EDITORIAL:Friends of Field and Farm are Here to Stay

Bovine, ovine, porcine, equine, and fowl - not to mention camels and fish - mean milk, meat, manure, money or draft power for farmers in the tropics. Yet livestock in the tropics are a mixed blessing for farmers, embodying risk as well as wealth. In remarkable fashion, livestock convert sunlight to organic matter by eating grasses, leaves and grain. The risk is that farm animals can die suddenly or be stolen overnight. Without proper management, they can trample neighbors' crops, denude land and compact soil. Nevertheless, livestock are coveted commodities to farmers in the tropics, sort of bank accounts with hooves. Farm families need livestock; without animals, farms are simply incomplete. And still most experts agree that the global demand for livestock will increase as the world population grows.

Since 1970, the global livestock population has risen by about 1% annually. The pig population rose by 57% during that period, and chickens doubled in number, bringing their count up to 10.4 billion. But do we really want this kind of animal population growth? After all, overgrazing is the single greatest cause of soil degradation on Earth. Meanwhile, grain fed to livestock as a percentage of total grain consumption remained the same at 38% worldwide from 1970 to 1990. In Africa, where malnutrition is most acute, that figure rose from 4% to 18%, and in Asia, from 7% to 16%. The North America statistics show a decreased use of grain for livestock feed compared to total grain consumption. Much of this grain could be used to feed chronically hungry people.

In 30 years, 84% of the world's people will reside in what are now called "developing countries." But world population is not expected to stabilize for another century. By then the planet will have 11 billion residents. Today we number nearly half that total. As it is, one in six children under 5 years old is malnourished. Low birth weight attributable to nutritional anemia in mothers is the major problem. Milk cows, meat goats, chicken and fish can help remedy this unacceptable situation. Lack of vitamin A, abundant in green leafy vegetables, is the second major cause of child malnutrition. Composted animal manure applied to local gardens for soil nourishment will help people grow more greens to eat and be healthier.

It is clear that livestock are here to stay and inhabit the Earth with us. We should be happy about that and try to optimize their role in the agricultural system, yet many of us worry. We worry because domesticated animals, despite their value to small farmers, are ruining our forests and grasslands. Livestock and rangeland husbandry, in the true sense, is few and far between. How much longer can we wait to enact and enforce policies to ensure soil vegetal cover, adequate protein and sufficient income for all? Thirty years from now is too long a wait. Let's begin now by reading this issue of Ag-Sieve and then moving the talk about our feathered, furry and scaly friends off these pages and into our common sense and practice.