/ 8 November 2022

COP27’s food and agriculture focus should include livestock

It is outrageous to focus solely on livestock as climate villains when sustainable solutions can improve the lives of the cattle and the people who farm them

This week’s global climate summit, COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, is the first global climate summit to be held in Africa since 2016 and the first to have a strong focus on food and agriculture.  

The location and the focus are important. Africa today is at the epicentre of an escalating series of humanitarian crises primarily caused by the impact of climate change on food production. Unfortunately, I fear that once again the key primary victim of the climate extremes now surging across Africa – and a critical resource for helping millions of vulnerable Africans adapt – will be discussed mainly as a cause of climate change.   

I’m talking about livestock, notably the cows, goats, camels, sheep and chickens that are the most valuable asset for hundreds of millions of African households. Over the last year, an unusually long and intense drought in East Africa has killed millions of livestock. Today, Massai herders in Kenya are selling off animals that can barely stand. Livestock-dependent families in Somalia alone have lost at least three-million animals.  

There is nothing unusual about livestock dependence or, unfortunately, about the tragedies caused by their loss. Livestock is the most valuable household asset for roughly 1.3-billion people around the world. What is very unusual today is how so many people can be simply invisible. Instead, the dominant livestock conversation at the world’s climate summits focuses on livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and, at the extreme, calls for eliminating livestock altogether.   

Granted, livestock risks are real, especially when it comes to problems like the destruction of Amazon rainforests to satisfy the voracious appetite for beef in wealthy countries. But it feels ironic, bordering on outrageous, to be focusing solely on livestock as climate villains when across sub-Saharan Africa – a livestock-dependent region that only accounts for roughly four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – livestock animals are clearly climate victims.  

Here are just four examples of how this skewed focus on livestock risks, unbalanced by a consideration of sustainable solutions, is causing significant harm to some of the most neglected people on the planet. 

  • Millions of lives are being devastated by climate-related livestock losses when their animals could be saved: The world would be spending a lot less for disaster assistance in East Africa today if there had been a greater willingness to invest in livestock coping strategies – like breeding programmes that focus on drought-tolerant traits. 
  • That also could include expanding access to the innovative livestock insurance programmes emerging in the Horn of Africa. They use satellite data to detect early signs of deteriorating grazing conditions. The policies then provide payouts that allow farmers to save their herds – which also are essentially walking banks that hold their life savings – before it’s too late.
  • Failing to invest in livestock intensifies poverty and malnutrition: For many families in Africa and Asia in particular, livestock can provide a sustainable pathway out of poverty.  We need to be increasing market opportunities for small-scale livestock farmers by investing in things like affordable animal health services and food safety resources so they can provide consumers with safe, healthy products.

    For fighting under-nutrition, a report last year from UN Nutrition was clear: improving access to relatively small portions of milk, meat and eggs, which efficiently package a range of essential nutrients, can significantly reduce stunting in children and address nutrition challenges that endanger pregnant or lactating women. 
  • When we neglect livestock, we neglect women: There are millions of women around the world earning income by raising livestock, especially in places where job opportunities for women are scarce. But they need equal access to productive resources, like animal vaccines, deworming medicines and quality feeds. With a level playing field, women livestock keepers earn just as much as men. They also tend to devote more of their earnings to support their children’s nutrition and education needs.   

    Emphasising livestock risks obscures opportunities to support sustainable production that benefits struggling farming families: Demand for milk, meat and eggs is soaring in low-income countries. We can either allow this trend to increase problems associated with rapidly intensifying production or bend the arc of demand toward safe, sustainable, equitable, low-emission approaches. 

New investments in agriculture adaptation announced at this week’s climate summit include support for partnerships that can expand access to sustainable, low-emission approaches to small-scale livestock production. For example, small-scale dairy farmers across Africa should have access to new varieties of native, nutritious forage grasses for livestock that can improve animal productivity while enhancing soil health and carbon sequestration. The result: more money for their families and more milk available in local markets – but without more risks to the environment.  

We should not ignore livestock-related challenges. But we should also not ignore the many sustainable approaches to raising livestock that are essential to helping more than a billion people survive the climate emergency. COP27 is supposed to be where the world finally delivers on its pledge to help vulnerable, low-emission regions adapt. In Africa, adaptation will fail unless there are significant investments in livestock.  

Samuel Thevasagayam is a livestock veterinarian who oversees investments in small-scale livestock farmers for the Agriculture Development Programme at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.