The Boma

Changing climate, changing cattle farming - Part 2

October 18, 2021 International Livestock Research Institute Season 1 Episode 5
The Boma
Changing climate, changing cattle farming - Part 2
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

If sub-Saharan Africa produces just 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the livestock sector just a fraction of those, why should the governments of these countries be concerned?

Because there's much more to the story. The intensity of the emissions is higher in these countries than in others, and the livestock sector is growing in size every year. In the second part of a mini-series on climate change and livestock, presenter Tim Offei-Addo speaks to ILRI scientists Polly Ericksen and Klaus Butterbach-Bahl to find out what makes these emissions so important, and what can be done about it.

Ericksen and Butterbach-Bahl explain how ILRI helps to collect data about greenhouse gas emissions in sub-Saharan Africa, equipping countries with the means to tell an accurate story of their climate emissions to the international community. 

And they warn that as developed countries vilify livestock as a major producer of greenhouse gases, this could prevent crucial investments in livestock in the developing world. Investing in livestock in sub-Saharan Africa could help mitigate emissions, help poor farmers earn a livelihood and produce more food. Is there a place for livestock to be part of the solution, and not the problem, for climate change?

Tim:                     Welcome back to The Boma, a podcast from the International livestock Research Institute where we discuss livestock issues that impact the global south. I'm your host, Tim Offei-Addo. This is the second of a two part series, looking at how ILRI scientists are working with farmers to adapt to and mitigate climate change in the global south. Last episode, we talked about climate adaptation, and heard stories about the social changes that climate change is causing as the dairy sector grows. Today, we're talking about climate mitigation. What is it? And why should countries in the global south care.

Polly:                   So mitigation is just simply trying to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from any activity because greenhouse gas emissions are what drive global warming; methane in particular.

Tim:                     That's Polly Ericksen, program leader of the Sustainable Livestock Systems Group at ILRI.

Polly:                   There are a number of sources of greenhouse gases; for example, transportation and fossil fuels, those are, those are some of the really big ones, particularly for heavily industrialized countries.

Tim:                     Like United States, United Kingdom or China.

Polly:                   But for countries that are still on a path to economic development agriculture is a very, very important economic sector. And agriculture also is a source of greenhouse gas emissions and that can be from cutting down trees, plowing up soils, releasing previously stored carbon into the air, it can come from using chemical fertilizers on soils and can very importantly come from livestock production in a couple of ways. First is that when ruminants digest, they emit methane, it's the gas that is involved in their digestion process, and they will always emit methane. Also, the manure that they produce, as well as the urine also contains other kinds of gases, mostly nitrous oxide which is also quite a potent greenhouse gas as well. So the concern comes that although total emissions from livestock production in sub-Saharan Africa is not as high as it is in some very industrialized systems, the emissions intensities are very, very high. And that's a concern because the livestock sector in Africa and Asia is on a growth trajectory. So what do I mean by emissions intensities? I mean the Co2 equivalent per unit of output; most often we calculate that as per kilogram of protein, per liter of milk. If your emissions intensities are very high, it's not good because as you get more and more animals, you're going to have bigger herds with very high emissions intensities which could lead to quite dramatic overall increases in emissions.

Tim:                     According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, emission intensities in Sub Saharan Africa are around 70 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of animal weight. That number is more than double the emission intensities in North America where it's at 30 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of animal weight. Interestingly, sub-Saharan Africa produces the least amount of global emissions of greenhouse gases, accountable for a mere 7%. However, the large difference in emissions intensities has caused many to worry about a growing livestock population. One of the reasons for this gap is the lack of high quality feed.

Polly:                   So the key reason for the differences in emissions between North American systems and African systems is the quality of the food. Okay, so the quality of the feed in many East African systems is not that great. Yes, they don't have all this corn silage high concentrate feeds; they spent a lot of time digesting low quality grasses, crop residues. For much of the year, they don't even have enough to keep their body at what we call maintenance weight, so they're wandering around losing weight but still emitting methane. So yes, so it's the feeds, it's the feeds, it’s the feeds.

Tim:                     For a long time, the world wasn't focused on the dairy systems of the global south, let alone how much methane they produced.

Polly:                   So the reason that the ILRI agenda initially focused on mitigation was the uproar that started with Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in 2006, where the FAO and others really said, Hey look, the emissions from the livestock sector are more than we thought. And that's both direct emissions from digestion and manure production but also indirect from land use change. Livestock also gets a lot of criticism for being a major driver of deforestation and land use change and land degradation. And so people felt and donors still feel that you can't really talk about adaptation in the livestock sector unless you are proactively dealing with the mitigation side and that's still a very, very, very strong narrative.

Tim:                     The pressure from the international community led to a series of initiatives at ILRI to understand how much methane, nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide was released from a typical farming system, culminating in Mazingira, a world class research station dedicated to climate mitigation work.

Polly:                   So Mazingira, it means environment in Kiswahili, which is the main language in Kenya and Tanzania. It's an investment that the International Livestock Research Institute made starting in about late 2013, early 2014 for a couple of reasons. First was that prior to that, some scientists at ILRI namely Mario Herero, Philip Thornton, and a couple of their collaborators had made an effort to improve the estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and emissions intensities from livestock production systems across the global south, but still largely using model based results. But the important point that they were making in their model based work was that there's a tremendous heterogeneity of types of livestock production systems across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and it's very misleading to assume that all livestock production systems behave the way that highly intensive systems in, let's say, Europe or North America or Australia do.

Tim:                     Mazingira has helped ILRI support national government by quantifying the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural systems. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa need access to good data to be able to tell the international community what the story of climate change is in their country. But as we learned last episode, focusing on greenhouse gas emissions doesn't capture the full picture of what's happening with climate change. 

