Journal Issue

Animal Production: Constraints and Their Removal

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
June 1970
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Henry C. Murphy

When we look at the contribution of science to animal production during the last half century or so we see a picture sharply divided between dramatic success and what appears like lethargic failure. In the highly developed countries, scientists—both those working directly on animal production and their associates such as geneticists, nutritionalists, soil agronomists, and many others—have provided mankind with an extent and refinement of control of this production such as could hardly have been imagined 50 years ago. But they have seemed incapable of exporting even the elements of this control to the less developed countries. Why is this? What are the constraints on their ability?

Though most of these are not scientific in character, digression to examine their nature and their interacations is unavoidable if we are to plan how our special contributions can have maximum impact. In looking at potentials and constraints, it is useful to do so from the standard approach of the economist to whom land, capital, and labor are the three basic resources with which we have to deal.


My views on the land issue are quickly summarized. I believe that there is more usable land unused than used in the world today; from its recent inventory of world soil resources, the soil conservation source of the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that only 3.4 billion acres of arable land of the 7.8 billion acres available are cultivated today. I believe that of the land that is used, more is poorly used than well used; I believe that the extent of “un-use” and of “poor use” is proportionately such that, on physical grounds, there is no doubt as to the adequacy of land resources to provide enough food for the peoples of the world in the years ahead. I assume here that the growth of world population will not accelerate but will decline during the century so that the total population by the year 2000 is likely to hit the 6 billion mark and to stabilize at about that level.

Data on land currently unused but which could be used with modern technology is accumulating. No professional agriculturist who has walked, ridden, driven, or flown in small planes and helicopters over the huge, relatively virgin lands of the two largest basins of the world, the Amazon and the Plate, over coastal Queensland, Northern Territory, and West Australia, over the savannas and jungles of the African continent south of the Sahara, can fail to be impressed with the potentialities of these vast areas.

Let us look quickly at a few examples. Colombia has made only token use of its available land resources, some 70 per cent of which is virtually untouched so far. These resources include the vast 75 million acres of well-watered natural grasslands of LosLlanos and the 125 million acres of easily cleared forests of Las Amazonas. The latter extend far beyond Colombia, along the eastern foothills of the Andes through Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil (Los Silva), to give a total estimated usable area of over 1 billion acres. The bulk is suited to animal production, much of it to arable farming. Likewise, millions of acres in the western zone of central Brazil await effective use. Judgment as to production potentials is based not merely on ecological grounds of soil, contour, and climate but on the performance of the handful of settlers now in the zones. Africa, freed from the scourge of animal disease, may eventually support 125 million head of cattle—more than the total herd of the United States. Papua-New Guinea is using less than 5 per cent of its arable resources of over 10 million acres, and practically none of an equal area of its natural grasslands.

Important as these untapped land resources are, they fade into insignificance in the short run relative to the proportion of existing farm land not properly used. So many millions of words have been printed on this aspect that there is no need for me to explore it in any depth. Suffice it to emphasize that the food output of the land now in use could be doubled in this century. There is ample evidence that over very extensive areas the increase could be substantially greater. Every professional agriculturist should know his own country best. In my opinion, New Zealand, already the largest exporter of foods of animal origin in the world from inherently infertile soils, and already one of the most efficient producers per acre, per labor unit, and per unit of capital, could readily treble its contribution in the next 30 years if permitted by more sensible economics to do so. Likewise, the United States could treble output in the same time. Wherever I have gone, increases of this order and higher appear feasible.


Turning to the next resource, capital or credit, we find, perhaps unexpectedly, that shortage of this input is not a serious restriction. At the World Bank we have been striving for many years to make a significant impact on world food production as a key to lifting the economies of member countries. We have learned that our efforts have been limited far more by insufficient understanding of the many human and institutional problems that impede the effective use of capital than they have by its absence. We have become keenly aware that capital, though a vital component in some situations, and a necessary input in all, can be applied only as fast and as effectively as the other elements in the agrarian structure permit. In animal production there is also the special limitation arising from natural forces limiting the rate of increase in basic animal stocks. Capital cannot be used faster than the size of the animal population allows.

