20 October 2023

There can be no sustainable livestock transformation without working equids

Last month, Brooke's Anna Marry attended the first-ever conference on Sustainable Livestock Transformations organised by UN FAO. Here, she shares her reflections.

In September I represented Brooke at the first ever conference on Sustainable Livestock Transformations organised by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The event brought together government representatives, multilateral organisations, private sector and NGOs for three days of discussions on how livestock contribute to the ‘four betters’: better production, better nutrition, better environment and better lives. 

Working equids are livestock too

The conference was very much dominated by discussions on animals reared for food: meat and animal source products such as dairy. FAO defines livestock as ‘all terrestrial animals used for food and agriculture’, which includes working horses, donkeys and mules, as well as other working animals (like oxen or buffalo). However, in practice working animals are excluded and the whole focus is on production animals.  

Why is this? One reason may be sheer numbers: there are about 100 million working equids worldwide, and 1.5 billion cows. Secondly, the contribution of working equids is seen as less direct, as they are not usually consumed as food. Their contributions are not only indirect, but also quite diverse: for example, equids carry water for crops or for other livestock, they plough feeds, carry produce to market, help owners earn an income to buy nutritious food etc. This is, however, also a very good reason why equids can and should be central to any sustainable livestock discussion: working animals are key enablers, or ‘invisible helpers’, that make agricultural production possible, including livestock agriculture. In many smallholder settings around the world, it is working equids that help communities feed and water their other livestock, or take them to animal health providers. 

Animal welfare is part of sustainable livestock

Animal welfare considerations were quite well embedded into the conference sessions, with one session specifically focused on this theme and several other sessions including at least some mentions of welfare. Animal welfare was presented, rightly so, as a value in itself, but also as a way of increasing productivity and generating income for farmers. I am particularly pleased that handling found its way into the conference programme, something Brooke has been working on for a number of years. Positive handling not only contributes to better animal welfare overall, but it also improves animal health and productivity.  

What I would love future editions of the SLT conference to consider is what kind of animal welfare standards we are talking about. These standards can vary wildly from setting to setting and we need to ensure that what we understand as good animal welfare genuinely gives the animals a ‘life worth living’ and is not just a box-ticking exercise. We also need to consider species-specific welfare needs. Working equids should be covered by general animal welfare and livestock measures, of course, but they also have specific welfare needs such as hoof care and harnessing.  

Livestock play a key role in disaster resilience

An unexpected and very welcome element of the conference was the discussion on livestock in disasters, delivered by Brooke’s long standing partner LEGS – Livestock in Emergencies Guidelines and Standards. The session reminded us that livestock are vital assets for communities at every stage of a disaster, preparedness, response and recovery. Similarly, working equids are disaster resilience assets for their owners and their families. Additionally, they can perform a very tangible, practical role, such as transporting supplies into disaster-struck zones, or evacuating people, and should therefore be included in national disaster risk management plans. 

Filling the data gaps

One thing that was not directly addressed in the conference is livestock data. I was pleased to see one of Brooke’s collaborators, SEBI-Livestock, in attendance and engaged in discussions on data for decision making.  

I hope that future events can look at existing livestock data with a critical eye. We cannot effectively manage what we are unable to quantify. Data collected at national level is often incomplete or even possibly inaccurate due tom methodological errors or capacity gaps. Also, many data sets obtained through national livestock censuses do not capture working equids or only offer a partial picture.  

While congratulating the FAO team on a very successful first conference, I would also like to call on them to: consider working equids as part of livestock; go deeper into animal welfare – what good welfare actually means, and what it means in different contexts and different species; and take a critical look at livestock data.