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Executive Director's Message
With the Global Agenda for sustainable Livestock planning meeting in Kansas, followed by a meeting with ILRI (the International Livestock Research Institute) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Ethiopia, March has been a busy month in terms of travel for me. Then last week, I attended the second ruminant conference in Jinan, China, organised by the China Animal Agriculture Association.
That is an unusual combination and what particularly struck me in discussing livestock sustainability issues on four continents is that the challenges in lower and middle income and developing countries are of a significantly more urgent nature than many of us are used to. It is in these countries, as I have said many times, that almost all the increases in demand and supply are taking place. And in many cases it is unfortunately the case that there is a simple increase in animal numbers to meet that demand, rather than an increase in efficiency.
The knock–on effects of such expansion are many and varied, and this is where developing a holistic picture of the impacts of livestock production becomes both fascinating and challenging. An interesting and worrying example of how things have severe knock–on effects is that of the African Swine Fever outbreak in China.
With high morbidity, and mortality in the most virulent forms of up to 100% in infected herds, and currently no vaccines or treatment available on the market (vaccines are in development but not yet available), this is clearly a disastrous disease. Given that pork products have been the mainstay of China's meat supply, the arrival of ASF has started to make inroads into the national pork reserve and is impacting on demand for alternative animal proteins.
Given the current trade tensions between the US and China, soy is currently being sourced from alternative markets, as the demand for soya oil and products for human consumption remains high. Since the main provider is Brazil, and supply is relatively tight, the cost of imported soybeans has increased. Soy is of course also an important pig feed, but given the decrease in pig numbers, demand for meal has declined, thus lowering the value of meal, so soy crushers are currently facing very low margins.
You can imagine the next knock–on effect of increasing demand for soy from Brazil; pressure there to deforest more land and increase soy production (often a two step process in which cattle are displaced further into the amazon or cerrado and soy replaces cattle in lands that have been deforested in the past). This paper analyses the issue in more detail.
None of that does anything to alleviate the lack of animal protein, and consumers in China are now somewhat wary of pork (though ASF does not represent a danger to human health) and so are looking to other protein sources. In recent decades, there has been a lively 'grey' market trade in smuggled animal products (buffalo meat from India included) through both Hong Kong and Vietnam, which has tended to moderate large price spikes.
With the advent of ASF and its presence throughout South East Asia, the Chinese government is understandably, albeit too late, clamping down on that trade. To avoid large price increases, meat supplies from legitimate sources will have to increase. Once again, Latin American countries are likely to fill a significant part of the shortfall with beef, and that increased demand will increase pressure to convert more land in the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco regions.
All of this relates back to the lax sanitary measures that were in place (tacit acceptance of smuggled pork and beef), and the fact that as local demand has increased, it has been met locally through increased numbers rather than improved efficiency and production standards. The fact that ASF came into the country can hardly be surprising, but once again,because the incentives to report on the disease were low (compensation was well below the market value of pigs), created a perverse incentive to sell and therefore transport animals around the country when movement should have been stopped.
Every province except the far west has now experienced ASF as have Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. The danger extended far beyond China itself, as smuggled products were also found in New York. The downside is that in order to recover, the pig industry will have to undergo major restructuring in China, and smallholder production systems that have traditionally produced many millions of tonnes from swill will likely become a victim with further knock on effects to global trade – replacing swill with feed crops means further demand for imported soy in the future.
Similar events could have taken place if a highly contagious bovine disease had gotten into China and it could still in the future, unless sanitary controls are stepped up. It's clear that the ramifications of meeting increasing demand in low–and middle–income countries extend well beyond those countries themselves, and in many cases, they are global in nature.
This is why it is so important for GRSB and our members not to lose sight of the fact that some of the biggest sustainability challenges are in those areas of the world where production and consumption are growing fastest. Together, we need to ensure that demand can be met in ways that contribute positively to people, planet, animals and progress.
I recommend this paper:
"It argues that making use of the great diversity of livestock systems along with "enablers for transformation" creates opportunities to translate today's rapid growth in demand for livestock–derived foods into rapid progress in sustainable and equitable development. We recognize that while most stakeholders in livestock development have the same end in mind – the evolution of a sustainable, responsible and effecient livestock sector – the great diversity of livestock species and production systems will necessitate very different starting points and trajectories. This diversity should be approached not as a problem to be solved but as a requirement for meeting societies' protein and other needs."
To that I would add that sustainable development of livestock systems throughout lower income countries will only be possible with unprecedented investment to improve aspects relating to all areas covered by GRSB's principles and criteria. Without this investment, we will continue to see problems like the ASF outbreak in China and all the repercussions thereof.