In assessing the contribution of capital to the overall problem, it is important to stress that its provision can often have much more profound impacts than those flowing from the mere financing of scarce inputs. It often provides leverage to improve institutional and organizational aspects, affecting thereby production on a much wider front than that of the particular project being financed. It can give a lift to farmer incentives. Properly used it can be a powerful extension weapon. In these ways it is often the catalyst which, though aimed at a specific project, soon demonstrates the productive consequences of mobilizing all the key forces of production. The highly successful World Bank livestock project in Uruguay is a classic example.

Though capital is not an unlimited resource, at the Bank we have never been short of funds to lend. We have always been short of feasible projects. Special efforts have had to be made to supply missing expertise to identify, select, and prepare these. Such efforts must continue to be used on a widening front to speed up the flow of worthwhile projects into the lending pipeline. Even with such speeding up, I am sure that the capital needed will be forthcoming. Mechanisms exist for supplying it.

Labor or People

We come now to the third resource—labor, which I would prefer to call people. It is in this resource that most constraints are found. It is with it that scientists are inevitably involved.

People who till the land must have the will to produce at higher levels. They must have the skills to do so. People whose responsibility it is to provide the incentives, to mobilize the other necessary inputs, and to organize the marketing and distribution of products must also have the will and competence to do these things well.

Unfortunately, too many farmers do not have the will to produce more than is necessary for their own survival. Unfortunately, too many are not armed with the knowledge necessary to exploit their land and labor. That the will is absent is all too frequently the consequence of lack of incentives, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. No farmer, whatever his nationality, can be persuaded to produce more than he needs for his own family without incentives he considers worthwhile. That they do not have the “know-how” is the consequence of poor education. In the underdeveloped countries, where the food pressure is likely to become greatest, these deficiencies spring from social and political weaknesses which few leaders of fewer countries have proven capable of handling.

Take some examples. Argentina is one of the largest and most favored countries in terms of the extent and quality of its natural resources for livestock and agriculture. Yet it has not shown any significant production gains in 30 years. In fact, its food exports have seriously declined. The reason has been the absence of will to produce in the face of politically inspired disincentives, clearly arising from fiscal policies, price relationship distortions in both inputs and outputs, export taxes, and the like, which together have made alternative uses of labor and capital more attractive.

Similar price distortions, disincentives, and traditional limits to methodology hold back productivity in Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, and Chile.

Recent World Bank studies in Africa, south of the Sahara, have demonstrated that lack of appropriate incentives—there much more complex than that of mere price relationships—is a most serious bar to more efficient use of land and livestock. In the Sudan, the failure of tenants of the famous Gezeira scheme, the largest irrigation farm in the world, to incorporate appropriate food and forage crops in rotation with the staple, cotton, spring not only from ignorance but from resistance of obsolete management which controls margins and dictates methods. In the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, livestock are traditionally starved; numbers count for more than per animal productivity. This is due not only to ignorance and to the social values which dominate husbandry but also to the failure of governments to provide market services for the stock produced. The grim tragedy, religious in origin, of India’s cattle millions needs no emphasis.

Throughout the underdeveloped world inability of authority and individuals to mobilize all the various inputs necessary for production on an adequate scale is by far the major bottleneck to improved land use.

One cannot avoid here special reference to the inadequacy of international marketing arrangements. This not only affects the ability of underdeveloped regions to begin to produce the primary products for which they are well suited and which they must produce to earn the foreign exchange to promote development of other sectors of the economy; it also restricts full production in many developed countries. Taking land out of production in the United States, oversubsidization of production in Western Europe leading to localized surpluses of milk products, and the International Coffee Agreement, which precludes late-starting countries such as Papua-New Guinea from even entering the field, are typical examples of the intellectual bankruptcy of the modern economic world. Removal of the constraint of unrealistic international marketing is a prerequisite to logical use of world land resources.

