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Lavish new pictorial book honours the world’s primary food producer–the family farmer

Farming in the highlands of Ethiopia
Mixed farming in Ethiopia: the livestock subsector is growing faster than all other agriculture sectors in developing countries (photo credit: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

As many in the agricultural fraternity will know, 2014 was the International Year of Family Farming, declared so, and severally acknowledged by, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The last of several events to honour family farming and its contributions to eradicating hunger, protecting the environment and sustaining economic development was held in Manila on 27 Nov 2014. This event included the launch of a large, handsome and richly illustrated book titled Deep Roots. Co-published by FAO and Tudor Rose, this picture book, bound for coffee tables in agricultural foyers worldwide, covers a lot of ground in its 256 pages: Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, North Africa, the Near East, North America and the Pacific.

From the agricultural giants of China and India to smallholders in Nepal and Senegal, from Albania to the Himalayas, Croatia to Chile, the Pacific Islands to Prince Edward Island, Uruguay to Japan, Slovenia to Thailand. From bamboo to fish to tropical fruits, and from Brazil’s cerrado to Australia’s outback to the Mideast’s drylands.

Agribusiness, agroecology, aquaculture, biodiversity, cooperatives, drip irrigation, farmer unions, food security, food sovereignty, gender justice, land rights, migrant workers, natural resources, organic farming, resilient agro-ecosystems, slow food, smallholdings, women’s groups, young farmers — it’s all here.

We are surprised to learn that the world has over 500 million family farms, making up 98% of all farm holdings (96% even in the US). We read, and view, family farmers as stewards of land and water and soil and biodiversity, as innovative, hardworking and efficient producers.

In many developing countries, of course, agriculture is still what most people do with most of their lives.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), marking its 40-year-anniversary in 2014, contributed the article below for a chapter in this book on ‘Livestock farming boosts local economies in developing countries’.

Dairy cow in central Malawi

Smallholder family farms still dominate livestock production — especially with ruminant animals — in most developing countries (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

Picture a family farm in a developing country. What do you see? A small plot of maize or rice or other staple food? Maybe a vegetable patch or a cash crop or two as well? If so, your view is similar to that of many agricultural and development experts and government planners whose focus is on staple food supplies for our increasingly crowded world.

But look out over a farm fence anywhere in these countries and you are likely to find yourself staring into the face of a  farm animal.

Livestock matters a great deal in developing countries, playing an increasingly important role in food security and economic development. In fact, the livestock subsector is growing faster than all other agriculture sectors in developing countries worldwide. And importantly in the International Year of Family Farming, the bulk of that livestock production is occurring on small family farms. Livestock farming offers unique features to support local livelihoods and economies, especially for women.

Some 70 per cent of the world’s 37 billion farm animals are raised in developing countries, and that share will increase in the coming decades.

A major reason for this is an ongoing dramatic rise in demand for meat, milk and eggs in developing countries, far outstripping that for grains, starches and other food crops. This ‘livestock revolution’ is a result of dietary changes due to increasing urbanization and incomes, both of which lead people to spend more of their disposable income on meat and other high-value animal-source foods than on maize, rice, potatoes and other cheaper staples. As a consequence, total demand for livestock products is expected to double by 2050 from 2000 levels. Nearly all of that growth is occurring in developing countries, where experts anticipate a 37 per cent rise in per capita consumption of animal-source foods, even as rich country consumption levels flatten or decline.

Further, because feeds are easier to trade than perishable livestock products, 90 per cent of the increased livestock production will occur in the same developing regions where demand for animal-source foods is growing. On aggregate, livestock enterprises now comprise about 40 per cent of total agricultural gross domestic product of developing countries, a proportion expected to grow to 50 per cent in the next few decades. Because livestock products are intrinsically energy dense and high value, four of the five highest value agricultural commodities globally are livestock products, with dairy as the highest value agricultural commodity globally. All of this indicates that important new opportunities are opening for livestock producers, particularly for family farmers in developing countries.

Heading home at dusk in Mozambique

Livestock are the only practical means of harvesting the benefits of scarce moisture in drylands and other regions where the climatic conditions are unsuitable for crops (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

Smallholder family farms still dominate livestock production in most developing countries, especially with ruminant animals such as cattle, water buffalo, sheep and goats. These animals can remain productive by subsisting largely on low-cost roughages, stovers and other crop by-products produced or gathered locally, providing smallholders with a comparative advantage over larger livestock producers. Other advantages of family farms are access to underutilized family labour and the many synergistic benefits accruing to small farmers who integrate crop growing with animal raising, such as more efficient nutrient cycling, soils better nourished with animal manure and use of animal traction for cultivating croplands. For these reasons, family livestock farms still compete strongly against large producers in many settings. Research has shown little evidence of economies of scale at play in dairy production in Asia and Africa, for example, particularly where the opportunity costs of labour are low and incentives for mechanization limited. Small family-run pig enterprises in Viet Nam were also shown to operate with similar or lower unit costs than larger enterprises. The family nature of livestock enterprises is central to this competitiveness.

