Africa, Climate Action, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, COP28, Education, Environment, Food Security and Nutrition, Headlines, Health, TerraViva United Nations


For Africans, the Climate Debate Around the Role of Livestock Misses the Mark

Traders take cattle to market in winter rain along the road to Woliso, Ethiopia. Credit: Apollo Habtamu

NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 8 2023 (IPS) - Africa is contending with a climate crisis it did not create without sufficient recognition for the unique rights and needs of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. Not only is the continent least responsible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, having historically produced just a tiny fraction, but it is also disproportionately impacted by the consequences of emissions generated elsewhere.

And when climate disasters such as cyclones in Mozambique and Malawi, or droughts in the Horn of Africa strike, the subsequent humanitarian response diverts vital funds that could have otherwise supported public health, education and food security.

Such extreme events take an enormous toll on Africa’s primary industries, including crop and animal agriculture, with the livestock sector alone losing $2 billion from the ongoing drought.

It would therefore be preposterous to hold any of these sectors directly to account for curbing climate change – let alone one that provides food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions amidst growing climate risks.

Yet this is precisely the scenario that unfolds when the global climate debate around the role of livestock results in calls for blanket reductions of herd numbers and wholesale dietary shifts away from meat.

Broad campaigns for a transition away from animal agriculture and towards plant-based diets without qualifying regional differences overlook the severe levels of undernutrition in parts of the world caused by inadequate intake of animal-source foods. This risks creating the impression that Africans, who consume as little as seven kilograms of meat a year, must give up vital yet underconsumed sources of protein and micronutrients to mitigate emissions mostly generated elsewhere.

It is critical that regional and even national distinctions are made when making the case for dietary and production changes. Meat consumption and production practices vary enormously around the world. Where meat is over-consumed and produced unsustainably, we recognise this needs to change – not only to bring down emissions but to improve health standards.

But applying this argument globally misses the livestock sector’s outsized and fundamental role in the development of low-income countries, including those across Africa. And this blind spot is made all the more unjust by the fact that those in the Global North have both driven up global emissions and failed to meet commitments to Africa for climate-related development finance.

Livestock keeping offers African countries a gateway to the food security and economic growth enjoyed elsewhere while also enabling the climate adaptation made necessary largely by the actions of others. Investing more climate funding to support Africans farmers and animals adapt to new extremes is an enormous opportunity for a climate-resilient economy. And it is also a matter of climate justice.

Unlike many other parts of the world, Africa is facing exponentially more mouths to feed in the decades ahead just as climate change makes farming harder and riskier than ever.

By 2050, a quarter of the global population will be African, while the region already suffers from the highest prevalence of hunger and malnutrition in the world. From 2021 to 2022, an additional 11 million Africans faced hunger, with 57 million more slipping into food insecurity since the Covid-19 outbreak began.

For many Africans, meat, milk and eggs are a precious and infrequent addition to our diets, providing a dense supply of nutrients and energy that are not as readily available from other foods or supplements.

Africa’s rising population is also an increasingly youthful population, and the majority of young people in sub-Saharan Africa already work in agriculture and in rural areas. Livestock will remain fundamental to Africa’s economic development, contributing up to 80 per cent of agricultural GDP.

As the sector adapts to new demands and circumstances, it also has the opportunity to develop differently to the livestock sector in industrialised countries. At present, half of Africa’s meat and milk is produced by pastoralists, whose animals roam and graze, providing valuable services for natural ecosystems and biodiversity.

However, changes in drought cycles are resulting in shortages of animal feed and fodder, which leads to food and economic insecurity, instability and even conflict among rural communities.

Solutions already exist in Africa that allow rural communities to continue to benefit from raising livestock in spite of climate extremes. These include more climate resilient indigenous cattle breeds and varieties of livestock forages, better climate information services, training and services for farmers and more sophisticated infrastructure and markets. Moreover, these innovations also help to make African livestock systems more efficient, meaning less loss and waste, and lower levels of emissions.

But the continent urgently needs more climate finance to help the entire livestock sector access these new developments. Africa needs to be able to realise the full potential of its livestock sector as a driver for development, and this has been recognised by the African Union in its Agenda 2063 as well as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the Livestock Development Strategy for Africa (LiDeSA).

For the most part, the continent does not contend with the same overconsumption, industrialisation and carbon footprints that drive the agenda in the Global North. Because of this, the opportunities that livestock present for Africa should be fully recognised – and fully funded.

Dr. Huyam Salih, Director of African Union – Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR)
Professor Appolinaire Djikeng, Director General, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

IPS UN Bureau


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