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Livestock Are More Than Just Emissions

Africa needs to reduce emissions and protect food security. Villainizing livestock will lead to neither.

By , the director-general of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, a CGIAR research center.
A boy in a blue shirt tends to cattle with long horns.
A boy in a blue shirt tends to cattle with long horns.
A Sudanese boy from the Dinka tribe tends to a cow in the early morning at a cattle camp in Mingkaman, South Sudan, on March 4, 2018. Stefanie Glinski/AFP via Getty Images

As delegates, scientists, and climate activists gather this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, they have an opportunity to rethink the role of one of the most maligned yet underexploited sectors in climate action: livestock.

Animal farming is often reduced to a single issue—the methane emissions of cows, which contribute significantly to global warming. Yet while around a third of human-caused methane emissions do come from livestock, these estimates are skewed by data from industrialized countries. Consider, for example, the fact that the average American consumes around 128 kilograms of meat per year, while the average Nigerian eats just 7 kilograms.

Generalizations about animal agriculture hide great regional differences and often lead to diet guidelines promoting shifts away from animal products that are not feasible for the world’s poor. For instance, the highly publicized 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission report recommended a largely plant-based diet whose cost, based on retail prices from 2011, was estimated to exceed the total household per capita incomes of more than 1.5 billion people. The urgent food, nutrition, and economic needs of hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia should not be sacrificed to pay for methane that was largely emitted elsewhere.

As delegates, scientists, and climate activists gather this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, they have an opportunity to rethink the role of one of the most maligned yet underexploited sectors in climate action: livestock.

Animal farming is often reduced to a single issue—the methane emissions of cows, which contribute significantly to global warming. Yet while around a third of human-caused methane emissions do come from livestock, these estimates are skewed by data from industrialized countries. Consider, for example, the fact that the average American consumes around 128 kilograms of meat per year, while the average Nigerian eats just 7 kilograms.

Generalizations about animal agriculture hide great regional differences and often lead to diet guidelines promoting shifts away from animal products that are not feasible for the world’s poor. For instance, the highly publicized 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission report recommended a largely plant-based diet whose cost, based on retail prices from 2011, was estimated to exceed the total household per capita incomes of more than 1.5 billion people. The urgent food, nutrition, and economic needs of hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia should not be sacrificed to pay for methane that was largely emitted elsewhere.

As the outgoing director-general of the East Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which works across the developing world, I have a very different perspective from many people in the industrialized West. When I think of livestock, I think about the over 1 billion people around the world who depend directly or indirectly on farm animals. I remember a schoolteacher I met on the outskirts of Ibadan, Nigeria, who used her earnings from the afternoon milking of her two cows to pay for her children’s school uniforms. I think, too, of a successful dairy farmer in Arusha, Tanzania, who was opening a small yogurt factory with his herd of 20 cattle, creating better prospects for him and his family.

Generalizations about animal agriculture hide great regional differences.

Across Africa, and indeed much of the developing world, farm animals are much more than cellophane-wrapped meat or bottled milk. The farming of cows, goats, pigs, and poultry is essential to people’s livelihoods—and therefore purchasing power, which in turn determines household food security at a time of increasing global insecurity. In countries that face high levels of malnutrition and poverty, livestock provide families with food, jobs, income, draught power, and a sense of cultural identity.

These benefits are often overlooked and, over the past decade, have become sidelined by narrow perspectives shaped in the West. That is why it is so important that decision-makers at COP27 hear voices from developing countries, whose perspectives on livestock are informed by their lived experiences.

At COP27, world leaders should acknowledge that Africa in particular needs livestock to address both food insecurity and climate adaptation—and that investing in the sector’s sustainable growth will deliver benefits that are not undermined by its environmental impacts. Sustainable development is not a zero-sum game, and in recent decades, ILRI and other researchers have identified ways to maximize the benefits of livestock in Africa while minimizing environmental impacts, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving grazing and rangeland management.

One notable development in global agriculture has been the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, a landmark U.N. decision from 2017 that recognized the unique potential of agriculture in tackling climate change. But Koronivia discussions have been ongoing for the past five years, and Africa needs to start seeing results from these talks in the form of more dedicated institutional finance for agriculture, including livestock, and greater inclusion of agriculture in COP negotiations and agendas.

A nuanced approach to livestock was endorsed in the latest mitigation report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in April. While the report acknowledged the potential benefits to shifting to more plant-based diets in wealthy countries, it also called for more investment in the developing world’s livestock sector, which, it stated, has “the highest emissions reduction potential.” One reason for this potential is that there is great room for improvement in the efficiency of livestock production systems across developing countries.

The IPCC highlighted three areas where greater international investment, research, and innovation would significantly reduce emissions associated with livestock production. This scientific evidence should underpin discussions at COP27 around climate finance and action in Africa and jump-start new investments from governments, foundations, and the international community into sustainable livestock practices and solutions.

One major area for improvement, as the report detailed, is the quality and availability of livestock feed. Rather than soy or other commercial grains, livestock in Africa subsist almost entirely on grass and crop wastes. This means animal products do not come at the added cost of land that could be used to produce food for people, but it also means that animals are more vulnerable to, for instance, extreme conditions due to climate change that reduce the amount of fodder available. Research by ILRI has shown that one way to reduce the greenhouse gases emitted per livestock product is to ensure farmers and herders can access and afford enough quality feed for their animals.

Another significant opportunity to support sustainable agriculture is through animal health products and services. African countries suffer a disproportionate burden of livestock diseases, which result in the loss of around 1 in 5 animals. When a food-producing animal is lost to disease, the emissions associated with raising it are not converted into food, fertilizer, fiber, or income. More animals—and thus more food, land, and water—are needed to achieve the same output.

Finally, advances in genetics offer the promise of climate-resilient breeds that can remain productive under increasingly harsh conditions. Scientists are investigating the genetic characteristics of sheep and goats that have adapted to Ethiopia’s hot and dry regions to breed livestock that can thrive in more extreme temperatures, reducing emissions while enabling farmers to adapt to climate change. If the international community invests in more research and breeding, Africa will likely need fewer animals to meet its growing demands for meat, dairy, and eggs.

Like every continent, Africa must strive to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. But African countries must also reduce malnutrition, create decent livelihoods for their people, and promote environmental stewardship. The continent has the opportunity through livestock to achieve all this.

Improving livestock productivity in Africa goes hand in hand with reducing agricultural emissions and protecting food security from the impacts of climate change. As the delegates and activists gather in Egypt, they must remember that both outcomes are vital for humanity’s long-term well-being. Villainizing livestock will achieve neither.

Jimmy Smith is the director-general of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, a CGIAR research center. Twitter: @ILRI_JimmySmith

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