How expanding animal agriculture swamped Pakistan

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Editorial feature:  How expanding animal agriculture swamped Pakistan

BY MERRITT CLIFTON & KIM BARTLETT
Crossposted with ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July/August 2010  [print_link]
Is the world close to reaching finite ecological limits on the production capacity of animal agriculture?
Flooding inundating more than a fifth of Pakistan in recent weeks may demonstrate that the limits have already been exceeded, doing catastrophic harm to more than 20 million displaced people and 30 million livestock,  plus untold millions of dogs,  cats,  and wildlife.
Critics of industrial agriculture and diets centered on animal products have been predicting such an impending crisis for more than 40 years.  Among the most influential were Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb (1968),  Frances Moore Lappe in Diet for A Small Planet (1971),  and E.F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful (1973). Their insights and dire prophecies helped to build the environmental movement–but,  focused on the collision course of human population growth and food security, Ehrlich,  Moore Lappe,  and Schumacher each hugely underestimated the human capacities for invention, adaptation, and denial.
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Climate scientists within the next decade began warning the world about the impending threat of global warming.  By then, however,  advances in agricultural technique had already disproved the worst doom-and-gloom scenarios of the neo-Malthusians.  India, in particular,  developed the capacity to feed more than five times as many people as Ehrlich had imagined would be the upper limit,  and became a net food exporter at about the same time that Ehrlich had anticipated famine.
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A generation of food scientists and agricultural entrepreneurs grew up believing that the old warnings about exceeding the planetary carrying capacity had been largely disproven (not just the specific details of the predictions),  and that there are no inherent limits to the expansion of either animal husbandry or the cultivation of grains,  grasses,  and legumes to feed livestock.
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2010 probably will not mark a turning point in human thinking about animal agriculture,  including a voluntary turn away from consumption of meat,  milk,  eggs,  and other animal products. Severe though the Pakistan disaster is,  seen on millions of TV and computer screens worldwide,  it does not yet directly affect enough of humanity to induce personal and societal change on the scale that would be necessary to avert many further calamities of comparable magnitude in the coming years.
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BUT IN A MORE FARSIGHTED AND CONSIDERATE WORLD,  the warning should be sufficient.  The suffering in Pakistan illustrates the confluence of two disastrous trends.  One is the increasing impact of animal agriculture on the global environment.  The other is the extent to which promoting animal agriculture in inappropriate local environments can set up a nation for destruction on an apocalyptic scale.
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A month of torrential rains beginning on July 22 made the 2010 monsoon floods hitting Pakistan one of the largest “natural” disasters in recorded history by mid-August,  with more rain on the way at this writing.  Unusually heavy rains and regional flooding have also afflicted parts of northern India and southern China,  but the greatest portion of the water has surged down tributaries to the Indus River,   and on down the Indus itself. The Indus River drains the whole of the habitable part of Pakistan–and much of the Himalayas.
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Though the greater portion of the flooding afflicting three of the world’s most populous six nations results from recent rainfall,  the melting Himalayan ice and snow caps are a contributing factor.  Snowmelt from the Himalayas has historically helped to keep the rivers of southern Asia flowing sufficiently to sustain productive crop cultivation all year long,  but global warming has steadily diminished the watershed capacity of the Himalayan glaciers for at least 34 years now.  The immediate consequences are most evident in Pakistan,  but Indian glaciologists Rajesh Kumar,  V. Ramanathan,  and Syed Iqbal Hasnain have for years cautioned anyone who would listen that essentially the same disaster now occurring along the Indus could occur along the Ganges.  The Ganges and tributaries provide much of the water used to feed as many as 1.3 million humans in India,  Bhutan,  and Bangladesh.
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As severe as the Indus River basin flooding is,  the longterm threat there,  and along the Ganges,  is drought.
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Warned Steven Solomon,  author of Water:  The Epic Struggle for Wealth,  Power,  & Civilization,  in an August 15,  2010 New York Times op-ed essay,  “Hard as it may be to believe when you see the images of the monsoon floods that are now devastating Pakistan,  the country is actually on the verge of a critical shortage of fresh water.  Like Egypt on the Nile,  arid Pakistan is totally reliant on the Indus and its tributaries.  Yet the river’s water is already so overdrawn that it no longer reaches the sea, dribbling to a meager end near the Indian Ocean port of Karachi.”
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Water scarcity is already a major contributing factor to the political instability of much of Pakistan,  Solomon continued. “Chronic water shortages in the southern province of Sindh breed suspicions,”  Solomon explained,  “that politically connected landowners in upriver Punjab are siphoning more than their allotted share.  There have been repeated riots over lack of water and electricity in Karachi,  and across the country people suffer from contaminated drinking water,  poor sanitation,  and pollution.
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“The future looks grim,”  Solomon concluded.  “Pakistan’s population is expected to rise to 220 million over the next decade, up from around 170 million today.  Yet, eventually,  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.”
