Searching for sustainable intensive livestock production

Intensive livestock production has grown tremendously in the past decades, but has now surpassed the limits. Leaders in livestock production should initiate the search for a sustainable system. The problems will not only be solved by a novel technical, scientific or business method. Changes in worldview and value systems are needed.

By Prof. Dr John Hodges, Austria
Intensive animal production has created new problems for society. These include ground, water and air pollution, disposal of manure, animal health and welfare, zoonoses, greenhouse gas emissions, soy and corn grown on deforested land and shipped across the world as animal feed, lost genetic diversity, carbon footprints of animal products trucked and flown from massive production and killing units to distant supermarkets around the world. Thinking people recognise that the intensive model of animal production reflects the current values of society, is unsustainable and threatens food supply. To grasp how we have arrived at this situation we first take a look back.
Where have we come from?
Human civilisation started with a farming revolution. Agriculture and organised society were born together when hunter-gatherers moved into settled farming and began to domesticate livestock and crops.
This Neolithic revolution about 10,000 years ago provided a new structure for living. Humanity began to escape the struggle to survive by gathering wild crops, fruit, nuts and hunting animals. Life quality was improved by specialisation as individuals focused on specific tasks. This division of labour drew people together in mutual dependence. Some cared for livestock, others for crops and yet others were released from work on the land. Sowing and harvesting became shared village tasks. Community life became settled, diversified and sustainable.
Instead of living 'hand-to-mouth', people stored food and retained seed for sowing next year. Capital was created (often measured by livestock), housing became more comfortable and trade developed with distant groups. Livestock facilitated human migration into new territories leading to diverse civilisations across the globe. For thousands of years in all civilisations farming remained the foundation as people adapted food production to newly discovered plant and animal species, soils, climates, elevation and other local features. Life was regulated by the seasons and limited by the environment. Change remained slow. But the uncertainty of survival in the wild was replaced by a more sustainable life.
Livestock supplemented hard human labour, provided transport, clothing, fuel and food stores during winter and famine. Domestic animals brought prosperity, improved human nutrition and reduced infant mortality. Societies without animals remained poor. Not surprisingly communities developed codes of behaviour for themselves and values for the use of animals and natural resources. In Europe we have built a highly advanced civilisation on this firm rural foundation.
Where are we going?
But, in the last few decades in the West, this ancient sustainable worldview has been turned on its head. Intensive food production without limits is replacing sustainable farming. While yielding short-term economic benefits, intensification threatens the future of society.
Livestock are sequestered in artificial, isolated prisons where their brief, monotonous, low quality life is planned by computers from conception to supermarket. Few people ever see livestock. They are invisible and disposable. The small group of business people and scientists who manage large-scale animal units view them only as a means to maximise profit for capital owned by distant institutions and individuals. The industrial, mechanical, repetitive mass-production assembly line has been adapted to livestock and is largely independent of local and natural resources – even more than crop production which still needs land. Individuality has gone. From birth, animalsare destined to pass an anonymous life and death to satisfy two values: cheap food and profit.
Where have historic human values gone? Why has Western society rejected its historic Christian worldview that contributed to sustainable Western civilisation by calling for community, accountable stewardship of natural resources, care of the environment, sharing of the bounty of agrobioresources and provision for the poor?
Food is a victim of greed
The current worldview in Western society places Homo sapiens in a socio-Darwinian scenario as the Master Race with top species status and no accountable boundaries. The assumption is that all of life is driven by competition: against other species, the environment, biodiversity, livestock and fellow humans.
This is a false interpretation of natural selection and evolution which maintains a sustainable balance between competition and cooperation. Driven by competition alone, human life becomes ruthless, destructive and unsustainable. Our treatment of livestock reflects this public worldview of self-interest and greed. Some are moved by altruistic values but there is scant evidence of them in public decision making. The business-science coalition furiously drives intensive livestock and poultry beyond the boundaries of decency and sustainability.
