Colombo Telegraph

Does Sri Lanka Need A Dairy Or Beef Industry?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

Every one has heard of how large numbers of imported cows have died causing severe problems to the dairy farmer. A recent report entitled “Importing exotic cows which performed poorly under local conditions” by Ananda Wickremasinghe appeared in the last Sunday Times.

In the 1970s, when I was a Director of the Leather Products corporation (“Lanka Sam”) there was discussion that “Lanka Sam” should have its own livestock and dairy farm to ensure a supply of cattle skin. This was then linked with the national program and the minster, Mr. T. B. Subasinghe, requested me to contribute my views on it.

My report was that of the odd man out, as I recommended that NO state-sponsored dairy  or cattle farming should be initiated in Sri Lanka, while householders or a farm may have  small-scale operations with no state inputs except regulation. My submission was rejected as everyone else supported developing an indigenous dairy and cattle industry. At the time, one factor in my mind was the report from the club of Rome on the “Limits to growth”. These were later overcome by the success of the Green Revolution in feeding the people, although with considerable expansion of the land area and water via large irrigation schemes.

However, human greed has no limits., and new “limits to growth” have come about due to the Luddite attitudes of humans who have romantically and nostalgically turned back to the failed methods of the past for solving global problems.  My objections to dairy in the Sri Lankan context at that time have now proved to be  accurate.

The objections are based on the following reasons.

(I) There is now (and there was then) a glut of milk production in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand  and other countries with large areas of pasture land and low-density human populations. Sri Lanka is a densely populated country and further encroachment of the natural habitat for raising  cows  is something we CANNOT afford to do, as we can hardly meet the needed housing and food production for the increasing population. The urban encroachment has now transformed the country into asphalt and concrete. Even the Wilpattu has been razed to build houses.

(ii) Lanka’s cost of production per litre of milk or  kg of beef is actually much more than for the US or NZ farmer. It is much cheaper to import their product and save our land which is at a premium.

(iii) Pasture maintenance requires large fertilizer and water inputs, as well as antibiotics for the animals. A Sri Lankan scientists who emigrated to Australia is an authority on pasture lands and fertilizer usage. He has researched the gradual degradation of the lands there.  I was proud to hear that he  was briefly one of my chemistry students in the early 1960s!

(iv) Production of meat and animal milk costs a lot of resources compared to producing vegetables, lentils and such legumes. Meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. IME  (see attached table) claims that  1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water whereas to produce 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water. One may imagine that to produce one litre of milk, only one litre of water is needed. But  the cow has to drink much more water to survive to produce one litre. Also, the water used to grow the grass or fodder must be counted in. Thus one needs some 1000 liters of water to produce one litre of milk. That is a factor of 1000. In the case of beef, it is a factor 15,000 or more!

(v) All monocultures, be it planting tea, or rubber, or raising cattle as the unique “crop” is ecologically bad practice. Livestock should be raised as an integrated farming effort and not as the unique objective, as in factor farms for livestock.

Furthermore, grazing animals need a lot of land, and to grow the fodder. A rough rule  is that  two cows need an acre of good pasture. Dairy needs more land than beef cattle, often kept corralled for intensive farming. Grazed dairy cattle tend to need less antibiotics simply because they produce less milk. Having a high energy feed results in high milk output; however, increased milk output also increases the animal’s physiological stress, leading to a higher incidence of health problems and infectious diseases. Their effluent poisons the ecosystem.

So, ecological reasons strongly favour the vegetarian diet and lifestyle. Even if one is not a strict vegetarian, it is better to adopt a diet high in vegetables and legumes (lentils, peas, “kadala”, mung etc). Milk is a nutritious food, but many civilizations did not use it. The famous China-food study showed that rural Chinese are quite healthy, long lived and did not use milk or much meat. The same was true of most farming societies of the past.

Although milk can play an important role in the diet,  I am advocating that Sri Lanka doesn’t need to produce the milk.

Sri Lanka  can import milk products much more cheaply than  producing them. One must count the huge costs involved in habitat loss, need for large amounts of land and water to produce something available cheaply in the global market. The elite rich  will want their fresh milk,  fresh butter and bottled “spring water”, just as they clamour for  “vasha-visha naethi organic food” or double cream from Devon. They can pay premium prices for them, and  there will always be a niche market for such goods

Sri Lanka, or any other country, must first worry about being self-sufficient in staple foods, energy and water. Its primary duty is to safeguard its eco-system and bio-diversity. One may argue that “ local dairy production,  beef and pork industries have tremendous potential” if their negative impact is ignored. Almost invariably, such farming becomes intense factory farming which is ecologically and morally unacceptable; animals must be treated humanely.

Today,  no country can   produce everything a modern society needs.  A strategic policy for milk foods is to import powdered milk and some fresh milk which are  inexpensive in the world market. The land resources targeted for dairy should be directed to the production of varieties of Thora (Lentils) and other legumes, while leaving 15% of the cultivated land as wilderness.  Protein sources can be further increased by improving the fisheries sector at a time when foreign trawlers exploit Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.

[Water consumption (rounded) for food items in litres.  Source: IME]

Chocolate        1 kg     17,200

Beef                1 kg     15,400

Sheep Meat     1 kg     10,400

Pork                1 kg     6,00

Butter              1 kg     5,600

Chicken meat   1 kg    4,300

Cheese             1 kg     3,200

Olives              1 kg     3,000

Rice                 1 kg     2,500

Cotton      1 @ 250g    2,500


Pasta (dry)       1 kg     1,900

Bread               1 kg     1,610

Milk                 1 litre   1,020

Apple               1 kg      800

Banana             1 kg     800

Potatoes            1 kg     290

Cabbage            1 kg     240

Tomato             1 kg      210

Egg                   1           200

Tea     1 x 250 ml cup    30

Unfortunately, while Sri Lanka is rampant with malnutrition, the leading discussion in agricultural strategy has been an elitist drive. It has been  politicized by public fear-mongering to campaign for “Toxin-free” (Vasha-Visha naeth)  food while living in an environment of exhaust fumes, particulate pollution and exploding garbage dumps.  It is an urban myth that “organic food” is  “toxin free”, as the food or milk is usually WORSE than the soil used, due to bio-accumulation of toxins during plant or fodder growth. Organic harvests are a factor of  5 or more SMALLER than from scientifically managed farms. In my articles I  have attempted to counter the false propaganda that Sri Lanka’s  vegetables and rice have pesticide residues,  that make them dangerous. Similar fear-mongering propaganda about milk and its contaminants have been rampant in the Sri Lankan press recently

It has been falsely alleged that glyphosate causes the kidney diseases that is endemic in some parts of the North Central Province in Sri Lanka.  A misguided witch hunt against glyphosate is being enacted in the US courts, using juries selected from a frightened public.

Given that organic food (which includes Organic beef)  is less than 2% of the world food production, it can only service a small niche market for the rich. Organic pastures and cattle farming require extended land  area to make up for low  production. Organic methods use tilling and digging of the soil  to control weeds. Thus organic farming and dairy take  a tremendous toll on water and land resources, while triggering increased soil erosion.

The threat of  global warming makes mandatory for us to always choose the ecologically sound approach with a smaller climate imprint. Dairy and cattle farming, or any type of farming which involves monocultures  have  extremely high negative  impacts and they should be avoided as far as possible, especially in densely populated countries.

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