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Natural resources: Abundant or scarce? (That would depend on just how ‘natural’ we think human resources are)

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide01

View the full slide presentation by ILRI director general Jimmy Smith at Tropentag on 17 Sep 2014.

The topic of this year’s Tropentag International Conference, being held in Prague, Czech Republic, and which opened today, is ‘Bridging the gap between increasing knowledge and decreasing resources’. Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), gave a keynote presentation at the opening titled The interplay of knowledge and natural resources: Health, wealth and environmental benefits of livestock.

This short presentation on relations between agriculture and knowledge and how this relates to resource abundance and scarcity explores the history of agriculture and how knowledge has contributed to it and vice versa.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide02

Part 1
In the beginning hunter gatherers had plenty of land and other natural resources; their challenge was just to catch animals. In the Industrial Revolution, when we still had abundant resources, there was a rapid increase in the use of science for two main kinds of agriculture: Where there was abundant land, such as in North America, ‘scale-responsive agriculture’ was employed. Where land was scarce, such as in Southeast Asia, most agricultural development came about due to application of biological technologies.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide09

Then we went through a period of rapid population growth, with fears of a ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ arising regularly. But what Malthus missed in his concept was the transformative power of the application of knowledge and new science to agriculture. We should not make the same mistake again.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide03

Part 2
So how do we think about how the world will feed itself? The Green Revolution was a supply push supported by policies and institutions: CGIAR, everybody lined up in work to produce more grain. It worked in Asia and Mexico. Why not Africa?

The difference between the Livestock and Green Revolutions is that the on-going Livestock Revolution is demand led. More and more people can, and want to, eat meat and drink milk. And more and more livestock products have to meet higher standards of quality and safety for mushrooming supermarket chains in developing countries.

That fast-rising demand for livestock is going to be satisfied in one of 3 ways:

  • Importing products:
    Large-scale industrialized ‘high throughput’ and high-yielding livestock production practices, with threats to the environment, public health, broad-based development and animal welfare
  • Importing knowledge:
    Livestock imports, which will make a huge dent in the foreign exchange of developing countries
  • Transforming smallholder animal agriculture:
    Or transforming today’s army of smallholder livestock farmers

The good news today is that we have some turbo-charged accelerators’ of agricultural development, in the form of, for example, the genomic and information revolutions.

And while the natural resources that are the foundation of agriculture — productive grasslands, fertile soils, sweet water, genetically diverse grain varieties and livestock breeds — are diminishing, we must remember that our ‘natural resources’ include not only these relatively ‘fixed’ assets of the natural world, but also the unlimited assets bequeathed by generations of human innovations.

Human, in other words, is the first category of the natural resources we rely on.

Finally, let me say that while we generally recognize how much knowledge has aided agriculture, we would profit from remembering also how much knowledge has been spurred by agriculture.

Full presentation by Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith’s ten-minute presentation at Tropentag was taken from the following longer presentation by him.


Knowledge, food and natural resources: Pre-history
The relations and fortunes of people and animals have always been closely intertwined, with people depending on animals for their survival and vice versa. Before the advent of agriculture, each hunter-gatherer needed about 6.5 sq km to catch wild animals and gather wild foods. This was no problem then, when land, animals and other natural resources were abundant and groups of up to 60 individuals would roam widely to find food. Knowledge of all kinds was at this time restricted to small and generally isolated groups, being diffused more widely only when these foraging societies occasionally came into contact with one another.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide08

Agriculture arose with rising human populations and settlements, which required surplus and stored supplies of food, which in turn required new knowledge of how to cultivate plants and breed livestock (pigs, sheep, goats and cattle were all domesticated by 9000 BCE). The greater supplies of available food subsequently fuelled population growth and enabled social and economic development.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide13

Knowledge, food and natural resources: Revolutions
The prediction by the English cleric and scholar Robert Malthus in 1798 that population growth would surpass the planet’s capacity to support people, leading to a ‘Malthusian catastrophe’, did not materialize. Arguing that population growth was exponential and agricultural growth geometric, Malthus did not count on the dramatic changes that the application of knowledge, in both biological and mechanical fields, were to have in raising agricultural productivity.

