The Boma

They are what they eat - But what are we telling farmers to feed their animals?

January 26, 2021 Isabelle Baltenweck Season 1 Episode 1
The Boma
They are what they eat - But what are we telling farmers to feed their animals?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

There have been over 22,000 studies on the best ways for farmers to feed their livestock. But how many have looked at whether farmers actually benefited?

Jeremy Cherfas interviews Isabelle Baltenweck, leader of the Policies, Institutions and Livelihoods, about the differences and distances between livestock researchers and livestock farmers.

Five years ago in 2015 the United Nations agreed on a list of 17 sustainable development goals, including ending hunger by 2030 Today we aren't much closer to eradicating hunger, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. 690 million people are still hungry. That's almost 9% of the world population. And it's a bit unsettling. And we need to ask how do we change agriculture to feed these people with the climate changing?

It's also really important to do this without damaging the environment. Welcome to the Boma. My name is Tim Offei-Addo and I'm your host. Each episode we dive deep into the world livestock to learn how livestock contribute to sustainable food systems, livelihoods and nutrition in the global south.

Today, I want to talk about livestock and how they could potentially help fight hunger In October 2020, a paper called the CERES Report came out. It was this pretty unique study that was asking the development experts the following questions. Hey, how in the world are we doing? Are we helping farmers produce more food for our farmers? Listening to our advice How can we, as researchers be better and help farmers solve world hunger?

The report looked at research areas like climate resilience, the employment food waste, water scarcity and livestock. Yeah, that's right. Livestock. If you come from a specific part of the world or format discipline, if you see cattle, you see milk, immediately you say, Okay, people keep cattle for milk. But actually some people keep cattle for something. Like manure or like prestige.

And I think it's really important for for Research and Development Act agents to to first understand how are people deriving a livelihood in that in that in that area. I believe that's we we we have to first we look at general assessment. It's really about ensuring that what we are proposing is relevant and is sustainable as well.

Isabelle Baltenweck is program leader of the Policies, Institutions and Livelihoods Program at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, She was the lead author of one of the series 2030 Papers on Better Feed for Livestock. Over the years, researchers have tried to help livestock farmers solve hunger by introducing new feed options like different varieties of grasses and trees. They tested how well the feed grew in the field or nourish an animal, but it was hard to tell if better feed translated to less hunger, if farmers had more money to buy food, or if animal products like milk meat or eggs were easier to access and if they decreased malnutrition

Isabel and her colleagues looked at over 22,000 papers on livestock feed to see if there was any impact on income, nutrition or workload. Essentially asking if and when farmers use the advice of development experts, did their livelihoods improve? Isabel told Jeremy Cherfas about what they found and how research needs to evolve to become more effective. 

Researchers shows seems to be more interested in checking without a particular forage or a particular treated you. What is the impact in terms of, you know, any more productivity changes in in an experiment, whether when whether farmers actually care actually benefits in invested options? We didn't want to look at a paper that, you know, does feed trials in terms of if I give X more kilos of that forage to one animal, how much more milk or much more weight gain that animal  will get. But what about if I propose all of those new feed options to the farmers, will actually people use them? Actually decide to allocate more land, more labor, moreso to plan to grow the feed options. And what will be the impact on productivity of the animal and what will be the impact on people's income, on nutrition? 

And this is where we have failed, I think as researchers in terms of really asking those kinds of questions and not only being interested in how much more kilos of-which are interesting obviously is a starting point- but it's really about whether farmers have all the ingredients, all the incentive and are able to, you know, get the right credits, the right plans, the right resources to actually use them for their own benefits.

JC: But there were a few studies that did actually managed to look at all these things. So what was what was the results? 

Yes, it's really about really matching the feed options to the farmers conditions. We looking at the extension, providing the right kind of trainings or access to the to the inputs like seed. Always new options require either, you know, more capital, more labor.

It's really about targeting livestock keepers who have an interest or having an option to sell the end product meats milk or the animal to the markets. If it's mainly for home consumption it's very difficult for livestock keepers to start shifting resources within the house or to to be able to adopt that new option. So it's really about understanding the system as a whole and in a way putting ourselves in the shoes of that livestock keepers and asking ourselves, will we actually adopt that new option?

JC: But when farmers do have access to markets and they do have maybe a little bit of capital and access to extension services when they adopt these new feeding regimes, do they, in fact, get that productivity? Do they get better livelihoods? 

IB: Yeah, yeah. Yes, it was the results where we had actually.

So we have so few papers that's in the range. The range of effect is extremely is extremely large because, you know, we we are comparing, for example, granted forage with our forestry in terms of duration. It's extremely restrained. But yes, productivity change has as we said, we seen that for planted forages for activity changed. It ranged from ten to 30%.

So not quite a substantial increase crop. But you do actually we because one of the points of the paper that we kind of had foreseen it we know the fact that as as livestock sciences we haven't sufficiently looked at crop residues as as a feasible and as a potential feed options I think was reinforced here. And the crop prices you guys went has been as been seen as having a good a good impact a good effect on productivity.

We didn't have any papers but looked at the effect of property you on, on income, on margin or on the, on labor use, for example. But in terms of credits for edges and agroforestry, we have identified a few papers, five papers actually for for the two edges and three or need for agroforestry with respect to the to change in the household income and so some of those effects were actually quite quite substantial because you you actually changing completely a farming system.