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“Eventually” is not far away.  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 and,  if the present rate continues,  the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”
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United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon,  no stranger to disaster,  after an a flyover on August 15,  2010 called the Pakistan flooding the worst disaster he had ever seen.   However,  focused on the urgent need to raise $900 million in emergency aid from other nations,  Ban Ki-moon diplomatically did not seize the opportunity to discuss global warming–a topic with which he is quite familiar,  but which might have raised controversy in the U.S.,  counted upon more than any other nation to help rescue Pakistan.
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“For my generation,”  Ban Ki-moon told the United Nations General Assembly on March 1,  2007,   “coming of age at the height of the Cold War,  fear of nuclear winter seemed the leading existential threat on the horizon.  But the danger posed by war to all humanity-and to our planet-is at least matched by climate change.”
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At a less sensitive time Ban Ki-moon once personally visited the White House to urge then-U.S. President George W. Bush to reduce the U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.  Not known is whether Ban Ki-moon cited to Bush the 2006 U.N.  Food & Agricultural Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow,  which estimated that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock production.
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Though predictably disputed by the livestock industry, the FAO estimate is actually 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.
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“Aid” made matters worse
Suffering the brunt of the present macro-ecological consequences of rapidly rising global meat consumption,  the present plight of Pakistan has been made considerably worse by misguided domestic food production policies,  based less on local customs and culture than on horrendously bad advice from donor nations and international charities.
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The food habits of Muslims,  who eat beef,  and Hindus,  who do not,  were central among the issues that in 1947 split Pakistan from India.  The religious and political significance of this one major dietary difference tends to obscure the reality that the traditional food cultures of both India and Pakistan are essentially the same,  with plant-centered diets,  in which dairy products and lentils are the major sources of protein.
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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.
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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 their neighbors in Afghanistan,  and a tenth as much as Americans.
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Low meat consumption in Pakistan has historically been dictated by the aridity of the habitat.  Barely a fourth of Pakistan has water enough to grow crops,  scarcely as much land as is needed to feed the human population without redirecting production to raise livestock.  Sixty percent of Pakistan is too dry to sustain more than light grazing,  again according to FAO data.
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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–and have helped to open the way to the introduction of factory farming.  As the human population of Pakistan rose by 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%.
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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.
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Neither are Pakistanis really getting much more meat now than then.  The surge in meat production has increased per capita meat consumption by just 4% in 20 years.
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Pakistan Agricultural Research Council statistics on fodder production tell the story.   When outside efforts first began significantly boosting 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,  however,  fodder output has declined in all but three years,  falling to about 55 million tons per year.
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Some Pakistani environmentalists have blamed urban sprawl for taking prime farmland out of production,  especially near the cities of Karachi,  Multan,  and Hyderabad.  Indeed,  about 10% less land is now used for fodder production than when output peaked,  and 20% less than 20 years ago.  Officials of the Pakistan government and international aid agencies have blamed the Taliban insurgency for making parts of the nation inaccessible to farming and agricultural transport.
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Farmers in the hinterlands in turn blame a government prohibition on the manufacture and sale of nitrate fertilizers, introduced to prevent the Taliban from making nitrate explosives. Lack of fertilizer makes trying to raise fodder on marginal land unviable.
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Without mentioning the fodder and livestock issues,  an April 2010 report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indirectly hints that the rise of the Taliban itself may be a consequence of 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.  “Some 12 percent of children screened in displaced families,  and their hosts,  suffer moderate or acute malnutrition,  with girls making up 58 percent of those affected,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found.
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The net effect 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.
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Simply put,  Pakistan cannot produce enough grain,  legumes, and vegetables to feed 173 million people,  up from 144 million a decade ago,  and feed burgeoning livestock populations too.  Indeed, the major difference between livestock production today and at the beginning of the rapid increase in animal husbandry may be just that the animals raised today grow faster and are therefore slaughtered at a younger age.  The grain that raised three chickens a generation ago perhaps raises four today–and would feed more humans if milled for direct human consumption.
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The ecological effects of expanding livestock production in Pakistan were long ago clear to people who paid attention.  Pakistani agricultural scientist Dost Muhammed reported to FAO in 2002 that rangelands not suitable for sustained agriculture were used each summer to feed 93.5 million livestock.
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“Heavy grazing over vast areas of rangeland has gradually put intolerable pressure on land,  vegetation,  and its inhabitants,” Dost Muhammed wrote,  “such as wildlife,  farmed livestock and pastoral communities.  The main contributory factors are increases in human and livestock populations.  This has led to an expansion of dryland farming on marginal lands to satisfy the increasing demand for human food crops,  and the cutting of shrubs and trees for domestic fuel consumption.  As a result, more palatable grasses, legumes, herbs, shrubs, and trees that once covered the rangeland have been destroyed,  or thinned out,  and dominated by unpalatable low quality vegetation. Therefore,  each year inadequate forage during the dry period,  combined with drought years,  causes heavy losses of livestock.”
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Though Dost Muhammed did not predict catastrophic flooding, he 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.
