Beasts of Burden

In the lowest point in Africa — the Danakil Depression, which covers parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti — salt extractors travel in camel caravans for days over perilous territory where temperatures are fierce and water is scarce. PHOTO: SIEGFRIED MODOLA/REUTERS

In the lowest point in Africa — the Danakil Depression, which covers parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti — salt extractors travel in camel caravans for days over perilous territory where temperatures are fierce and water is scarce. PHOTO: SIEGFRIED MODOLA/REUTERS

In the United States, we are accustomed to thinking of draft animals as relics of the pre-combustion engine past or, at historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, as nostalgic attractions. But draft animals remain ubiquitous in other parts of the world as central participants in food economies, both as food products themselves and as power to move agricultural products from fields to markets.

In areas of the world where roads accommodate hooves better than wheels and the expertise to maintain and repair motorized vehicles is scarce, pack animals are the most economically efficient tool to move food products to the market to maximize profits for producers. Some draft animals are likely to be used as food once their ability to provide labor diminishes, thus filling in multiple links in the chain of food production, distribution and consumption.

This trend is relatively recent in some parts of the world. Animal power was introduced into subsistence agricultural systems across sub-Saharan Africa in just the last 100 years and facilitated a transition to commercial agriculture. In West Africa, for example, a 2005 regional report by agricultural scientists encouraged farm owners  to incorporate more livestock power, or “animal traction,” into their farming practices to offset growing wage costs for human farm labor.

Some parts of the world that primarily use draft animals for food transport are the same places that record the oldest evidence of livestock domestication. The American Museum of Natural History reports that cattle and equids were domesticated for draft use between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, traditional draft livestock systems in these regions now exist in parallel with a growing turn to industrial farming in today’s globalized economy.

The transition to industrial farming in the early 20th century in the U.S. and Europe replaced animal traction with tractors. But today, in regions that continue to use animal labor, the same transition may merit further consideration due to the role fossil fuels play in climate change. While this shift in attitude may stall transition from animal to engine in some parts of the world, the transition from animal to machine labor could still happen, but the machines may run on different fuels.