Preventing a Livestock Revolution in Liberia: the Need for a New International Vision

By Ross Miranti

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 12, 2013.

In Liberia, the FAO has been involved in a number of poultry projects for both broilers and laying hens. It has constructed three factory farm style operations in the interior of the country to train locals in “modern and intensive poultry production and management practices.” It has also teamed up with the Ministries of Gender and Agriculture under the Joint Program on Food Security and Nutrition to construct ten other poultry houses throughout the country. None of these operations house much more than 1,000 birds, though they are set up like intensive factory farms and provide a model for future operations, which will surely increase in size and numbers as the country develops. So in short, the FAO — which outlined the heavy environmental impacts of the global livestock sector in the widely cited report Livestock’s Long Shadow — is now encouraging the future development of factory farming in Liberia.
The government of Liberia has also led livestock projects. As part of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Resettlement, and Reintegration program (DDRR), it worked with the UNDP to train ex-combatants in animal husbandry, with emphasis on poultry farming. While most other DDRR programs made a positive impact on the livelihoods of ex-combatants, the livestock program had very limited success because of a shortage of start-up animals, the heavy cost of feed and other inputs, and the difficulty participants had in selling to local populations that couldn’t afford to eat meat regularly.

Liberian rain forest

Liberian rain forest

Even though intensive, modern livestock is the wrong way to improve nutrition and food security in Liberia, that is not to say that supporting the production of plant-based food alternatives will take care of the country’s food problems by itself. Resolving these issues is a complex endeavor because Liberia’s food system is dysfunctional in so many ways: unstable property rights, endemic corruption, lack of access to credit, low technological innovation, few storage facilities, the absence of an electrical grid outside the capital, paralyzing flooding that comes with heavy rains, poor transportation infrastructure (especially in the interior of the country, where most food is produced), the reliance of the country on expensive imported food, and low government investment and support for agriculture.

So, reducing malnutrition and promoting food security in a responsible way requires the broader development of the country. While Liberia makes progress in these areas, they should also shift support away from intensive livestock operations and more towards the production of protein-rich, plant-based foods for direct human consumption. This would yield more food per acre and have the added benefit of using less water, lowering carbon emissions, protecting Liberia’s biodiverse rainforests, reducing animal suffering, and, in the long-term, preventing some of the diet-related health problems associated with the high consumption of animal products.

Admittedly, it is a bit unrealistic to think that Liberia or any other developing country could be steered away from adopting diets high in meat, especially when the overwhelming majority of the population eats and craves meat, but is unable to consume as much as they want due to their low incomes. Policy makers in these countries – and in the rest of the world, for that matter – are unwilling and uninterested in supporting policies to lower meat consumption because they themselves have a bias in favor of eating meat and because any such policy would be hugely unpopular with their constituents. And even if the production of plant-based proteins were to be ramped up, as long as there are cheap (and often subsidized) livestock products available on the world market, they will be imported.
Any hopes of keeping meat consumption at bay in Liberia will not only require institutional support but also a dramatic shift in public sensibilities; a social education, of sorts. This seems unlikely to happen in the relatively short period of time that development is occurring, especially given that most of the population is illiterate. Even in the developed world, where populations are literate, educated, and, in general, sensitive to environmental concerns, most people do not perceive the negative impacts of livestock as a major global issue – in fact many don’t see it as an issue at all.

So in the end, Liberia could, hypothetically, do everything in its power to see that it doesn’t replicate the dietary shifts that other countries have adopted during their development, but reversing the livestock revolution there will truly require a global partnership that transcends borders, culture, and habit. It will also require a radical global shift in how people think about food. Hopefully the world doesn’t have to come to a crisis point for its population to see that livestock is not a sustainable way to nourish a burgeoning world population, but the current path we are on is leading in that direction.

This blog is third in a series of three blog posts on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Flora and Fauna International

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