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“The flood is worst ever,”  e-mailed Vets Care Organization Pakistan founder Waseem Shaukat to ANIMAL PEOPLE on August 4,  weeks before the flooding actually peaked,  “with lasting severe impact on humans,  animals,  agriculture and infrastructure.  We are sending 25 volunteer vets and vet students in four  teams with all necessary medicines, vaccine and equipments to rescue and provide relief to affected animals in Layyah and Mianwali districts today,”  Shaukat said.  “We are trying to do our best within our limited resources. However there is a shortage of feed for animals.” This quickly became a recurring theme.
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“Livestock and companion animals have yet not been the priority of the government and organizations involved in relief work,”  lamented Asfaq Fateh of the Ravi Foundation & Mary Jean Trust.  “Green fodder is the main source of animal feed in the flood areas.  The standing crops have been washed away.  There is an acute shortage of animal feed.  Buyers have rushed to affected areas to buy animals,  not at market rates but at a tenth the market rate.  They are exploiting the afflicted,  who are forced to sell their animals at throwaway prices.”
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A chance for change
Shaukat,  Fateh,  and others hoped that international animal welfare societies would respond by rushing funding and feed to Pakistan.  But that raised a threefold problem.
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On the practical level,  only two international animal welfare societies already had personnel in Pakistan to respond to the crisis in any manner.
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Of those two,  the World Society for the Protection of Animals was itself hard hit by the flooding.  Among 23 bears who had been rescued from bear-baiting and dancing bear acts,  and were housed at the BioResearch Centre in Kund Park with WSPA funding, only three are known at this writing to have survived.  The three survivors were taken to a newer WSPA-funded bear sanctuary still under construction at Balkazar.
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The Brooke Hospital for Animals scaled back work in northern Pakistan “due to lack of accessibility and the clear need to keep staff safe,”  the Brooke announced,  while extending “emergency relief to horses,  donkeys and mules and support communities affected by the floods” elsewhere in Pakistan. The several dozen indigenous animal welfare societies in Pakistan had all the work they could handle just trying to stay afloat–sometimes literally–with the animals already in their care. The largest,  the Edhi Foundation of Karachi,  helps animals as a sideline to helping the urban poor,  including displaced persons.
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Even if the animal welfare community had been able to mobilize immediately,  however,  an even larger practical problem was that in a nation with an acute fodder shortage to begin with,  there was little food to be found for displaced livestock after more than half of the national fodder supply was destroyed.  Few nations,  if any,  could feed 30 million animals from grain reserves,  even without 20 million humans also in need.  Neither did nearby nations have fodder to spare,  even if Pakistan enjoyed good relations with neighboring nations,  which it mostly does not.  India and China have already pushed animal production to the limits of their fodder supplies;  Afghanistan and Iran have no fodder surplus.
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The nearest nation that is a major net exporter of grain and other livestock feed is Russia.  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, in the first half of 2010,  Russia suffered the hottest average temperatures it has had in 130 years of record-keeping,  accompanied by drought that cut grain production 27%.  Facing a 2010 grain harvest barely big enough to meet Russian domestic needs,  and holding a grain reserve of a third of a year’s domestic use,  Russian prime minister Vladimir V. Putin on August 5 temporarily banned grain exports.
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Global wheat prices had already soared 90%.  Even in the U.S.,  where farmers anticipate a healthy grain harvest,  grain prices climbed.
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The cost of buying enough grain to feed the starving livestock in Pakistan,  and of getting it to Pakistan,  would be beyond the resources of the world animal welfare community,  even if the logistics could be managed,  and even if the project managers could ensure that the animals actually got the food,  instead of it being sold by corrupt intermediaries–or desperate small farmers–on the black market.
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Beyond the practical issues,  there is the question of whether animal charities should be spending money donated to promote animal welfare and/or animal rights to bail animal agriculture out of a crisis created by exploiting animals.  A fine line must be observed between relieving the misery of livestock and draft animals,  which every animal charity donor hopes to accomplish,  and perpetuating the system which causes them to suffer–along with,  in the case of Pakistan,  the humans who have been sold the false premise that raising and slaughtering more animals will alleviate their own suffering.
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Instituting animal welfare standards and teaching better treatment of livestock and draft animals is among the essential work of animal charities,  but such efforts must stop short of enabling people to breed and slaughter animals.
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In the case of Pakistan,  which could ill afford the expanded animal husbandry of recent decades,  the present calamity offers a chance to promote a permanent downsizing of animal agriculture.  The traditional regional diet could much more adequately feed the nation than the recent practice of diverting a disproportionate share of plant food production to feeding livestock,  whose meat most of the population is rarely able to buy.  The 2010 flooding could sweep away a failed system and bring a new beginning–but only if planners and decision-makers are persuaded that escalating animal husbandry was the wrong response to runaway human population growth.
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KIM BARTLETT IS PRESIDENT OF ANIMAL PEOPLE INC. She serves as the organization’s chief administrator and publisher for Animal People. MERRITT CLIFTON is Editor in Chief of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the single most authoritative independent source of news on animals and related subjects. He can be reached at anmlpepl@whidbey.com

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