with food competition within large extended families who share a single household. Women and girls by custom do most of the food cultivation and preparation, but eat last-and get even less food when families are displaced by fighting. The net effect, much as probably almost everyone involved might like to deny it, is that men repress women to ensure that males continue to eat first, and women in turn have an unspoken incentive to encourage men to leave home to fight.
Ecological effects long ago clear
Simply put, Pakistan cannot produce enough grain, legumes, and vegetables to feed 173 million people, up from 144 million a decade ago, soon to rise to 220 million, and feed ever more livestock too.
The ecological effects of expanding livestock production in Pakistan were long ago clear. Agricultural scientist Dost Muhammed reported to FAO in 2002 that “Heavy grazing over vast areas of rangeland has gradually put intolerable pressure on land, vegetation, and its inhabitants More palatable grasses, legumes, herbs, shrubs, and trees that once covered the rangeland have been destroyed, or thinned out.”
Thus Dost Muhammed described the destruction of vegetation that in a healthy environment holds and stores rainwater and prevents soil erosion. The 2010 monsoon flooding came after another eight years of intensified environmental degradation.
Scarce foreign aid
Vets Care Organization Pakistan founder Waseem Shaukat and Asfaq Fateh of the Ravi Foundation & Mary Jean Trust were already alerting the world to a shortage of feed for animals in the flooded districts by August 4, weeks before the flooding peaked.
They hoped that international animal welfare societies would rush funding and feed to Pakistan. But even if the animal welfare community had mobilized immediately, there was little food to be found for displaced livestock. Nearby nations had little fodder to spare.
Russia in 2009 accounted for 17% of total global grain exports. But even as Pakistan experienced the hottest average temperatures of any Asian nation on record, ever, Russia suffered the hottest average temperatures it has known in 130 years. Drought cut Russian grain production 27%. Facing a 2010 grain harvest barely big enough to meet Russian domestic needs, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on August 5 suspended grain exports.
Global wheat prices had already soared 90%. Even in the U.S., where farmers anticipated a healthy grain harvest, grain prices climbed.
Chance to downsize
The cost of buying enough grain to feed the starving livestock in Pakistan, and of getting it to Pakistan, was beyond the resources of the world animal welfare community.
But the present calamity offers a chance to downsize animal agriculture back to a sustainable level.