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Is the destruction of Botswana's wildlife justified by UK support of the Botswana beef industry?


Apart from South Africa, the UK is the biggest importer of Botswana beef in the world. Such beef is heavily subsidized by the Botswana government, the UK, and the EU. Beef exports contribute a very small percentage of Botswana's GDP, profit but a few cattle barons, and takes a considerable toll on the environment and wildlife. Is it conscientious for the UK to continue to import Botswana's beef?



It is globally acknowledged that diamonds almost exclusively underpin Botswana's economy. Because of these diamonds, accounting for one third of GDP, 70-80% of export earnings, and half the government's revenues, Botswana was able to transform itself from one of the poorest countries in the world at independence in 1966 to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of $14,100 in 2008. However, Botswana has long been desirous of diversifying the economy, and indeed also has significant resources of coal, copper, nickel, and soda ash, a bit of gold here and there, and perhaps oil and natural gas under the Kalahari desert sands. The desire for diversification is for three reasons - diamond mines have a limited lifespan, diamonds are a luxury commodity the price of which is susceptible to great fluctuations according to the world economy, and diamond mining actually employs rather few people. In a country with 7.5% official unemployment in 2007 (unofficial estimates range as high as 40%) and Government and Local Government employing about 30% of the work force in 2008, alternatives need to be found.



Surprisingly for such a dry country Botswana also exports beef. Before diamonds were discovered, this was the only export worth mentioning (40% of GDP at independence compared to 1% for mining), and was encouraged by both the semi-colonial government (the UK - Botswana was never a colony, but a protectorate) before independence and later the country government when Botswana was listed as one of the most impoverished nations in the world. At that time, about 90% of Botswana's population was employed in agriculture. Massive aid flowed in to support the cattle industry (it was all Botswana had) and then suddenly there were diamonds. Almost overnight the economic situation shifted, and the country took a termendous upturn, maintained and supported over the years by a succession of careful Presidents.



Nowadays, agriculture and livestock production accounts for only 4% (or 1.6% or 2.8% according to various analyses) of the country's GDP, but still employs over 25% of the country's labour force. That figure is probably much higher as agriculture, in one form or another, occupies a significant number of those who work "informally". However, Botswana is what could generously be called a semi-arid country susceptible to periodic variations in rainfall, and rain is on what most agriculture there depends. So important is rain, in fact, that the currency, the Pula, is named after it. Add poor soils to the equation, and most of the agricultural production (80%) is therefore based on grazing livestock rather than crops - and each cow, sheep, or goat needs a very large range to survive. The national livestock herd fluctuates in number according to drought conditions, but is considered in excess of 5 million animals, and this is not counting donkeys and horses. The spectre of environmental destruction due to overgrazing in fragile environments looms, and already has established precedents dating from many years ago in South Africa and Namibia. Yet the practice continues, heavily subsidised by the Botswana government.



Botswana has regularly and truthfully been cited as a model of democracy in Africa. Ownership of cattle, however, is not so democratic. It has been estimated that 15% of the people own 75% of the cattle, and that prominent past and present politicians, top district and local functionaries, and many business leaders own lots of cattle. Indeed, owning cattle has always been and remains a measure of social status, and cattle are greatly intertwined with culture. Even today, a bride price in cattle is demanded before a marriage can take place, and proper funerals (in a country topping the worldwide list of HIV/AIDS infection) demand the slaughter of at least one cow. The southern and more urban inhabitants of Botswana are moving away from such practices, but it still very much de rigueur among rural folk. Cattle thus have powerful political and cultural supporters, and perhaps could be seen as the Botswana equivalent of sacred cows in India.



Unlike Hindus, people in Botswana are not averse to slaughtering cattle for consumption. Indeed, Botswana beef is seen by advocates as being free-range, high quality and hormone free, and therefore competitive with export beef originating from let's say Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, the USA, and Argentina, to mention but a few of the major beef exporting nations. Unlike those countries, Botswana has been granted tremendous export advantages.



First, there came the successive Lome Conventions. Those conventions benefited what are called the ACP states - Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific - to bring their products to international markets with limited or no import duties. In addition, Botswana benefited from the European Development Fund (EDF) for infrastructural development and support for sectors such as tourism development, wildlife conservation, and livestock production. After the Lome Conventions came the Cotonou Convention, that set a tariff quota of 18,916 tonnes of exported Botswana beef per year with a 92 percent reduction in customs duties. On expiration of the Cotonou Convention, an Interim Economic Partnership Agreement (IEPA) was signed and the eight percent levied on Botswana beef entering the EU under Cotonou was lifted. So now, with the interim IEPA offer, Botswana will enhance market access for its beef significantly, as it will be able to export unlimited quantities duty free. Botswana and Namibia are the only countries within the ACP to export beef to the EU. Nevertheless, Botswana is responsible for a miniscule fraction of the EU imports - in 2006, chilled beef supplied 2%, and frozen beef less than 0.5%. Even before the IEPA, Botswana was never able to provide the quotas set by Lome and Cotonou.