But more than 50 years would pass before scientific knowledge was applied in earnest, in the mid-19th century, to transform agriculture. Application of that scientific knowledge initially targeted the availability of natural resources–land in particular. Where land and other resources were scarcer, biological advances led to highly intensified agriculture, such as in Japan.

In land-abundant areas, such as North America, science in the form of new machinery and new sources of power was applied to advance ‘scale-responsive’ agriculture. The profound significance of the now-famous pea plant experiments by scientist and friar Gregor Mendel, published in 1866, were not recognized until the turn of the 20th century, more than three decades later, with the independent rediscovery of the laws of heritable traits, which ushered in the modern age of genetics and scientific plant breeding.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide17

Less well know is that genetics also transformed livestock production. In the case of US dairy production, efficiencies were increased so greatly that in 2007 one billion kg of milk were being produced using just 21% of the animals, 23% of the feedstuffs, 35% of the water and 10% of the land used to produce the same amount 60 years previously, in 1944. Such increases in production efficiency were due not only to the use of better breeds and the selection of high-yielding animals but also to use of artificial insemination and more nutrient-dense feedstuffs. And although the carbon footprint per animal was twice as high in 2007 as it was in 1944, the carbon footprint per billion kg of milk in 2007 was only 37% of that in 1944 due to a four-fold increase in milk production per animal.

So we can see that scientific knowledge applied to agricultural production managed in places to generate major increases in food production, helping to improve human welfare and transform national economies. But as the world’s natural resources have become scarcer due to continued population growth and some exploitative agricultural applications of science and technology, new biological-, mechanical- and energy-based knowledge solutions began to be sought to sustain as well as improve agricultural productivity.

The steady progression in agricultural development did not occur everywhere. A dramatic setback occurred in the second half of the 20th century when rapid population growth exacerbated by unpredictable climatic events, notably drought in parts of Asia, led to ‘local manifestations’ of the ‘catastrophe’ Malthus had portended more than 150 years earlier. Only a major and concerted ‘supply push’ from the agricultural sector prevented widespread famine in India , whose government implemented policies encouraging farmers to adopt new biological knowledge products and gave them ready access to fertilizer, water and power. Further government support to universities and the marshalling of global resources, notably through establishment of CGIAR centres in Mexico and the Philippines, which were funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations and dedicated to breeding, selecting and delivering improved varieties of rice, maize and wheat, resulted in impressive gains in cereal yields, averting mass famine.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide18

The institutions and channels thus established and employed in this 1960s ‘Green Revolution’ spurred unprecedented development, application and use of agricultural technologies. Rapid agricultural growth ensued in South and East Asia, largely the result of widespread adoption of new agricultural technologies and techniques. Between 1966 and 1982, average global cereal yields increased 2.7% per year . Wheat and rice yields in South Asia increased by 240% and 160%, respectively, in just 20 years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. And in four decades, the proportion of undernourished people in Asia dropped dramatically, from 40% in 1960 to 16% in 2000. The great populations of India and China in the early 1960s, having drawn back from the brink of famine (India) and having come through catastrophic famine (China), went on to become major exporters of rice and other staple foods.

Knowledge, food and natural resources: Contrasts
The aggressive application of scientific knowledge to transform agriculture in the 19th century and the supply-driven technologies, policies and institutions that initiated and sustained the Green Revolution have not been universal successes. The absence of an agricultural revolution in sub-Saharan Africa is in sharp contrast to agricultural advancements in many parts of Asia. Among the reasons postulated for this difference are the following:

  • As many parts of Africa continue to emerge from colonial rule, on-going power struggles and related turmoil encourage political issues to take precedence over technological ones, and urban interests over rural ones.
  • Africa’s widespread conflicts and insecurity, often associated with natural resource scarcities, are major obstacles to its rural development.
  • Conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, including erratic rainfall, lack of irrigated lands, dispersed rural populations and underdeveloped infrastructure, are very different from those in Asia and much less conducive to agricultural development.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide22
A second major contrast lies in the livestock sector. The on-going ‘Livestock Revolution’, first described in 1999 and characterized by a doubling of developing-country livestock production over a few decades, differs markedly from the Green Revolution in that it is demand- rather than supply-led, with the rising demand for animal-source foods being fuelled by rapidly increasing populations, urbanization and incomes in non-industrialized countries.

