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Visions of a sustainable food future

Birthe Paul, Environmental Scientist

“For millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, livestock are indispensable. They’re not mass-produced on factory farms, but raised by family farmers in rural areas”

Livestock: the untold story

For me, there are two sides to every story. And that’s definitely the case when it comes to livestock.

In North America and Europe, we hear much about the negative health impacts of eating too much meat; of cows producing too much methane; of deforestation driven by our hunger for beef. In industrialized and emerging economies, these concerns are valid.

But in developing countries, there’s a different side to the story. For millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, livestock are indispensable. They’re not mass-produced on factory farms, but raised by family farmers in rural areas.

As a vital source of meat and milk, livestock provide dietary diversity for those who need it most, and a dispensary of fresh milk. Plus, through sustainable intensification, they could be a source of far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s an exciting prospect, because livestock – particularly cattle – have enormous potential to lift people out of poverty across Africa. I’ve seen how, by switching what animals eat and improving management practices, farmers can transform their meat and milk production, boosting their incomes.

This study from the Tanzanian highlands shows that by feeding livestock improved grasses with local supplements, milk yields could go up 29 percent for local breeds, boosting income by up to 39 percent – which can help farmers pay for healthcare, or send their children to school.

Central to improving cattle productivity will be improving their diets. Nutritious grasses bred for local conditions already exist. Some – such as Brachiaria grass – are easy to digest, cutting methane emissions per liter of milk or kilo of meat. They can also restore soil fertility, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon dioxide, while better tolerating drought and providing food during lean times.

So why haven’t more farmers planted improved grasses?

First, many farmers don’t prioritize crops for their animals to eat; they focus on crops for their families. So most mixed crop-livestock farmers spend a lot of time collecting low-quality, wild grasses to feed their cattle, locking them into a vicious cycle of low productivity and financial returns. Changing this will require changing the farm system.

Second, farmers currently struggle to get improved forage grass seeds of Brachiaria, for example, which are yet to be mass-produced in Africa. That’s why we’re using big data approaches to work out where a homegrown commercial seed industry for Brachiaria seed production might be viable in Africa, to boost the supply of better, more affordable forage seeds.

Improved forages are not a silver bullet, but they are a powerful weapon in our armory. We can literally sow the seeds to feed the engine of sustainable growth for Africa, guiding the international community towards the first Sustainable Development Goal of wiping out poverty.

That’s a side to the livestock story the world needs to know.

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