The Boma

'Livestock are a vehicle for a better world'

March 22, 2022 International Livestock Research Institute Season 2 Episode 2
The Boma
'Livestock are a vehicle for a better world'
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Susan MacMillan knows why livestock matter. An ILRI Emeritus Fellow, she has led public awareness and advocacy communications at ILRI for nearly 33 years.

In the latest episode of The Boma, Elliot Carleton and Brenda Coromina find out how Susan went from being an Ohio native who had never even glimpsed a living cow, to becoming one of the most passionate advocates for livestock farming in developing countries today. In a wide-ranging and informative talk she explains how the modern stigma against livestock farming in some countries was born from good intentions, her respect for vegetarians and vegans, and why livestock matter for countless people in the world today and tomorrow. Listen to the episode to find out what Susan thinks the future of livestock will look like.

And listen to Susan Macmillan and Lora Iannotti go deeper into the nutritional benefits of livestock-derived foods in Season 1 Episode 6 of The Boma: 'Animal-source foods for people and the planet'.

Further reading:
ILRI's Jimmy Smith on the livestock controversies holding back greater use of milk, meat and eggs to nourish the undernourished
Livestock and livelihoods
Livestock and the rural poor

Music: Atakte 3 by Moby courtesy of

Elliot: Welcome back to The Boma. A podcast from the International Livestock Research Institute where we discuss how sustainable livestock is building better lives in the Global South. 


My name is Elliot Carleton.


Brenda: And I’m Brenda Coromina. 


Elliot: Today is part 1 of a 2 part series in which we’re going to be talking with Susan MacMillan, who is one of our colleagues here at ILRI. But who exactly is Susan?


Susan:  I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t think I saw a cow before I was 20 years old. Maybe I did, but I don’t remember it. So no, I didn’t know much about livestock. It’s all been learned in the last 15, 20 years or so.


Elliot: When Susan was just 22 years old—about the same age that Brenda and I are now—she threw on a backpack and left for Kenya. And for most of her life, she has stayed right here.


Brenda: She has now worked at ILRI for more than 30 years and is an expert not only in livestock-related matters, but also in public awareness and advocacy. 


Elliot: During her time at ILRI, Susan has witnessed the evolution of livestock research and development first-hand. And I think everyone would agree—Susan is really passionate about livestock. 


Susan: I was a schoolteacher in Kenya for many years, and then went back to California, got a degree from Berkeley in literature, and I became an editor and a writer for a political magazine. And then about 30 years ago, I moved to ILRI and started writing about livestock but mainly in those days I was a science writer. So I was mainly writing about molecular biology and T cells and all of the things we're now learning about with our current pandemic.


And then after about 20 years ago, I moved into more public awareness kinds of writing, which is to say I started to try to write about why this research mattered and not so much about the science itself. And that's when I started to learn about livestock.


Brenda: Living in Kenya, engaging with local communities and working at ILRI has shown Susan exactly what livestock mean to millions of people.  


Susan: It happens that livestock are right at the intersection of so many concerns to the world, whether that's the environment or nutrition or children's health or the health of pregnant women or greenhouse gases or food security or jobs and livelihoods for 2 billion people around the world, and then for feeding 2 billion people around the world. Livestock are incredibly important. In the developing world, livestock in many places like Africa, 70% of the population are raising animals for a living. 70%. So livestock is everyone's business. For many, many countries, most countries in the developing world, livestock are the lifeblood of people's livelihoods.


Elliot: I think this is a really interesting contrast with our background, Brenda. Because coming from the United States, it feels like whenever we hear about livestock, it’s usually something negative. 


Brenda: There definitely seems to be a growing stigma surrounding livestock in the United States and much of the developed world. But if livestock are so important to people in developing countries, then where did this stigma come from?  