When you introduce a new and you forage for example and therefore you still allow an extremely large increase in in productivity. 

TO: One thing that was apparent from this study was that not many researchers are actually asking if farmers will use a livestock feed intervention 73 out of 22,000 papers ask that question. That's less than 1% of the existing research.

It's tiny, miniscule and honestly, a little disheartening, but it's a bit more shocking than that in the numbers of that. Also looked at whether farmers livelihoods in livestock productivity changed as a result. Six studies, six studies out of that 1% looked at if farmers were doing better in achieving more. Few studies also had anything to say about the way farmers can make use of crop residues, leaving us with more questions than answers.

Isabelle Baltenweck tells us they expected as much because not many livestock scientists have studied the importance of crop residues to subsistence farmers in the global south. Okay. So you're probably wondering what are crop residues? They're crop leftovers. They are the parts of the plant that humans normally do not eat. For instance, when a farmer harvests groundnuts, which you might know is peanuts, they left with a top of the plant, a small green bush.


IB: We eat the groundnuts, the nuts that are in the ground, but we don't eat that green part. So rather than let this go to waste, the farmers feed them to their cattle, their goats, cows, etc. And the groundnuts are so that market or used in the household. And this is one of the main ways that livestock are fed in tropical regions.

TO: A plant breeding has changed dramatically since the Green Revolution plant breeders are more focused on producing smaller plants with higher yields of human food. We're not always thinking about breeding plans for leftover crop residue, so this has dramatically decrease the amount of residues that livestock farmers can use. 

IB: So that's a way, I suppose, researchers like any human being is is working.

We have kind of our our own pet topic, right? And of course breeders like weeds of weeds with of maize or of Ronettes, they are objective is really to look at human food rates to increase for security through that's through that channel, that angle. And it's sometimes difficult for us to work across across disciplines My colleague just passed away actually a few weeks ago.

Michael Blummel was actually one of the few breeder who was able to really work and has done all these is his working life working with crop breeders to not only consider grain, grain grain traits, but as well as leafs and all the crop residues traits when when doing those breeding programs. And he has been quite successful in India in particular.

It's indeed a relatively easier way to finance livestock productivity because as well as the distribution channel of of those seats, grain granites or maize or wheat oaks are already quite well established. And in that way, if you if you introduce a crop which is new traits, if I if I may see that way into the seats, you you actually don't have to do any extra work too as well.

And I have predicted this and so therefore on my strategy, I think I hope this paper will you know see more that potential of working with livestock. Livestock science. 

JC: Yeah I mean it's as you say it can be done and so there's a recommendation that maybe breeders should pay more attention to the overall productivity of of the plants they're working with.

I wonder what other recommendations you have coming out of the paper? 

IB: So it's it's really about this well, because of those so few papers as a 73 paper that's really looked at as a de fact of feeder interventions on on adoption productivity and and and livelihood impact. I think as as as an economist me I I really have to reach out better to the animal protection scientists and them to do the same with people working on my topic.

So that you know we we'd have to move beyond those first few trials or and really be able to include an impact assessment in more in more projects being having being able to actually observe, analyze and collect data in the longer term so that when a new feeder options or applying as well to other parts of livestock you know animal health of the genetics we actually able to capture those changes over time and indeed really start learning not by doing modeling but as well by observing and collecting information on whether or not lifestyle keepers, you know, what are the constraints, what are the things that support them in using the new interventions and whether they make adjustments as well on the way that that will be fed back to the research and when what has a major impact in terms of all was physiology, income, nutrition, labor as well across gender. So this is need for more longer term evaluation and impact assessment, I think is about as well is a strong conclusion that we have not being serious enough in in following up on those interventions.

We've been, I think, pretty good at identifying new foragers and new new traits. That's what it means in practice. At the end of the day, I think we should really get a bit better into that. I find Isobel bottom based critique of how researchers need to change fast need it for me highlights two things the disconnect between researchers and farmers and the areas where partnerships and collaborations can thrive.

TO: On the first note, Isabelle mentions that it's important for researchers to modify their approach and put themselves in the farmer's shoes, possibly asking questions like How are they farming? Are they keeping livestock for other reasons in milk or meat? Or what could stop farmers from changing how they feed their animals? By asking these questions, researchers can build products that cater to the needs of the farmers.

Isabelle also spoke of the success that the researchers have had over the years, particularly mentioning that the best interventions happened in communities where farmers had access to market. It's a significant finding because donors and public officials can target funding to projects that are developing market opportunities or working with farmers who already have access to market. Equally significant is the conversation around crop residues, partnerships between plant breeders, livestock scientists, economists and others will be key to helping farmers gain access to improved feed through crop residues So what do future livestock feed cities need to do to improve?

Find out what Isabelle Baltenweck and her coauthors recommend in their paper by following the link in our episode description and visit Why Livestock Matter Forward. To learn more about livestock in the future of food and to listen to new episodes of the Boma. Special thanks to Isabelle Baltenweck and Jeremy Cherfas and Annabel Slater for production and technical support  Keep joining us at The Boma where we will continue to bring you more stories from the lab, desk and field.


The CERES Report
A short history of livestock feed research
Why farmers can't use the same feed options
Crop residues as a livestock feed
Where feed research fell short
It's important to work across disciplines
What are the recommendations for the future?