Cashing in on cows

cow picture
“Cows are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures; none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them; and, in short, I am not ashamed to profess a deep love for these quiet creatures.” Thomas de Quincey

“Nowhere is the cow so feeble, and her yield so little as in India. Nowhere is she so badly treated as she is today in India by the Hindus.” So said Mahatma Gandhi in 1925, in a speech to the All-India Cow-Protection Conference.

Being holy comes with more duties than privileges. Hindus don’t kill or eat their cows, but Gandhi’s speech underlines the fact that apart from milk, a live cow can provide fertilizer, fuel and building material from its dung, as well as traction power and maybe even another cow. And it can do this by eating grass and parts of plants that are of no use to humans.

It also provides an ultimate safety net when times are really hard, but killing a cow provides only a one-off benefit that may prove disastrous to a poor family in the long run. As Marvin Harris points out in Cows, pigs, wars and witches,  a taboo against killing cows can have practical benefits beyond its religious and moral meanings.

Today, there are more cows in the world than Indians, and the livestock sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the agricultural economy. According to the FAO’s latest State of Food and Agriculture report,  livestock accounts for 40% of the global value of agricultural production and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a billion people. Worldwide, livestock contributes 15% of total food energy and 25% of dietary protein. Products from livestock provide essential micronutrients that are not easily obtained from other plant food products.

Rising incomes, population growth and urbanisation are pushing up demand for meat products in developing countries. Global annual meat production is expected to expand from 228 million tonnes at present to 463 million tonnes by 2050, with the cattle population estimated to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and that of goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion.

All these animals need food and drink too. To produce a kilo of boneless beef takes about 6.5 kg of grain, 36 kg of roughages, and 155 litres of water for drinking and servicing. Producing the feed requires about 15300 litres of water on average.

We look at the “water footprint” of everyday products in the Insights on Sustainable Development, while food production and environmental questions are among the issues discussed in the forthcoming Insights on food and agriculture.

Useful links

Agriculture ministers from OECD and non-OECD countries will be meeting at the OECD on 25-26 February. On this page you’ll find information about the meeting as well as a series of background notes covering the issues ministers will be discussing.

We’ll also be discussing some of these issues in a series of posts next week.

Patrick Love

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