Saturday, June 15, 2024

Are African livestock farmers also greenhouse gas emitters?

Since prehistoric times, humans have based their diet on the meat of animals that inhabited their environment.

Yet campaigns are being driven to reduce meat consumption advocated by vegetarian or vegan organizations that call for abstaining from meat consumption altogether.

A leading scientist in animal genetics and breeding at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Professor Tadelle Dessie says de-campaigning of meat is usually based on scientific facts generated from intensive beef and dairy farms from the north.

However, he warns that it may have serious economic and cultural implications, especially for developing countries, including Africa, as millions depend on animal farming for their livelihoods – food, fuel, risk aversion among others. His insight  as  President of the All African Society of Animal Production (AASAP) Professor at Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia come ahead of the All Africa  Conference for  for Animal Agriculture to held in Gaborone in September.

He says research has recently started investigating possible methods to encourage consumers to reduce meat consumption for health reasons. He says there are grounds for assuming that the willingness to eat meat was a significant factor in shaping the final stages of human evolution.

“The 20th century saw a particularly pronounced increase in meat consumption, thanks to economic growth, developments in meat production technology, and intensified urbanization. A meat-based diet became the symbol of wealth, and meat consumption was regarded to be the best way to satisfy one’s nutritional needs,” says Professor Dessie.

He says on a global scale, the fast and constant growth of the human population results in the need to increase food production.

“However, the intensive mass-scale animal-based production is linked to numerous strains on the environment. Intensive meat production also requires new areas and resources (e.g., huge amounts of water, electricity, fuels etc.). To reduce the demand for additional land for agriculture, production technologies used nowadays involve genetic modifications and the use of chemical substances such as fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones).

In 2013, The Food and Agriculture Organization reported that livestock farming accounted for 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

“I don’t believe animal agriculture in Africa with its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is not properly accounted for. It seems justified to say that intensive animal-based production in response to the growing demand for meat and animal-based products contributes to the devastation of the natural environment and plays a significant part in climatic change,” says Professor Dessie.

The scientist says “The research work at ILRI shows that the emissions intensities (EI) of smallholder livestock farms vary widely with up to 50% of the sampled smallholder livestock farms having EI similar to mean Pan-Europeans emissions intensities i.e., 2.1 – 5.0 vs 2.13 vs 2.8kg CO2-eq/kg FPCM for the present study, Ireland and global estimate, respectively,” says Professor Dessie.

Dessie leads a program called Tropical Poultry Genetic Solutions (TPGS) – a program being implemented in eight African countries and in three South East Asian countries. 

The goal of the program is delivering farmer-preferred, productive and ecologically adapted poultry breeds to smallholders in the tropics.

“We in TPGS/ILRI work closely with our national partners and address their needs and more specifically we follow the needs and aspirations of smallholder farmers. Previous poultry programs failed to incorporate poultry genetics tailored to the needs of smallholder farmers” he says.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) led the African Chicken Genetic Gains (ACGG) to evaluate the performance of Dual-purpose and tropically adapted breeds across agro-ecological zones under scavenging conditions and introduce feasible business models.

“The World Poultry Foundation (WPF) built on this work, partnering with private hatcheries to multiply-delivered at scale these birds to rural households under the Africa Poultry Multiplication Initiative (APMI). The integrated approach enhanced productivity, reduced poverty, improved household nutrition, and empowered women, reaching over 2.4 million rural households across Africa since 2015, says the Professor.

Things being meaty, animal scientists are concerned by zoonotic diseases as the main contributor to emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) presenting a major threat to global public health as a result of consuming bushmeat.

Bushmeat is a collective term for meat derived from wild mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds that live in the jungle, savannah, or wetlands. Bushmeat comes from a variety of wild animals, including monkeys, pangolins, snakes, porcupines, antelopes, elephants and giraffes.

“Bushmeat is an important source of protein and income for many African people, but bushmeat-related activities have been linked to numerous EID outbreaks, such as Ebola, HIV, and SARS,” says Professor Dessie.

“Importantly, the increasing demand and commercialization of bushmeat is exposing more people to pathogens and facilitating the geographic spread of diseases. To date, these linkages have not been systematically assessed. More than 75 % of EIDs in humans are of zoonotic origin, which means the pathogen originates in animals and is transmitted to humans and needs systematic research work to understand and contain, he says.

Research on animal health

He says there are a lot of achievements to mention in the areas of animal health. Just to give an example Vaccine development: for rinderpest and avian influenza. The success of AU- IBAR in coordinating the eradication of rinderpest and preventing the occurrence of the pandemic highly pathogenic avian influenza in Africa through vaccination. In the African continent the establishment of AU-PANVAC and its role in the quality assurance of veterinary vaccines in Africa and laboratory capacity enhancement, and the coordination by AU-PATTEC for the eradication of tsetse and trypanosomiasis are worse mentioned.

Regarding animal genetics the professor says says “a lot is happening in Africa in improving the production and productivity of animal agriculture – the Genomic selection for dairy genetic gain that is happening in a few countries and selective breeding on indigenous chickens to develop breeds that are more productive, tropically adapted, and farmer-preferred using our indigenous chicken population as a base population few that are notable to mention- developing the right animal for the right environment, are few to mention,”

Professor Dessse says livestock production and productivity are severely restricted by the scarce and low nutritional quality feeds which result in poor performance of animals leading to rampant malnutrition in Africa.

“Genomic assisted breeding is playing key role in accelerating trait improvement in temperate forages such as perennial ryegrass and alfalfa, but most tropical forages are lacking this resource preventing the application of modern breeding tools such as genomic selection and/or gene editing approaches.

“In the last decade, several milestones have been achieved with contributions from Feeds and Forages unit at ILRI. For example, reference genomes were developed for Napier grass (Yan et al., 2020) and lablab (Njaci et al., 2023). Furthermore, genetic diversity and genome wide association studies (GWAS) were carried out on key target forage species that led to cataloguing the existing diversity for efficient management and identification of genetic markers (SNPs/Indels) which can be used for genomic assisted breeding. In the face of havoc arising from climate change and dwindling arable lands, the genomic and phenomic metadata generated from Feeds and Forages unit at ILRI will play a key role in fast-tracking breeding projects at NARES and ultimately boost animal performance in the region, he says.

The scientists says challenges in his field of research are many, but the most important ones are limited private sector involvement in input and technology multiplication and delivery at scale, low-trained human power, limited budget allocation by countries in Africa for livestock research and development, and less cooperation between African countries and even researchers.

Effect of climate on African agriculture

“For sure climate change will affect African animal agriculture immensely. The continent will and already experiences periods of prolonged droughts and /or floods during ElNino events. Arid and semi-arid land could expand in coverage by 60-80M ha. Fisheries will be particularly affected due to changes in sea temperatures that could decrease trends in productivity by 50-60%,” he says.

The scientist says as climate warms, net income across all animals will fall, especially across beef cattle. “The fall in net income causes African farmers to reduce the number of animals on their farms. The fall in relative revenues also causes them to shift away from beef cattle and toward sheep and goats and even camels.

He says ICT tools are helping address constraints in agricultural value chains and are offering new opportunities to use approaches, such as indexed weather insurance, that relies on digital weather stations and global positioning system information. Using ICT—radios, cell phones, computers, the Internet, digital cameras, and geographic information systems (GIS)—can reduce transaction costs, increase access to markets, improve productivity (e.g., by providing information on better farming practices), provide better and more frequent access to critical market information, and improve communication throughout the value chain. In short, using ICT can enhance results and help projects become sustainable and scalable beyond a typical project’s reach.

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