Susan: It's several things coming together. In 2006 an important study came out from FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that detailed the environmental harms of livestock around the world, rich countries as well as poor. And although they said they are still important to poor people, which is 1 to 2 billion people who are living in poverty. We should be doing something about that. And they were quite right. However, a phrase was used in promoting that book that a cow in the backyard is as damaging to the environment as an SUV vehicle. And it's just not true. I mean, the transport sector has much more responsibility for greenhouse gases and many other things. But we all have cars if we're relatively rich and we all get to work by cars and we all have them as central parts of our lives, and very few of us anymore in rich countries have a cow or sheep or a goat or a chicken as central to our livelihoods. Therefore, we concentrate on that which is a luxury—the eating of meat, let's say, or milk, rather than on the transport business, which we know we should also fix.


Elliot: The FAO report Susan mentions was called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow ’. And it really jump-started many of the environmental concerns surrounding livestock. To be clear, a lot of those environmental concerns are very real… livestock can contribute to things like land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions – as we’ve learned right here on The Boma.


Brenda: But it is also important to put those environmental concerns in perspective. For example, Africa as a whole produces less than 4% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. And African livestock only contribute a tiny fraction of that 4%. So when we’re talking about solving global environmental challenges like climate change, there are much bigger concerns than livestock in the developing world. 


Elliot: But unfortunately, a lot of people don’t differentiate among global livestock systems. And I think part of the problem may be that many people in the developed world don’t understand the differences between their industrial animal farms and smallholder farms in Africa.


Susan: Yes, I think our view of industrial systems, the negative views of industrial systems have certainly colored views of smallholder agriculture across the world. And again, reasonably so. If you grew up in a richer country and an industrialized country and you see these problems on the news at night, etc., you're not seeing pictures of smallholder farmers in India and Bhutan, in Indonesia, in West Africa, in northern Vietnam. You're just not seeing those pictures. And if you did, you would understand immediately.


And I think that's true for most of us. Certainly it was true for me from Cleveland, Ohio, the suburbs. I didn't get it.


Brenda: And these concerns about livestock also seem to have driven a recent rise in vegan and vegetarian diets.


Elliot: And I wonder what Susan thinks about those efforts to get people to cut meat out of their diets.


Susan: There's there's a great aspiration to be doing the right things. But humankind, as Tamar Haspel, a wonderful food reporter for the Washington Post, says, people like meat and they always have. And Laura Iannotti[EC5] , one of our colleagues at the University of Washington in Missouri, who's a nutritionist, will tell you that we have liked meat forever. And probably the reason our brain is as large as it is and our evolution has been what it has been is largely to do with the fact that we have consumed animal products and I won't go into that, but there are many papers on that if anyone would like to read about it. So most people are not vegetarian. Very few people are vegan. I admire both groups. In fact, if I hadn't been so lazy as a young woman in Cleveland, Ohio, I probably would have become vegetarian just to do the right thing. I think it has all the right impulses. You want to do right for the world. You don't want to harm any animals, etc. What I've learned by being out in the world and now being an older age is that the world is very complex and farm animals are not just for meat and milk. They are in America and Europe, perhaps mostly for meat and milk, but across the world, many more countries than those use farm animals for, I don't know, irrigation, for manure for the crops. In fact, you can't grow all the crops, the vegetables, that the vegetarians want to eat. You cannot grow them without livestock in households in most countries on earth, especially in the drier countries, you can't grow any crops. You have to have livestock or you're not going to have anything to eat or to live by. So veganism and vegetarianism and the slow food movement and the real food movement, I admire all of them. And, not a but, but and, that's for people who have a choice. 


Brenda: This is really crucial. You have to be eating some animal products in the first place in order to give them up.


 If you don't have a choice. First of all, I think most people should be able to have a choice if they're treating animals humanely and raising them right. And second of all, most people don't have a choice. They can't go get a substitute for high protein, they can’t eat peanuts or. You would have to eat something. Is it eight times or nine or ten times the amount of spinach in order to have just the same amount of high density nutrients you get in a very small piece of liver? You just can't eat enough of those other foods if you have a very restricted diet. And again, anyone who is interested should look up what meals look like across the world. And they've done these wonderful stories on what one week's groceries looks like from Berlin or Tokyo and Hanoi and Niger, etc. and it's just remarkable the differences. So what most people are eating in poor countries are the cheap foods, and the cheap foods are starches and tubers and wheat, maize, sorghum, potatoes, and those are good foods. We wouldn't be alive without them, but they are not as nourishing as the nutrient dense livestock foods. They simply are not. And there are few things in the livestock foods, meat, milk and eggs which exist in no plant foods whatsoever. So if you have a highly restricted diet because you're poor, it's very important to be eating modest amounts of those livestock derived foods.


