Most of us have heard the statistics about how livestock are bad for the climate and the environment: within agriculture, livestock production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions; over-grazing can harm wildlife habitats and reduce biodiversity; even the burps from ruminants like cows and sheep are problematic, as they belch methane, which is 28 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Western donors and policymakers may hear those statistics and conclude that in order to end world hunger while mitigating climate change, livestock will have to go. But hold that thought.
“Especially in developing countries, livestock are crucial for people’s livelihoods,” said Isabelle Baltenweck, Program Leader of the Policies, Institutions and Livelihoods Program at the International Livestock Research Institute.
“In these areas where we see significant hunger, livestock are integrated into the farm production: the cow creates manure, which fertilizes the maize, which both the humans and the livestock eat. Livestock is a key piece of maintaining this system.”
Certainly, consumers in developed countries could do with fewer animal products: the meat-heavy U.S. diet, for example, takes up almost twice as much land and produces twice as much greenhouse gas as the average world diet.
But for the estimated 690 million people who are undernourished, livestock are a safety net. Baltenweck leads the Livestock Feed Solutions research team for Ceres2030, a collaboration between Cornell University, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the International Food Policy Research Institute. The project has undertaken a unique and massive effort to evaluate existing agricultural literature to find the most effective interventions to help smallholder farmers and end hunger. Funded by the German government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the goal of Ceres2030 is to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ending global hunger by 2030.
Livestock feed solutions team
“In case of drought or civil unrest, you can move your livestock with you and still have an income and a food source,” Baltenweck said. “Livestock are also important in helping women be economically empowered: If a woman can access a few chickens, she can earn some income and improve her family’s nutrition. Then maybe she can save up and invest in a few goats, then a few cows.
At each step, her livelihood becomes more secure.”
International donors, like the Gates Foundation, want to invest in programs that will help lift people from poverty and reduce chronic hunger. But they want their investments to be effective and evidence-based. Each of the Ceres2030 research teams used machine learning big data tools to scour existing peer-reviewed literature, looking specifically for interventions that could help smallholder farmers. The Livestock team began with about 23,000 papers, then whittled that down to several hundred, looking for evidence of interventions that increased incomes and improved human nutrition.
“What we see most often in the literature are feed trials: someone develops a better feed and tests how well it grows in a field or nourishes an animal,” Baltenweck said. “There are extremely few papers — only 73 papers — that actually say, ‘if you get this feed out there and let people choose, do they want to grow it? And do we see any impact on things we care about, like income, nutrition, or workload?’”
The Ceres2030 researchers hope their work will provide a clearer picture of what information already exists, and what knowledge gaps need to be filled. In the case of livestock feed, Baltenweck would love to see more research on dual-purpose crops, for example. In the developed world, farmers feed one set of foods to their animals, and another set of foods themselves and their neighbors. But smallholder farmers in developing countries want to grow crops that both their livestock and their families can eat.
Alan Duncan is Principal Livestock Scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute, Professor of Livestock and Development at University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Ceres2030 Livestock research team.
“This exercise was really interesting – it highlighted how much research on livestock nutrition focuses on technical aspects and how little considers the impact of better livestock feed options on farmer livelihoods,” Duncan said. “This work helped emphasize that farmers only adopt new feeding practices if they make economic sense and if they have the right resources, including land and labor, to apply them. Too often scientists have a blind spot when thinking about these issues.”
Discover more about each of the Ceres2030 research teams
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