The Challenge to Science

It would be unrealistic to suggest that science is either equipped or geared to do an effective job in removing all these constraints. The kind of thinking and action needed lie far from our field. Yet it would be tragic if we did not comprehend the extent to which we can accelerate official policy and action by continued urging of the tremendous consequences inherent in the application of modern technologies. It would be even more tragic, however, if we deluded ourselves that we as scientists are yet in a position to supply these technologies without further tremendous research effort.

In attempting to resolve the kind of research needed, it is fundamental that we should understand what we mean by “research” in the context of the global food deficit problems confronting us. It is not sufficient to accept clarification in terms of relatively loose definitions as “academic research,” “applied research,” “adaptive research,” “open-ended research,” “pure research,” and the like. In practice, each of these in turn need special definition to avoid misunderstandings, since, for example, “applied” research may involve quite basic “academic” studies of the “open-ended” type. “Adaptive” research may not be considered research at all by many “purists,” and so on.

Personally, I have been helped in my own thinking by the recent attempted clarification by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of agricultural research in the United Kingdom. Though designed to cover the needs of, and its practice in, a highly sophisticated agriculture, I believe that this can apply equally aptly to the underdeveloped world. The ARC distinguishes between “mission-oriented” and “speculative” investigations. Mission-oriented research is taken as applying to all research deliberately directed toward specified practical objectives, however remote. It includes not only “applied” research but also long-range projects arising from practical problems, and in addition even “basic” research when this is being undertaken with a practical objective. In contrast, “speculative” research is taken to involve investigations which are of no foreseeable practical importance even though they may increase understanding of natural phenomena.

From a recent study mission on behalf of the World Bank through many countries, I found relatively widespread agreement in both scientific and administrative circles that mission-oriented research is of such high priority in the underdeveloped world as to virtually exclude speculative research as a worthwhile undertaking. Only research of the former type can be expected to pay off in terms of the world food problem in the short time remaining in this century. Competent scientific manpower is so desperately rare in underdeveloped countries (and not an unlimited resource even in highly developed lands) that available scientific manpower cannot be afforded for highly speculative enterprises.

The consensus of opinion consulted goes even further. It argues that the doubling of food production requires that the type of mission-oriented research that is necessary must be further clarified as that giving priority to “adaptive” investigations designed to guide the transfer and use of existing knowledge in practical ways to new environments. I believe that New Zealand provides an outstanding example of the great benefits of acceptance of this approach. New Zealand has exploited the science of the West by adaptive research of the type advocated so that today it has an outstanding place in world animal production.

Acceptance of this approach does not mean that we should abandon speculative research. There is a continuing need for it, particularly if the West, which can afford the luxury, is to exploit its resources to the full. It must so exploit if it is to play its part in contributing to the food production problem, even if such research should lead, for example, to some replacement of the animal in the food production chain by industrial synthesis of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, etc., to produce food without the use of solar energy or land. It must so exploit if we are ever to obtain a complete understanding of biological organisms without which the adaptive researcher would eventually have to work in a scientific vacuum devoid of the stimulus of new ideas and new approaches. The key point I want to make, however, is that speculative research should be confined to zones which can afford it. The rest must export their potential geniuses in the interests of expediency.

Practical Objectives

So much for the background philosophy. How is the goal of meaningful adaptive research to be achieved on a world-wide basis?

First and foremost, we must vastly increase the supply of scientists who are not only competent to do the job but are convinced that it is worth doing. Competence of a high order is necessary. Adaptive research of the standard needed is not a job for second-raters. They must be highly intelligent, imaginative, and original in their thinking. They must be highly trained in basic science, skilled in the use of scientific tools, and endowed with the judgment and persistence necessary to pursue defined goals. Equally, they must be men undeterred by purists who discount the scientific content of the work they will do. To the young men of science whom we must recruit for this work I would say, “Your endeavors are unlikely to win you a Nobel prize. They will, however, earn you the respect of many fellow scientists, of large sectors of world population, and, more important, of yourself.”