Elliot: So, a lot of the criticism surrounding livestock farming is coming from a good place. People want a healthy environment and they want animals to be treated humanely—and we should all want those things. But it is also important for people in richer countries to not overlook the fact that livestock are still fundamental to the health and nutrition of millions of people across the developing world… and that’s not even to mention their livelihoods. 


Susan:  It's easy in the West. Let's call it the West, the richer countries of the world. It is easy to see the harms livestock cause and harder to see the goods because we don't live intimately with them anymore. But just because people in other countries are living in circumstances remote to the richer world does not mean that they should be neglected or forgotten.


Brenda: I hope we can all come to agree on that. But how can we prevent their perspective from being overlooked?


Susan: When it comes to policymaking. I think if we learned anything with climate change or any of our other huge issues in the world, the challenges that are facing us, it's that the world is one. And we have to pay attention to all of the major stakeholders and not just pay attention to any one segment. That's what I would hope for. So a widened perspective which says, yes, in Chicago, I'm going to stop eating so much meat because I believe that will be better for blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever good reason. But I am not going to tell people in Niger who are living on sorghum and have milk three times a year or I met in Nigeria who has chicken once a year on Christmas. I am not going to tell those people what to eat because they need those livestock products in order to be adequately nourished, especially children, women, women of all ages, the elderly, the ill. They all need livestock products and there aren't a lot of choices. There aren't a lot. You can't tell people to eat more greens when more greens do not occur in the dry lands of the Sahel, etc. So a kind of a, if we could all take a wider perspective and come to some middle ground where we understand each other, that would be a hopeful future for not just for the livestock sector, but for all sectors that have to do better for a better world.


Brenda: OK. So cultivating a more global perspective is really the key here. Not only for addressing livestock issues and differences between the developed and developing worlds, but also for many other global challenges. 


Elliot: Exactly. And, Brenda, as recent college grads excited to be working on the African continent, I know that we are both interested in Africa’s future. And so, my final question for Susan is this. Given that some people think we should aim for a livestock-free future, and soon, how will livestock fit into Africa’s future… and what exactly will that future look like?


Susan: I mean the future is open. What we're saying right now is not that livestock will always matter and be part of our food system, although it does look like that to me. But maybe they won't. But in the meantime, we have a responsibility to help people through a transition to whatever the next thing is. And certainly what will not work is throwing away the lifeblood of people, the lifelines of people's lives of 2 billion lives around the world. That's that's not going to work in the same way that if we just threw away all cars tomorrow and all airplanes, the world could not function the way it does. Do we have to do something about the transport sector and the livestock sector to make them more green? Absolutely. More humane? Absolutely. More sensible, more practical, more profitable. All of that. Yes, yes, yes. But don't throw it away. Work with people and with what people have instead of imposing solutions that would be disastrous, calamitous to their lives.

I guess as a parting shot, livestock isn't the answer to agriculture or anything else. 

So I'm not proposing that people say, oh, yes, livestock is the most important thing. Of course, human beings and the environment and the world, the earth we live on, these are the most important things. It happens that livestock are an underserved, under-resourced, under understood vehicle for a better world. 

Brenda: That is very well put. And I think it’s a great place to leave off for today. Thank you so much to Susan MacMillan for helping us understand the importance of livestock in the developing world. 

Elliot: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. We would love to hear your feedback on today’s episode or the whole podcast series. So please reach out to us on Twitter at BomaPodcast to let us know your thoughts, and also, what topics you’d like us to cover moving forward. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, please don’t forget to share and subscribe. 

For part 2 of our discussion with Susan MacMillan, stay tuned for the next episode of The Boma. I’m Elliot Carleton. 

Brenda: And I’m Brenda Coromina. So long and thanks for listening.

How a teacher became a science writer
Is there a stigma against livestock farming in developed countries?
How to reconcile vegetarianism and veganism with livestock farming
How will livestock fit into Africa's future?