Editorial: How expanding animal agriculture swamped Pakistan
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2010:
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
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.
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
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.
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.
But in a more far-sighted 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
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
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.
As severe as the Indus River basin flooding is, the longterm
threat there, and along the Ganges, is drought.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
On the practical level, only two international animal
welfare societies already had personnel in Pakistan to respond to the
crisis in any manner.
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.
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.
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.
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
Global wheat prices had already soared 90%. Even in the
U.S., where farmers anticipate a healthy grain harvest, grain
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.
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
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.
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.