Animal Husbandry as a Tool for Development

[This article appeared in modified form in the 2005 edition of 8020: Development in an Unequal World]

Ever since humankind made the quantum leap from survival by hunter-gatherer methods to rudimentary animal husbandry and crop production, some 11 millennia ago, domesticated animals have been a mainstay of human existence and development. The emergence of embryonic forms of agriculture in the Neolithic period, partly facilitated by the relative abundance of food sources due to rising temperatures at the end of the ice age, meant that it was no longer so necessary to maintain a nomadic way of life, with its attendant hazards and ever-present danger of starvation. Groups of families could build semi-permanent dwellings and develop simple farmsteads, selecting and cultivating certain grasses, such as oats, wheat and barley, which provided nourishment to larger groups of people.

Over the course of several thousand years, species of hitherto wild animals, in particular goats, sheep, cattle and pigs, were gradually and selectively bred for domesticity and to maximise their potential benefits. There developed a type of unwritten social contract between farmer and livestock whereby, in exchange for their produce, domesticated farm animals were sheltered, fed and protected.

In traditional societies today, some two-thirds of the world’s population still engages in mixed farming as a means of subsistence. The benefits of livestock are manifold and encompass a lifelong output of dairy products, offspring, traction, transport and manure – often the only available source of fertiliser – with meat, hides and other by-products being taken only at the end of the animal’s life. In remote areas and in unstable economies, livestock are often the most important and most reliable form of capital storage. For many it is their only bank, providing a source of disposable income or of emergency cash in times of hardship.

Animal husbandry empowers women in particular. Women in developing countries often own livestock – particularly small stock – when they are denied ownership of land. Rural women worldwide participate directly or indirectly in some or all aspects of animal agriculture.

Manure and draught power for ploughing provided by livestock allows hundreds of millions of rural people to cultivate their staple food crops, to cook their daily meals or to heat their homes. Ruminant animals convert otherwise inedible stovers, straws, brans and other crop residues into protein-rich foodstuffs and other items for both home consumption and sale, making an important contribution to the nutritional status of people living on small-scale farms and combating the micronutrient malnutrition that is suffered by more than a billion people.

The experience of NGOs such as Bóthar (Ireland) or Heifer International (US), specialising in animal husbandry projects, is that under the correct conditions stock-rearing is a valuable activity and one which is both sustainable and beneficial to the environment. In addition to the traditional benefits already outlined, the rearing of improved-breed farm animals can bring superior advantages to many in the developing world. To take just one example: the goat, first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent c.8000 BC and ubiquitous in many developing societies, is a main source of meat and hides for many smallholder families with, typically, a small foraging flock being maintained by the household. The FAO estimated in the early 1990s that Africa alone had more than 170 million native goats. However, the benefits of this kind of husbandry must be set against the drawbacks incurred: virtually no milk production; environmental damage caused by widespread browsing, with resulting land degradation; no multiplier element, etc. By contrast, an improved-breed dairy goat, such as a European Saanen or Toggenburg, raised under a zero-grazing system, becomes a powerful agent for generation of both nutrition and income. Typical milk yields for these breeds average at 4-5 litres per day.

Regular consumption of such a complete foodstuff has a beneficial effect on child mortality rates. It brings benefits also to PLWHAs (People Living With HIV/AIDS) on antiretroviral medication, who must be properly nourished if the drugs are to be effective. Sale of surplus milk produces a regular income which may be used further to enhance the diet, to pay children’s school fees or to better the physical circumstances of the recipients. First-born female offspring are passed on as a contractual obligation, which brings a sense of dignity and self-worth in addition to enlarging the project.


All of these benefits are contingent upon certain conditions being met. Any such project must be acceptable to the recipients, who must be involved at every stage. Technical personnel must be available and full training is necessary if the use of exotic breeds is to succeed. The project must be self-sustaining without external supports once it is concluded. Adequate housing must be built in advance of placement in order to protect the stock from disease and the elements. Appropriate fodder must be planted. An equitable, participant-run system of passing-on of offspring to new recipients ensures a multiplier effect. Women must be given equal status with men at all stages, including ownership of animals. Naturally, such a programme demands considerable inputs, financial and otherwise, but if there is to be lasting and beneficial impact, this necessary investment has been shown to be worthwhile.

The race for market domination and profit in the first world has sometimes, many would argue, distorted the historical relationship between mankind and farm animal. Intensive farming on an industrial scale has reduced the status of animals to a commodity, while profit-driven practices have seen inhumane conditions of rearing of many species, particularly poultry. Other developments, such as the rise of BSE and widespread soil impoverishment, have also been attributed to over-intensification. Moreover, the policy of globalisation seems further to exacerbate these distortions. While some will advance ideological arguments for an entirely crop-based system of ensuring the long-term survival of the human species on the planet, it is unlikely that the ancient practice of animal husbandry will ever be superseded. However, the lessons learned from the implementation of more balanced and community-based forms of stock-rearing in a development setting may prove valuable for the industrialised world, in addition to providing radical solutions to poverty in certain contexts.


Brendan Mimnagh, General Secretary, VIVA – Volunteers in Irish Veterinary Assistance.

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