Handed over to the market
Why has Western civilisation that has attained such magnificence, wealth, stability and life quality placed itself on a collision course with reality? Having produced abundant and cheap food why, in the last 20 years, have we handed the food chain over to the market? Capitalism without restraint can go broke. The collapse of banking and housing hurt many people but did not jeopardise survival. Earthquakes show the primacy of food over all else for survival. Why has this highly educated civilization decided consciously or by default to despise sustainability and place its own survival at risk?
Farmers and livestock keepers have always been wiser, knowing the importance of sustainable husbandry and of human community – living together in the creative tension of competition and co-operation. We are crazy to hand our food production and our natural agroresources over to competition. We are now in the grip of another agricultural revolution in which Elite Capital takes control of the food chain. It is false to argue that intensification is needed to feed the world when intensification destroys the quality and sustainability of life itself. As Jesus remarked, “People need much more than bread to live.”
Food Chain Capital Revolution
Since the Neolithic Revolution gave birth to settled farming, Western society has experienced further revolutions that improved existing farming systems. The Agricultural-Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was the second and it empowered farmers with land enclosures, selective breeding, mechanisation, steam power, crop rotations and artificial fertilisers.
The third revolution from 1945 to 1990, the Green Revolution, provided technical empowerment of food production through massive use of fossil energy in chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides plus significant advances in conventional breeding of crops and livestock animals by selection, crossbreeding and artificial insemination.About 20 years ago the current Food Chain Capital Revolution started. Elite Capital is taking ownership of land, labour, seed, biodiversity, breeding and management technologies, marketing, advertising, supermarkets and consumer choice of food. This is not progress but piracy. High-jacking the Food Chain started about 1990, it is accelerating in the West and is spreading into Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Urgent need for change
The Food Chain is a sitting target for Elite Capitalism for it offers a guaranteed market – even better than oil. The Food Chain Capital Revolution will fail because capital constantly pushes for more from less. Because food is not produced from chemicals and needs natural resources, biodiversity, crops and livestock, this capital driven model will collapse.
Tragically, food will become scarce and expensive and the formerly sustainable farming system and its resources will lie broken. Whereas earlier agricultural revolutions empowered farmers and enhanced food production, this one is destroying the foundation and therefore threatens the survival of Western civilisation as we know it. Sustainable food production will not be easily rebuilt.
Issues for serious consideration
• Natural and human resources in the food chain need protection from ruthless market economics. This is true in the developed West as well as in developing countries where half the people live on or by the land.• The policy of ever cheaper food at any cost must be changed in Western society which has surplus food and suffers from obesity.
• Policies to produce local food must be promoted.
• Limits and downsizing are needed on the scale and intensity of livestock and poultry units.
• Supermarkets must be limited in their market share and be subject to monopoly regulations.
• Agrobiodiversity must remain part of the Commons and not be subject to private ownership and reward.
• Scientific research should be directed away from squeezing more from each animal and plant and move towards designing and testing sustainable, less intensive systems. This research should seek to further improve the sustainable methods used by indigenous farmers throughout the world rather than replace them with Western intensive systems that are already unsustainable.
• Multinational capital should be restricted from buying the resources needed for the production, marketing and sale of food.


Biography Prof. Dr John Hodges
Prof. Dr John Hodges is an animal geneticist. He worked in Agribusiness, taught at Cambridge University and was Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Later, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) he directed genetic improvement of livestock and started the UN programme for conserving endangered breeds. He also took part in drafting the Convention on Biodiversity. He has degrees in Agriculture, Animal Production and Genetics and a degree in Business Administration from the Harvard Business School. He now lives in Austria and speaks and writes internationally on Genetics and Ethics in Agriculture, Food and the Environment.


NOTE: For the PDF version of this article, please click here.

Source: Pig Progress magazine Volume 26. No.6

Pig Progress, volume 26, no.6 2010

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