The EDF was not alone to provide support for Botswana beef. In 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped create the Botswana Cattle Producers Association. In line with USAID recommendations, the Botswana government is boosting cattle production and increasing the price for cattle - the latter is expected to encourage more investment in cattle rearing.
However, a diversity of other nations are also clamouring to have their beef enter the lucrative EU market - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, the USA, Canada, Australia - the list is long. The EU currently insists that import be restricted to a high-quality, hormone free product, and once that can be achieved, the potential import market could be huge. The president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association (CCA), Brad Wildeman, said, "The EU offers the potential for the largest market for Canadian beef. It's been about a half-million tonnes deficient in beef over the past couple of years, particularly with the expansion of the EU block. Canada has a real opportunity to capture this large, high-volume market". The CCA's director of Government and International Relations, John Masswohl, said "There's a huge opportunity for Canadian beef producers if we can get preferential access." He continued "If Canada could ultimately ship 500 000 to 600 000 tonnes of beef to Europe, it would create new demand for at least two million head of cattle and put the industry into an aggressive expansion mode" and "Beef producers would consider building slaughter plants dedicated to hormone-free cattle if they had assurance of demand". In 2010, the EU Presidency passes to Spain. The Spanish Government has already announced a resumption of the Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay) negotiations to import 315,000 tonnes of beef to Europe. Right now Mercosur has a duty free quota of 10,000 tonnes of beef - the rest of their current imports to the EU (300,000 tonnes) comes at a 100% import tariff. The EU has offered a 100,000 tonne additional quota, in return for larger EU access to Mercosur markets for industrial goods, services, and investments.


This is all horse-trading. The point is that there really is no worry for EU residents to be supplied with beef - many countries stand poised to supply if EU cattle fall short of local beef demands. In addition, there is a 3% decline in red meat (beef) consumption per year in the EU - for many reasons such as perceived health risks of a diet of beef, offset by more consumption of chicken and pork. Local farmers are increasingly against the free entry of foreign beef - some Norwegian farmers, for example, believe it is unethical to import beef from countries where there are so many people living below the poverty line.... and say the people there should eat the meat themselves (they do - in fact, farmers in Botswana get more for cows taken to local butchers than the government abattoirs, and a rump steak sold in a local supermarket gets a better price than that exported). But again, NORAD - the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation - has provided assistance to exporters of beef like Botswana to meet with quality and hygiene demands, and sees Botswana's cattle production as an example of a successful development project.



In supplement to being hormone-free, the EU also insists that imported beef is disease-free, especially with regard to Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). Botswana has periodic outbreaks of the disease among cattle herds, and has built a very extensive network of veterinary control fences that criss-cross the country and secure the borders. These fences are supposed to achieve three main purposes -prevent contact between cattle and wildlife, especially African buffalos that are seen as the main reservoir for the disease; allow diseases to be contained in case of an outbreak; and allow strict controls to be exercised in terms of cattle movements in the country. The continued outbreaks, however, indicate that disease control is a difficult undertaking and that an illegal flow of cattle occurs both across borders and through fences. Botswana had FMD outbreaks in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008 in this decade alone, all of which interfered with exports.


In addition, it is becoming more and more costly for Botswana to supply the EU market. The Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) is the sole entity handling exports, needs to comply with stringent EU food and safety regulations, and each consignment has to meet EU standards. This implies control of animal feed, handling and transport, etc. To comply, the Ministry of Agriculture spent 211 million Pula up to 2007 on a traceability system to ensure transparency from birth to slaughter, and further many millions on upgrading abattoirs (the Pula fluctuates mostly on a downward trend on currency exchange markets, but this would equate roughly to $40 - $45 million). Compliance costs could grow even further with increasingly demanding and binding regulations to meet EU standards of animal welfare. The Botswana government also supplies substantial support for productivity increases, borehole drilling subsidies (to provide water), financial assistance for infrastructure development, and subsidised loans and tax advantages. The bottom line - livestock maintenance is costing the government huge amounts of money, and if the tax-free EU imports were to be withdrawn, the whole system would collapse. Interestingly, the export agreements also require that the environment does not suffer from the beef production, a rather tricky point as explored further below.


The value of beef exports ranges between $80 and $100 million per year. Over the five years for which most data is available (2004 to 2008), the largest importing countries were South Africa (about $160 million total for 5 years), UK ($102 million), Germany ($57 million) and Greece ($44 million). One wonders what this translates to in terms of government profits - the industry requires considerable outlays, and the production profits accrue to coddled farmers. And that is just in terms of finance - beef production also operates at a net loss to environmental quality and to another income earner - wildlife tourism.



