Climate Change: Livestock Intensification not an Option for Africa

By Sharon Atieno

Though the growing population, urbanization, and increasing economic prosperity are driving greater demands for animal products in the African continent, experts have cautioned against livestock intensification to meet this demand.

Speaking during the African Protein Summit in Nairobi, Dr. Daniel Korir, veterinarian and climate change researcher, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) observed that if African farmers were to shift from their current smallholder systems to intensification, it would contribute tremendously to the production of greenhouse gases (GHG) reducing the chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

He observed that intensification would not only lead to increased production of nitrous oxide but also methane gas. This is because the main livestock production system in the continent is focused on ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats among others.

According to Dr. Korir, methane, a potent GHG, comes from the rumen of ruminants when they digest the feed. “This gas has a global warming potential equivalent to 28 molecules of carbon dioxide,” he said, adding that though methane is a short-term gas, lasting for about ten years in the atmosphere, its increased production would increase its concentration in the atmosphere.

Additionally, Dr. Korir said with intensification, the animals would need more concentrates resulting in clearing of large tracts of land for growing the feeds. This would involve destroying protected lands that serve as carbon stocks and thus, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Daniel Korir during the African Protein summit

Sharing similar views, Dr. Victor Yamo, Farms campaign manager, World Animal Protection said, “ The narrative has been climate change is being driven by fossil fuels but the reality is that about 30% of climate change is coming from the production system that we are on.”

He observed that each animal kept is producing a certain amount of GHG with the biggest contribution coming from enteric fermentation during the digestion process, followed by the feeds and the energy being produced during the distribution of the farm products.

Besides, Dr. Yamo said with intensive livestock production there is a high risk of spread of zoonoses. The poor welfare conditions observed in such farming systems including overcrowding and poor ventilation among others, make it easy to have virus mutations and genetic exchange which leads to rise in different disease pathogens.

Further, it is contributing to the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) due to the excessive use of antibiotics. He observed that currently, about 75% of antibiotics produced end up in the farming systems due to poor welfare which makes the animals prone to diseases.

Intensive production systems are also resulting in unhealthy diets dependent on fast foods, unsafe and adulterated foods due to chemicals used, and welfare conditions of the animals as well as occupational hazards for those working in these systems.

Dr. Yamo called for a mindset change noting that, “we need to recognize that planetary health and high welfare are interconnected. They are also interconnected to human health. We are not going to have good human health if we are disturbing animals.”

In this regard, he noted that the adoption of high animal welfare standards which meet certain basic minimum requirements is crucial.

Victor Yamo during a presentation at the African Protein Summit

On the other hand, Mercy Nyangaresi, a public health nutritionist, said that despite animal proteins having high biological value, overdependence on animal proteins leads to increased mortality and morbidity rates associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

She called for the need to consider alternative sources of proteins such as plant proteins noting that “when we eat more crops, it enhances more diversification which increases biodiversity as well as reducing the public health burden.

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