Climate Change: Addressing the Cow in the Room

Written by Dr Pamela Pophiwa – Postdoctoral fellow, Future Africa Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems

Introduction

Livestock plays an important role in the livelihoods of millions of people in Africa. For example, livestock is an important source of food, income, manure (for fertiliser), and draught power; they also fulfil many social-cultural obligations. Globally, livestock production is expected to increase due to population growth and increasing demand for livestock products. Unfortunately, there is growing pressure against animal agriculture, and the sector is now considered a threat to the environment. Protests against animal agriculture are now a common sight at environmental summits due to the contribution that farming with livestock makes to climate change. Many scientists and activists are calling for a shift from animal to plant-based diets as a key climate change mitigation tool. This is a concern, particularly in many African countries where animal protein is critical in alleviating widespread malnutrition, child stunting, and wasting. In addition to providing high-quality protein, meat has socio-cultural connotations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and it might be a challenge to encourage consumers to substitute traditional meat-based with plant-based diets.

So, what is the problem with animal agriculture?

Livestock (mainly ruminants) contribute significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for over 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions. As GHGs accumulate in the atmosphere, they trap the sun’s heat, leading to global warming and climate change. Climate change is manifested by an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and other extreme weather conditions. In recent years, the African continent has been experiencing an increase in these extreme weather events related to climate change. For example, parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan are currently experiencing the worst drought in more than 40 years, which has affected at least 36.1 million people. The 2019 cyclone Idai which hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, killing more than 1,500 people and displacing hundreds of thousands, is described as the worst tropical cyclone to affect the southern hemisphere. Other effects of climate change include loss of biodiversity, increasing health risks, and poverty and displacement.

Livestock-related GHG emissions are mainly from the enteric fermentation of feed and manure management. Enteric fermentation is a process by which micro-organisms in the gut of animals, particularly ruminants, break down feed, producing methane as a by-product, which is emitted when the animals burp. Methane is also produced as a by-product of manure decomposition in the absence of oxygen. Livestock methane emissions are expected to increase as livestock production intensifies, with Africa soon becoming a major emitter of GHGs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that if GHG emissions continue to increase, the earth’s surface temperature will rise by 1.8 ºC to 4.0 ºC by the year 2100. The sub-Saharan African region is already hot and dry, and it is predicted that the situation will become worse, increasing the vulnerability of the region, which is already facing serious food shortages. The livestock sector is, therefore, an attractive focal point for GHG reduction, as small changes could result in significant shifts in total GHG emissions and climate change. This should, however, not compromise agricultural production and livelihoods. 

The way forward

Given the urgency to act on climate change, there is a need to increase the coordination of research efforts on appropriate agricultural GHG mitigation technologies and practices. To meet this need, the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), launched a partnership with Future Africa (University of Pretoria) in July 2022 to better understand climate change and agricultural GHG emissions research in Southern Africa. The project implementation team proposed a collaborative forum, Qinisa, that will promote the coordination of agricultural GHG-related research between relevant research organisations in Southern Africa and provide a platform for knowledge sharing on appropriate GHG-mitigation technologies and practices.  

Immediate benefits of Qinisa

Lack of infrastructure and capacity remains a major challenge in advancing agricultural GHG research in Africa. Qinisa will coordinate capacity-building initiatives and promote the efficient utilisation of key resources. This will increase research efforts and improve our understanding of appropriate GHG-mitigating technologies and practices. Additionally, the uptake of research evidence by policymakers remains weak. Qinisa will provide a platform that links members of the science community, policymakers, and farmers to each other and provides research-based evidence to formulate appropriate policies that can be translated into practice.

image of a woman wearing a pink blouse
Dr Pamela Pophiwa, Postdoctoral fellow, Future Africa Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems

 

Will the research findings be beneficial to those outside of Southern Africa?

Qinisa will support the exchange of information and promote the efficient utilisation of key resources among stakeholders in Southern Africa. Key lessons learned will be documented, and the project will serve as a blueprint that could be adapted and replicated in other African regions.

Who can partner with Qinisa?

Many challenges still need to be addressed to advance GHG research across the region, and this requires the participation of multiple stakeholders. Anyone with an interest in climate change adaptation and mitigation can partner with us. Funders can support research activities undertaken across the main thematic priorities. Universities and research institutions can assist with human capacity development and infrastructure. Government departments can assist by linking researchers to policymakers for translating research into policy. International organisations can bring international perspectives to inform GHG research in Southern Africa. Farmer organisations can bring the voice of commercial and small-scale farmers and promote the dissemination of knowledge produced.

Interested stakeholders can reach out to us directly through ARUA-SFS platforms (email and social media) to join our efforts in reducing GHG emissions.

Conclusion

While there have been some positive research developments on livestock GHG mitigation, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed. This will require a holistic approach involving agricultural research institutions, universities, industry, policymakers, and farmer organisations. Currently, there are no initiatives to link multiple stakeholders in developing low-GHG food systems. Qinisa will provide a central platform for the science-policy-practice interface, supporting the implementation of various research initiatives and helping to translate science into practice. The outcomes of Qinisa will be shared across a variety of platforms, including workshops, science-policy dialogues, information sessions, social media posts, newsletters, and TV programme panel discussions. We anticipate that the programme will become a blueprint of best practice for researchers and policymakers in their efforts to reduce GHG emissions for sustainable food systems. This transition towards sustainable food systems will ensure that livestock contribute to food security and livelihoods without compromising the environment.