As a result, small family farms produce 70 per cent of the milk in India, now the world’s largest milk producing country; more than 90 per cent of meat from sheep, goats and chickens; and 70 per cent of beef. In Viet Nam, where some agricultural subsectors are intensifying rapidly, small farmers still produce 90 per cent of the supply of pork, the most popular and important meat product in that country.

These small farm shares are expected to decline in future with rural-urban migration and changing technologies, but the opportunities for tens of millions of smallholder livestock farmers across several continents to improve their lives and livelihoods through livestock will continue for decades to come.

Household livelihoods
While clearly important for family livestock farms in the aggregate, livestock are also economically important at individual household level. As one measure of that importance, nearly 1 billion people living on US$2 a day or less in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa keep livestock. More than 80 per cent of poor Africans keep livestock, and 40–66 per cent of poor people in India and Bangladesh keep livestock. In many rural settings, livestock production comprises the most important part of individual household incomes and livelihoods.

Also seldom recognized is that keeping livestock often does not require land owning or even land-use rights. Intensive specialized livestock production can be carried out at the homestead with feed bought, exchanged or gathered from other sources. Analysis in Kenya found that the size of land holdings is not associated with a family’s ability to keep dairy cows. In India, where rural and urban landlessness is an ongoing problem, the number of landless dairy producers has been increasing.

A study of 92 cases from the developing world found that livestock contributed on average 33 per cent of income from all sources on mixed crop-livestock farms, with higher proportions associated with market-oriented dairy and poultry production. The importance of livestock tends to increase in drylands and other regions where growing crops is nearly impossible for climatic reasons and livestock are the only practical means of harvesting the benefits of scarce moisture. In these largely non-arable lands, the study found average livestock incomes from pastoral production comprises 55 per cent of total household incomes.

The shares of household income from livestock are not only typically large but also growing in many cases. While the share of income from cropping remained stable or even declined, the share from livestock grew in just six years by 75 per cent in Ghana and by 110 per cent in Viet Nam (1992–1998) and by 290 per cent in Panama (1997–2003). This is partly because as smallholder households transition from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture, they prefer marketing high-value meat, milk and eggs to selling crops, which are often of lower value. Livestock thus plays an increasingly large role in the market income of smallholder households as farms shift to market-orientation and away from subsistence.

An important aspect of household incomes from livestock is that the daily surplus of milk and eggs is a ready (and rare) source of regular cash income in poor rural environments. Livestock also offers unique economic and livelihood benefits. As an inflation-proof means of accumulating assets, livestock serve as insurance instruments for maintaining funds for medical and other emergencies and as a means of saving planned expenditures such as school fees or small business investments. These are critical matters in resource-poor communities, where formal insurance schemes and savings mechanisms are often nonexistent. Here, medical emergencies can produce life-long poverty traps. Even small stock such as goats or poultry, which are often in the control of women, are used for lumpy expenditures such as utility bills. Finally, in many communities livestock keeping improves a family’s social capital, improving access to other community services and functions.

Remarkably, estimates of these ‘non-market’ benefits of livestock keeping can amount to an additional 40 per cent on top of cash profits. Such non-market benefits are generally not available to large commercial producers, for whom livestock assets are sunk costs rather than assets accumulated through low-cost labour and local feed resources.

Livestock and women
Almost two-thirds of the world’s 1 billion poor livestock keepers are rural women, although their ability to control livestock assets and incomes differs by their cultural and economic settings. In many cases, women’s ownership of stock does not correlate with their control over use of products or decision-making regarding livestock management or sales. Women often control small stock such as poultry, as long as this remains a small-scale enterprise. Women often may own the milk from cattle while men control the income from animal sales. Among some societies in Senegal, dairies are often run by women and milk production is controlled entirely by women, who have sole control also over the sale of any surplus milk. Women also manage activities at different stages along livestock value chains, not just as producers or traders but also as cottage processors of traditional value-added products such as cheese, sweets and dried and ready-to-eat cooked products. In traditional dairy production practices in Ethiopia, women who process and sell butter and cheese earn 69 per cent of the household dairy income.

Animal-source foods and balanced diets
Even though overconsumption of meat, milk and eggs is a potential health threat in well-off nations and communities, for the undernourished poor the benefits of consuming these foods are large and undisputed. Livestock products have an important role in the diets of the poor: they provide on average 11 per cent of energy and 26 per cent of protein and are a key source of micronutrients. For some vulnerable groups, such as the world’s 180 million pastoralists, the contribution of livestock products to diet is much higher. International Livestock Research Institute research shows substantial amounts of dairy products are consumed on the farms that produce them.

Livestock products are excellent sources of bioavailable micronutrients that are difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities from plant foods alone and are often low in the mainly vegetarian diets of rural children. Animal proteins are also more ‘biologically complete’ than plant proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids needed by the body and do not contain the anti-nutrient factors common in plant foods. Because livestock products are nutrient dense, palatable and often highly preferred, they are excellent foods for those who can’t ingest large amounts of food: infants, children, older people and those suffering from illness.

