Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Signs of Stress: The Biological Base: Rangelands Deteriorating

One tenth of the earth's land surface is cropland, but an area twice this size is rangeland-land that is too dry, too steeply sloping, or too infertile to sustain crop production. This areaone fifth of the earth's land surface, most of it semiaridsupports the world's 3.3 billion cattle, sheep, and goats. (See Table 3-1.) These livestock are ruminants, animals with complex digestive systems that enable them to convert roughage into beef, mutton, and milk.37 

An estimated 180 million people worldwide make their living as pastoralists tending cattle, sheep, and goats. Many countries in Africa depend heavily on their livestock economies for food and employment. The same is true for large populations in the Middle East, Central Asia (including Mongolia), northwest China, and much of India. India, which has the world's largest concentration of ruminants, depends on cattle and water buffalo not only for milk but also for draft power and fuel.38 

In other parts of the world, rangelands are exploited by large-scale commercial ranching. Australia, whose land mass is dominated by rangeland, has one of the world's largest sheep flocks of 117 million sheep6 for each Australian. Grass-based livestock economies also predominate in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay. And in the Great Plains of North America, lands that are not suited to growing wheat are devoted to grazing cattle.39 

Although public attention often focuses on the role of feedlots in beef production, the world's beef and mutton are produced largely on rangeland. The share of the world's cattle, sheep, and goats in feedlots at any time is a tiny fraction of the vast numbers feeding on grass. Even in the United States, which has most of the world's feedlots, the typical steer is in a feedlot for only a matter of months. If rangelands deteriorate, so too will this forage-based segment of the world's livestock economy. 

Beef and mutton tend to dominate meat consumption where grazing land is abundant relative to population size. Among the countries with high beef consumption per person are Argentina, with 69 kilograms per year (152 pounds); the United States, with 45 kilograms; Brazil, 39 kilograms; and Australia, 36 kilograms. In some countries with extensive grazing land, mutton looms large in the diet, as in New Zealand with 25 kilograms, Australia 14 kilograms, and Kazakhstan 7 kilograms.40 

These same ruminants that are uniquely efficient at converting roughage into meat and milk for human consumption are also a source of leather and wool. The world's leather goods and woolen industries, the livelihood for millions, depend on rangelands for their raw materials. 

Worldwide, almost half of all grasslands are lightly to moderately degraded and 5 percent are severely degraded. The excessive pressure on grasslands, not unlike that on oceanic fisheries, afflicts industrial and developing countries alike. A survey of the U.S. public grazing lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in 2000, for example, showed that only 36 percent of native public rangelands have forage that is in good or excellent condition, with most of the remainder of fair or poor quality.41 

Although the data for grassland degradation are sparse, the problem is highly visible throughout Africa, where livestock numbers have tracked the growth in human numbers. In 1950, 238 million Africans relied on 273 million livestock. By 2000, there were 794 million people and 680 million livestock.42 

In this continent where grain is scarce, 230 million cattle, 241 million sheep, and 209 million goats are supported almost entirely by grazing and browsing. The number of livestock, a cornerstone of the economy everywhere except in the tsetse-fly belt (roughly the western Congo Basin), often exceeds grassland carrying capacity by half or more. A study that charted the mounting pressures on grasslands in nine southern African countries found that the capacity to sustain livestock is diminishing.43 

Iranone of the most populous countries in the Middle East, with 70 million peopleillustrates the pressures facing that region. With more than 8 million cattle and 81 million sheep and goatsthe source of wool for its fabled rug-making industryIran is faced with the deterioration of its rangelands because of overstocking. In a country where the sheep and goats outnumber humans, mutton consumption looms large in the diet. However, with rangelands now being pushed to their limits and beyond, the current livestock population may not be sustainable.44 

China faces similarly difficult challenges. In northwestern China, the buildup in livestock since the economic reforms in 1978 is destroying vast areas of grassland. Since then, livestock numbers have increased dramatically. In Gonge County, for example, in eastern Qinghai Province, the number of sheep that the local grasslands can support is estimated at 3.7 million, but by the end of 1998, the region's flock had reached 5.5 millionfar beyond its carrying capacity. The result is fast-deteriorating grassland, desertification, and in some locations the creation of sand dunes. Erik Eckholm, writing in the New York Times, reports that "the rising sands are part of a new desert forming here on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, a legendary stretch once known for grasses reaching as high as a horse's belly and home for centuries to ethnic Tibetan herders."45 

Fodder needs of livestock in nearly all developing countries now exceed the sustainable yield of rangelands and other forage resources. In India, the demand for fodder in 2000 was estimated at 700 million tons, while the sustainable supply totaled just 540 million tons. The National Land Use and Wastelands Development Council there reports that in states with the most serious land degradation, such as Rajasthan and Karnataka, fodder supplies satisfy only 50-80 percent of needs, leaving large numbers of emaciated, unproductive cattle.46 

After mid-century, world beef and mutton production expanded much faster than population, climbing from 9 kilograms per person in 1950 to 13 kilograms in 1972. (See Figure 3-1.) Since then, however, the growth in world beef and mutton production has fallen behind that of population, dropping the per capita supply to 11 kilograms, a decline of about one fifth.47

Land degradation from overgrazing is taking a heavy economic toll in the form of lost livestock productivity. In the early stages of overgrazing, the costs show up as lower land productivity. But if the process continues, it destroys vegetation, leading to the erosion of soil and the eventual creation of wasteland. A U.N. assessment of the earth's dryland regions showed that livestock production lost from rangeland degradation exceeded $23 billion in 1990. (See Table 3-2.)48 

In Africa, the annual loss of rangeland productivity is estimated at $7 billion, more than the gross domestic product of Ethiopia. In Asia, livestock losses from rangeland degradation total over $8 billion. Together, Africa and Asia account for two thirds of the global loss.49

With most rangeland now being grazed at capacity or beyond, the prospect for substantial future gains in beef and mutton production from rangelands is not good. And given the inefficient conversion of grain to meat by cattle, substantial further gains in beef and mutton production may be possible only by feeding more crop residues. (See Chapter 7.)


Table 3-1. Domesticated Ruminants by Country, 2000
Cattle and Buffalo
Sheep and Goats
(million head)
(million head)
United Kingdom
United States
Source: FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database,, updated 2 May 2001.


Table 3-2. Livestock Production Loss from Land Degradation in Dryland Regions, 1990
Production Loss
(billion dollars)
North America
South America
1Column does not add up to total due to rounding. 
Source: See endnote 48.




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