Visions of a sustainable food future

Ngonidzashe Chirinda, Farming System Specialist


“I’ve seen first-hand how animals can be raised sustainably and profitably. We don’t have to dream about it – it’s happening right now”

The future is full of green cowsE_SDG_Icons-13

For me it’s a travesty that livestock have such a bad name.

All we hear is how animals produce greenhouse gases, drive deforestation, and destroy the land. I can see why so many look down on livestock.

I think that’s going to change, radically. For me, the future is full of green cows.

That’s because I’ve seen first-hand how animals can be raised sustainably and profitably. We don’t have to dream about it – it’s happening right now.

I’ve also seen how different pastures can nourish animals, rehabilitate soils, prevent erosion and capture carbon.

And I’ve seen how better feeding regimes can cut methane emissions while maximizing productivity, incomes, and the quality of meat and milk. This is simply by fine-tuning the combination of grasses and legumes fed to animals.

Some of this we already know; we just need to find better ways of spreading the word. Instead of reinventing the wheel, maybe we just need to attach the wheels we have to the right wagon.

But exciting new advances are coming too.

I think we’re going to hear a lot more about one particular tongue-twister: biological nitrification inhibition (BNI). This describes the ability of certain plants – such as CIAT’s Brachiaria forages – to trap nitrogen in the soil, preventing it from turning into nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. BNI helps keep nitrogen in the ground. That’s good for soil health and mitigating climate change, and for saving farmers money on fertilizer. I think research in this area is going to pay huge dividends across whole landscapes. Tomorrow we’ll be as familiar with the idea of BNI as we are today with the concept of water footprints.

You often hear that change will be slow, because agriculture is a culture, and cultures take a long time to evolve. But I think that’s a cop-out; we just need to rethink the way we take these ideas to the farmers, to the private sector, to governments. Just think how many changes we’ve seen in popular culture in the last 50 years: from hippies, to punks, emos, and hipsters and everything in between. In an interconnected, globalized society, change can happen in a season or even overnight. This will help new and existing innovations take hold quickly.

With so many green cows on the horizon, it won’t be long before we stop talking about livestock’s “long shadow” and start talking about its long reach. We’ll need to invent new expressions because “triple-“ or “quadruple-win” won’t be broad enough to capture the full range of benefits animals bring to smallholders, consumers, and the environment.

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