It has been well-established that the construction of the veterinary fences involved tremendous losses of wildlife, as the fences were built with near-total disregard for migratory routes of a number of species. Migratory species like wildebeest, zebra, hartebeest and springbok thus show the overall greatest declines in population densities: studies conducted in 1978 and 1999, for example, indicate a decline in wildebeest numbers from 315,000 to 47,000; hartebeest from 293,000 to 31,000; springbok from 101,000 to 52,000; and zebra from 100,000 to 55,000. Many factors have probably contributed to this decline, but loss of habitat and interruption of migratory routes have to be seen as key contributors - during the droughts of the early 1980s, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 wildebeest alone died along the Kuke Veterinary Fence in northern Botswana. A recent study by Mbaiwa and Mbaiwa (2006) concluded the following: "The erection of veterinary fences in Botswana indicates that [as] in most developing countries, immediate economic benefits for sectors such as agricultural development are often implemented to the detriment of other sectors, such as wildlife management" and "Instead of promoting the sustainable use of Botswana's wildlife resources, globalization and international trade are thus contributing to the depletion of its wildlife resources".


In addition to the loss of migratory herbivores caused by an expanding cattle sector, there is also considerable loss to populations of carnivores. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, hyenas, African wild dogs, and jackals increasingly come into contact with domestic stock and are destroyed as problem animals. As both farmers and wildlife authorities deal with problem animal control, statistics for this decline are extremely difficult to gather - but between 1992 and 1998, 135 lions were reportedly killed as problem animals by the Wildlife Department alone in zones bordering protected areas in northern Botswana, most of them on the southern perimeter of the Delta (Rutina 2000).  In 2000, 80 lions were reported trapped or shot, mainly along the Boteti River near Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, and a lion research project located near the southern boundary of the Okavango delta and bordering on livestock lands lost 60 lions in a three-year period, largely due to the use of poison by a single small village.


Wildlife tourism is a growth industry in Botswana, already accounts for substantial employment and foreign exchange earnings, and while specific wildlife tourism income figures are not published by the Botswana government, the industry already contributes much more to GDP than cattle. Income from tourism provided by operators (not necessarily all wildlife) in 2005/2006 was estimated at 3 billion Pula, or over $500 million.  With fairer management of funds accruing to wildlife tourism (an estimated 70% of funds currently paid by wildlife tourists to come to Botswana stays out of the country), the sustainable use of wildlife resources can be both a durable and an environmentally friendly contribution to Botswana's economy. In that regard, Botswana needs to take a long and hard look at the future contributors to employment, GDP, and sustainable sectors. An ever-expanding livestock herd with resulting environmental degradation, uncertainty of future status in a highly competitive world market, the lack of assurances that the current special status will be maintained, and the high Botswana government subsidies paid to maintain what is essentially a high-risk endeavour in a country beset with periodic droughts and disease outbreaks all weigh against the cattle industry.


The consistently largest EU importer for Botswana beef has for many years been the UK. Along with all the EU import requirements listed above, the EU also requires labeling to inform the public of where their product comes from. As a supermarket shopper, you will be told if your olives come from Spain, Italy, or Greece; whether the beef you are contemplating purchasing comes from Britain, Argentina, or Easter Island.


In the UK, the sole importer for Botswana beef is Allied Meat Importers. They then disperse the meat to wholesalers such as Booker Cash and Carry, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Big Food Group plc, with 173 branches. Booker then sells the meat to chain restaurants, caterers, carveries, pubs, and other businesses. In an informal and admittedly limited interview with eight Booker butchery managers, there was a diversity of comments. Some said the quality was inconsistent, not good, the beef had no flavour, and could not compete with British beef. Others said the beef was good, it matured nicely during the travel from Botswana to the UK, and that the difference in price sold the beef - prime UK rump sells for £8.99 to £9.99 per kilo versus £6.99 to £7.99 for Botswana rump; UK topside for £7.99 versus £5.49 to £6.19 for Botswana topside. Special deals were available for Botswana beef from time to time.


Clearly Botswana beef sells because of the reduced price, not really surprising given the heavy subsidies. But should it be bought even at cut-rate prices given the environmental damage it entails? Is the destruction of Botswana's wildlife justified by UK support of the Botswana beef industry? Is the support of an industry that most economic experts say will ultimately fail worth the massive subsidies and grants afforded by the Botswana government, the EU, NORAD, USAID and the like? Is your cheap rump steak worth the life of a wildebeest, a lion, or a zebra?

LionAid is a charity concerned with programmes and initiatives that support innovative means of ensuring the survival of an iconic species. We will examine all aspects that have contributed to the decline of African lions, and always advocate for sustainable conservation measures. LionAid is unique among UK charities to pursue this goal.


Posted by Pieter Kat at 16:06

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