Initial predictions for the Livestock Revolution have already been exceeded. The 1999 scientific study predicted that global meat production by 2020 would equal 121 million metric tonnes; recent assessments show that this figure had already been surpassed in 2005-2007, when 258 million metric tonnes of meat were produced globally.

This Livestock Revolution presents challenges as well as opportunities. With the big (unprecedented) increases in demand for, and consumption and production of, livestock commodities happening in developing countries, some 90% of animal products are produced and consumed in the same country, with as much as 70% of these foods being sold in ‘informal’ (wet) markets. With much of this increase in animal numbers and levels of production of milk, meat and eggs occurring in unregulated environments, developing-country policies and institution’s have yet to catch up, as evidenced by the lack of incentives provided livestock producers to mitigate environmental harm in their production practices. These challenges will only intensity as demand for animal-source foods in the next five decades outstrips that for cereals or roots and tubers. Overall in developing countries, there will be a 2% annual increase in demand for cereals and an annual increase of almost 5% in demand for both meat and dairy.

Knowledge, food and natural resources: Three plausible scenarios
Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide30
How will the increasing demand for animal commodities be met in developing economies? Three scenarios are plausible, each with vastly different implications for how livestock production will intersect with knowledge and the natural resource base, for national economies and for the livelihoods of more than one billion of today’s livestock-dependent people.

Scenario 1
Developing countries import most of their dairy, meat and eggs from developed countries, where most livestock knowledge remains.

  • The imports put additional strain on the scarce foreign exchange of developing economies
  • Developing-country growth is curtailed by lack of indigenous livestock enterprises
  • The feeding and transporting of livestock and livestock feed and livestock products at industrial scales generates industrial-scale pollution in developed countries
  • Developing-country jobs are exported, with high prices in their home countries causing youth to emigrate to developed countries, where some end up working in industrial livestock production units–only to have the livestock products [and often part of their livestock earnings] sent back to their developing-country homes

Scenario 2
Most livestock are produced in developing countries by large-scale industrial production units, with the private sector responding to the increasing demand for animal-source foods in these countries.

  • Relevant knowledge is imported to developing countries, but stays within a few large livestock enterprises
  • The natural resources of developing countries are severely impacted by greatly increased requirements for livestock feed and water and by losses in nutrient cycling and other production system synergies stemming from the separation of animal and crop production
  • While industrial livestock units typically are more efficient than smallholder livestock systems, and thus generate a smaller environmental ‘hootprint’ per unit of product, the overall environmental impacts of industrial-scale livestock production are considerable in developing countries
  • The highly controlled environments needed for large-scale production of high-yielding exotic breeds incur significant environmental as well as financial costs in developing countries
  • Wholesale replacement of millions of smallholder livestock enterprises with a few intensive operations considerably reduces opportunities for employment in the livestock sector, especially of women and youth

Scenario 3
The developing world’s smallholder mixed crop-and-livestock production systems, which now produce most of the developing world’s meat, dairy and eggs as well as over 50% of staple cereals, undergo transformation. New knowledge applied at scale creates ‘a third way’ of producing animal-source foods, one that benefits local as well as national economies, marginalized as well as elite groups, and one that does not threaten the environment or public health.

  • More efficient livestock production—combining more appropriate and improved animal breeding, feeding and health strategies—leads to a lower environmental hoofprint through use of fewer, more efficient, animals to meet the rising demand for animal-source foods
  • Maintenance rather then elimination of mixed crop-livestock systems makes productive use of the synergies generated in these integrated production systems, e.g.,  nutrients are appropriately managed and efficiently recycled
  • Engagement rather than elimination of the smallholder livestock sector creates many jobs, especially for women and youth, and not only in livestock production but also in livestock processing, trading and marketing
  • Better access to information, adoption of risk management approaches to food safety, and new means for smallholders to meet rising standards of quality for livestock products all lead to safer livestock foods
  • Nutritional divides are closed and balanced nutrition is an option for all people

Knowledge, food and natural resources: Accelerators
Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide32

While economies of scale and increased efficiencies in industrial-scale livestock production encourage its increasing use in developing countries (as is happening already in parts of China and Southeast Asia), most food production today continues to come from mixed crop-and-livestock smallholder systems. The great transition period in livestock production that we are now entering thus presents us with unparalleled opportunities for shaping the future trajectories of these systems for safe, equitable, broad-based and sustainable livestock development.