Klaus:                  You can't talk to local farmers about greenhouse gases.

Tim:                     That’s Klaus Butterbach Bahl, a geochemist working with ILRI at Mazingira.

Klaus:                  But to be locally and regionally of influence, you need to think about how you improve the feed basis. And by this one, you will also be interested and say, Okay, if you improve the feed basis and change systems; finally, what does this mean with regard to how much greenhouse gases are emitted from the systems. So, you try to find a way to optimize how much greenhouse gases are emitted per product. So, which means emitted per liter of milk, you could use or per kilogram of meat, you could use or whatever. And so you always need to look into strategies to increase the income of local farmers, while at the same time without, lets say, really getting way off that one, because it's a rather complex topic if you talk about climate change and greenhouse gases and how much they may contribute to that one. You ought to try to quantify what it means if you would do that large scale; which means Mazingira and all that was always working as well on the production side.

Tim:                     Klaus told me how scientists at Mazingira are gathering data on greenhouse gas emissions and helping farmers increase their productivity and income. 

Klaus:                  For example, the Mazingira has so called respiration chambers so it's more or less a closed home where you put an animal in and it gets its feed, and then we measure how the concentration of gases changes from the inlet, for the fresh air coming in, to the outlet, and from that one we get total emissions of this cow or whatever or sheep. So from this you get that one and then you put this number you get in relationship to what this animal is producing. So of course, the animal continues to produce milk; six liters of milk it can let alone make depending on how well it's fed. And the same is finally; how much weight it gains. So which means you have a measurement for the greenhouse gas and you have a measurement for the productivity. And you bring both together finally to get to the number which I was saying, okay, kilogram Co2 emitted per kilogram of milk produced, this is something else; which means you do different measurements and that as well while we can talk to farmers, because we know how to produce.

Tim:                     But the laboratory isn't the only place that scientists measure greenhouse gases.

Polly:                   The actual laboratory based measurement is not even the biggest part of what we do. A lot of the work to improve emissions factors involves doing what we call activity data collection, which is a very intensive field work out on actual farmer's fields, following them and their cows around asking them lots of questions about how they manage their cows, taking very detailed records of what they feed their cows, weighing their cows. And you need to do this over a whole year, because with the bimodal rainfall distribution that we have in much of East Africa, you get tremendous seasonal variability in feed availability and feed quality.

Tim:                     Visiting farmers and talking to them about their growing conditions is revealing a lot about the impacts of climate change.

Klaus:                  In most parts of Kenya, you have two rainy seasons okay? We have the short rains and the long rains. And then, what we see in the moment with climate change happening, they're not coming regularly as before. So you put your crop out, you’re a maize farmer, and your maize needs 100 days to come to maturity. If there's no rain, in between a longer drought period like two weeks, the crop is dead. And with that one you also lose the feed for your animals. Sometimes you get too much rain, everything is flooded and then you can see the flooded fields and you see that the maize is dying from that one as well because it got flooded. And the same is for any feed production. So that's how climate change is affecting it, on the one hand. It affects the delivery of the feed to the livestock, and how much feed is available in the season.

Tim:                     As Polly said at the opening of this episode, climate change mitigation is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But as both Polly and Klaus have told us, the climate is already changing and farmers need help adapting to what could be a new normal.

Polly:                   Because even though we focus on the terrible carbon footprint of livestock, the greenhouse gas footprint of sub-Saharan Africa is still miniscule compared to that of let's say, the United States so it's a bit of hypocrisy that we're requiring countries across Africa to actually even have greenhouse gas mitigation targets at all.

Tim:                     But educated donors and other agencies, if necessary, work.

Polly:                   And I could, I could give you examples of conversations I have with donors who say it's very hard for us to fund livestock development because of the extremely negative perception on the part of policymakers and consumers. Livestock are carbon emitting food; they're bad for the environment. So ILRI has spent a lot of time demonstrating that we can reduce the carbon footprint of livestock.

Tim:                     ILRI's partners can use greenhouse gas emissions data to get more funding for climate mitigation and adaptation work.

Polly:                   Some savvy people in livestock departments that we work with realize that if they want to attract climate finance, that's a way of stimulating investment in the livestock sector that will also have side benefits of improving productivity. Because just about anything that you do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensities for livestock will improve their productivity which is a win-win because that's what farmers care about right? They want to have more productive animals so that they can earn more money and produce more food.

Tim:                     To say its complex seems a tad underwhelming. But the story of climate change mitigation in terms of attempting to reduce emissions is not straightforward. Reducing emissions is good and necessary work, but the conversations with Polly Ericksen and Klaus Butterbach Bahl have shown that helping farmers adapt to climate change, and increasing their productivity should be the most urgent development agenda. Farmers are already forming farming cooperatives and working together to manage livestock foraging on crop residues. These synergies are great and, along with other low emission development strategies, can help to reduce emissions. 

Over the course of these two episodes, Todd Crane, Esther Kihoro, Klaus Butterbach Bahl, Rene Bullock and Polly Ericksen have taught me this; climate adaptation is an effective climate mitigation strategy. Keep joining us at the Boma where we will continue to bring you more stories from the lab, desk and field. Visit to learn more about climate change and how researchers and scientists are supporting the world's livestock people. Don't forget to subscribe to the Boma on Spotify, Apple podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

What is climate mitigation? Why should developing countries care?
Total emissions vs. emissions intensities - what's the difference?
Why GHG emissions depend on livestock feeds
When did the world start calling for climate mitigation for livestock?
Introducing the Mazingera centre at ILRI
How do ILRI scientists work out how much greenhouse gases are emitted by livestock?
How is climate change affecting farmers in Kenya?
How policymakers can help livestock farmers and also meet climate emission targets