Studies in different parts of the world showed that animal-source foods with their high energy density and constituent micronutrients of heme iron, zinc, B12 and high-quality protein, all in bioavailable form, contribute positively to physical growth, physical activity and cognitive function essential to learning. Even small amounts of milk, meat or eggs, consumed regularly by children under five years old, reduce stunting and improve cognitive development, with benefits that last a lifetime.

Farmer leads his sheep and goat to market

Demand for livestock products is expected to double by 2050 from 2000 levels and nearly all of that growth is occurring in developing countries (photo credit: ILRI/Zerihun Sewunet).

Local economies
Beyond the farm gates, livestock keeping benefits the local and wider economies in many ways. What is often under-appreciated is the level of local employment by livestock family farms, even those with only a small enterprise. Many small farms hire part-time and even permanent full-time labourers to assist with tasks like livestock feeding and cleaning. A study in Kenya found that half of the country’s many small family dairy farms (most with fewer than three head of cattle) hire at least one full-time labourer. These workers are often from the most resource-poor and marginalized communities, so these are important opportunities for employment and livelihoods for the most disadvantaged. In rural communities, some individuals also provide informal or formal animal health or breeding services, gather feeds for sale to livestock keepers or establish ‘agro-vet’ shops to sell animal feed and health products.

Numerous other economic and employment activities, for women as well as men, occur along the livestock product supply chain, from the most basic collection by small traders of livestock or products for assembly and further sale along the chain (which in pastoral areas can comprise very long distances and sequences of intermediaries) to quite sophisticated local processing of speciality products such as high-value dairy sweets.

In most developing countries, these livestock supply chains tend to be ‘informal’ or ‘traditional’, meaning they don’t employ modern processing or handling methods but deal with either raw, unchilled or traditionally processed products. Although these informal markets generally don’t meet official standards, they still comprise the largest share of the livestock subsector in most developing countries.

Importantly for the local economy, the retail prices of such informal products are nearly always lower for consumers than alternative ‘supermarket’ products, generating economic gains to consumers. And informal markets tend to employ more people per unit of product than modern, capital-intensive product supply systems. Studies across Africa and South Asia found that informal milk markets employ two to five times as many people per  unit of product as modern formal markets while paying the same or higher wages.

For all these reasons, livestock production usually generates more rural economic multiplier effects than other subsectors. Rural income multipliers were found to be higher from primary livestock production than from nearly all other agricultural subsectors across several continents, multiplying rural incomes, for example, by nearly five times in Africa and in some cases higher even than non-agricultural activities.

Challenges and opportunities
In spite of the opportunities that livestock markets present and the ability of smallholders to compete, there remain significant challenges to small livestock producers. The levels of basic animal productivity on most farms are typically well below those on commercial farms. In some cases, beef productivity gaps between small-scale and commercial farms are 130 per cent and as high as 430 per cent in the case of milk production. These gaps are caused by many factors, including inadequate or low-quality feeds, poor disease control and use of low potential animal breeds. Small farm access to reliable extension, animal health and breeding services is often poor. On the market side, buyers of livestock products are increasingly demanding higher and more consistent quality products that must also adhere to more stringent safety standards, which small farmers may struggle to achieve. Public policy and investment is generally shaped by those with the most prominent voices, which tend to be large commercial players. Small family farms may not benefit and in some cases may be specifically disadvantaged by policy measures aiming to industrialize livestock systems.

Fortunately, ongoing, rapid and dramatic advances in genomic technologies are creating new opportunities likely to produce breakthroughs in development of new vaccines and higher yielding animals adapted to developing-country environments. New business models and information and communication technology tools are being developed to provide family farms with better access to knowledge and markets and with platforms that facilitate local innovation. Finally, renewed attention to agriculture following the food price crises of 2007–2008 and 2011 has shifted public and philanthropic investment back to agriculture, including livestock.

While some experts advise against further investments in small livestock family farming because they see its role as declining, and some view industrial livestock production as more resource-efficient and potentially more ‘climate smart’ than small-scale production, a wealth of evidence indicates that family farms remain a critical and competitive part of the global livestock product supply. Family farm enterprises are essential not only to meeting the growing demand for animal-source foods but also to generating rural employment and economic growth.

The developmental aim should be to support livestock family farms through the transitional process being faced by all agriculture as markets, technologies and economic factors change, to either scale up and specialize towards fully commercial and durable enterprises, or to generationally and positively transition out of agriculture through education to more remunerative livelihoods, using strong family farm revenues and assets to facilitate that process. Both of those pathways require continued and increased investment in research and development specifically for livestock family farms.

More information
Read the print or web version of ILRI’s chapter: Livestock farming boosts local economies in developing countries, by Steve Staal, Susan MacMillan, Jackie Escarcha and Delia Grace, in Deep Roots, Oct 2014.

Read about the Manila event on ILRI’s Asia Blog: Smallholder agriculture book with ILRI’s contribution launched at 2014 International Year of Family Farming closing event in Manila, 17 Dec 2014.

One thought on “Lavish new pictorial book honours the world’s primary food producer–the family farmer

  1. well written. I personally liked the part where you talked about developing countries are not applying modern techniques in livestock as I have witnessed this with my own eyes so I endorse you in this

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