But what of agriculture’s natural resource base? Of our diminishing productive grasslands, fertile soils, sweet water, genetically diverse grain varieties and livestock breeds. Are these not the foundation of agriculture? Is their diminishment not a threat to livestock as well as all agricultural development?

Yes. But we should remember that our ‘natural resources’ include not only these relatively ‘fixed’ assets of the natural world but also the unlimited assets bequeathed by generations of human ingenuity. ‘Human’, after all, is the first category of the ‘natural resources’ we utterly depend on, for agricultural as well as much else.

From this we can remind ourselves that we have at hand powerful human-derived ‘accelerators’ of innovations—able to provide supplies of food for the planet in sustainable, healthy and equitable ways. The information and gene revolutions between them make up some of the most powerful of these agricultural accelerators. Their far-reaching impacts on the speed, quality and utility of agricultural knowledge transfers are simply too profound and too far-reaching for this generation yet to fully grasp. What we can get glimpses of now are forthcoming revolutions in disease prevention and control, in the fine breeding of food animals and plants, in truly ‘participatory’ agricultural processes, in ‘citizen science’, in the ways people and agricultural institutions collaborate, in the uptake of relevant knowledge by policymakers, and so on.

Finally, while we generally acknowledge how much knowledge aids agriculture, we will profit also from reminding ourselves how much knowledge creation is spurred by agricultural development itself, agriculture being perhaps the greatest ‘mother of all inventions’ throughout human history. With sufficient financial and intellectual support, we can, I believe, continue to rely on the creation, diffusion and application of such knowledge-based innovations to help transform the future of livestock production so that we grow our food and manage our natural resources for the benefit of all, and for all generations to come.


From the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide33

No other sector is more important to the lives and livelihoods of the poor than livestock. An estimated 1 billion people derive at least part of their livelihood from livestock. Livestock are the last resort for people that lack other assets and forms of income.

Livestock are critical to maintaining and improving human health. Livestock products are an important component in healthy diets, and provide food security particularly for low-income people. Livestock connect wildlife and environmental health to human health, and are an important element in disease emergence and transmission. Seventy percent of all new diseases have their origins in animals.

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide34

Livestock are an important user of natural resources (land, water, nutrients, and biodiversity) and contributor to climate change. Livestock convert large amounts of by-products and waste material, for which there is no alternative use, into valuable products.

The vast diversity in livestock systems and the different demands and expectations placed on the sector have contributed to the difficulties in public policy and investment comprehensively addressing the sector. It has also led to a poor understanding of how the sector, in a context of an increasing world population, growing scarcity of natural resources and accelerating climate change, can best contribute to solutions to meet the world’s need for sustainable food and agriculture. There is, however, growing recognition that social, economic and environmental objectives need to be addressed simultaneously and reconciled through coherent collective action.

Investment in livestock needs to produce more, from less, in ways that benefit all

Jimmy Smith Tropentag Presentation: Slide37

View the full slide presentation by ILRI director general Jimmy Smith at Tropentag on 17 Sep 2014 here.

One thought on “Natural resources: Abundant or scarce? (That would depend on just how ‘natural’ we think human resources are)

  1. “… transformative power of the application of knowledge and new science to agriculture …” That is a deceptive concept. As far as we know, the Mayan culture was already in decline when the Spanish conquerors arrived. And it seems today that they just as “effectively” had begun to apply “transformative” practices in agriculture until the system crashed around them just a few hundred years later. Today we seem to leave similar traces, like top soil deposits in ocean beds and estuaries that mimic the deposits in Roman times and Mycenaean times … just before there empires collapse for seemingly little understood reasons.

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