The long-term solution to the acquisition of adequate scientific manpower is training in the countries concerned. Western specialized training of today, alas, is not well suited to their needs. The West no longer trains the general practitioners of agriculture who have not only the specialist skills but also an over-all appreciation of the complex business of agriculture. However, even a vastly increased supply of locally trained agricultural scientists will not alone solve the problem of inadequate research in underfed countries. South America has had an extensive university-based educational system for many generations, yet the same serious criticisms can be substantiated of its agricultural and animal research as are made of research in Africa and Asia. In my judgment, Western expatriate leadership, stimulation, and guidance will be needed for a long time in all major underdeveloped areas. In the short run, such participation on a much increased scale is vital.

One must confess that the outlook for effective mobilization of the personnel needed for this is not bright. The climate for good scientific work since the assumption of self-government is very poor in most emerging nations. Promising research centers have virtually passed into scientific oblivion with the loss of expatriate staff. The many national and international agencies established to fill the gap in leadership have failed to do so. The reasons for this are many and complex. They spring largely from lack of coordination of effort at high levels, based in turn on lack of agreement as to the kind of research that should be promoted. Judgments in project selection also have been poor. Creation of the necessary working climate in terms of security of tenure, of career opportunities, and scientific freedoms are key issues. It is to be hoped that the responsible international authorities recognize this soon and begin to coordinate their policies, programs, and methods of operation in more meaningful directions. To effect the better liaison and better policies needed, the assistance of the World Bank might well be sought. Although lacking research experience and expertise, its record of sound impartial judgment in the field of agricultural, industrial, and infrastructure development and relationships could well provide the status and stature necessary to knock sense into agencies whose existing vested interests seem to have prevented any getting together so far. Alone among these agencies the Bank may also be able to mobilize the finance necessary.

The Work To Be Done

It could well be expected that I should round off these general views by listing the more pressing fields of animal research. Without going into detail I would say that the projects on which work should be concentrated are all those which have paid off well in the developed world but which involve techniques that cannot be transferred directly. Priorities would also involve those problems peculiar to the non-Western environment which currently impose serious bars to productivity. In the animal research field, examples of the latter would be the major disease scourges as pleuropneumonia, foot-and-mouth, east-coast fever, African swine fever, and trypanosomiasis. Perhaps even above these I would rank the urgency of developing improved legumes on the pattern of the classical Queensland researches, to strengthen the nutritive value and output of tropical and subtropical grasslands. Identification, selection, and multiplication of stocks of cattle better adapted to the rigors of climatic stress would rate high in my list of worthwhile endeavors, as would also the identification of trace element deficiencies likely to be restricting animal performance in reproduction, lactation, and growth rate in vast areas of grazing land, the soils of which are but little understood.

As practical examples of the kind of tasks confronting us, I have recently led two World Bank missions. The first was to Spain to finalize an operation designed to introduce modern beef cattle production on grassland there. This proposed project is based on the guess that the reintroduction of subterranean clover along with Australian methods of exploiting this species can transform the productivity of the southwest of Spain. Of necessity, it is a project which must begin without the background of sufficient local research to justify it fully and certainly vital to maximum performance should the guess prove sound. The second mission was to West Africa where the prerequisites to using millions of acres of currently unused land for livestock are claimed to be the control of two diseases, one affecting cattle (pleuropneumonia) and the other, man (onchocerciasis, or river blindness).

In my view, such projects as these are well-conceived as key projects; the doors that they are designed to unlock are those that imprison a large part of mankind in hunger and poverty.

This article has been derived from the “Sir John Hammond Memorial Address” delivered by the author in London last year under the auspices of the British Society of Animal Production. Sir John Hammond was a leading world figure in this field of science.


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