Globally, agriculture and livestock systems are responsible for 32% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are the largest users of land. Livestock systems are major drivers for land use change, including deforestation and soil degradation. Hence, improving their environmental performance could lead to significant GHG reductions and the protection of ecosystems services (water, biodiversity and others). There is a need for improving GHG inventories for the livestock sector in Africa to develop mitigation strategies. However, the required environmental assessments are either not there or, where they exist, are difficult to access or insufficiently collated. In most cases discussions on environmental problems in East Africa focuses on global climate change rather than regional issues that may pose more serious threats. ‘Slow onset’ disasters, such as drought or the longer-term problems such as biodiversity loss, the seasonal drying up of rivers or air pollution rarely make headlines because the changes are gradual rather than sudden, hence they tend to be overlooked until the effects become critical.
To address the environmental problems faced by the East African region, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has invested in an environmental research centre. Dubbed the Mazingira Centre, which is Swahili for ‘environment’, the facility is based at ILRI in Nairobi and has the capacity to measure a set of environmental parameters including livestock system GHG emissions, water flows as well as water and soil quality. This centre supports one of the research areas under ILRI’s Livestock Systems and Environment (LSE) program which aims at understanding and managing the environmental footprint of livestock. This it does by providing accurate and context-specific information on the environmental impacts of intensifying livestock production systems, particularly on nutrient cycles and GHG emissions.
We spoke to David Pelster, one of the ILRI scientists leading the initiative, to hear more about it.
Why is it important to have this facility in Africa?
One of the biggest gaps in understanding mitigation in Africa is the lack of baseline data; we have no information on how much greenhouse gas emissions occur due to agriculture on this continent. Almost all the emission factors used in all the modeling studies are based on studies conducted in North America, Europe and Australia and all studies estimating GHG emissions within the agricultural sector in Africa are based on these foreign, and likely incorrect, emission factors. This also happens with the quantification of other ecosystem services such as provision of clean water, carbon sequestration and protection of soil fertility, where most estimates in Africa are based on models that use empirical data collected elsewhere. Filling these data gaps is the primary focus of our activities at the Mazingira Centre. We would also like to make it a centre of excellence for environmental research that can (following the Biosciences eastern and central Africa–BecA-ILRI Hub model) help build further research capacity in Africa.
In a partnership with Maseno University, we have postgraduate students from Kenya and Uganda working here in an effort towards building a critical mass of professionals with ability to generate the much needed baseline data on the provision of ecosystem services including GHG emissions from agricultural and natural systems in the developing world. This will help contextualize the different methods and management systems to mitigate emissions and losses of other ecosystem services.
Mitigation strategies that work in one place do not necessarily work in another. Therefore, three main steps are important: understanding the present situation, considering the methods that have been used in other areas and then verifying that these actually mitigate emissions and improve (or sustain) ecosystem services. The verification step is very important because without it, it is possible that the attempted mitigation will actually worsen the situation. This verification step is conspicuously missing in Africa, yet is very critical for climate change management and sustainability strategies.
Based on your response, is it correct to say that there is no blanket approach for mitigating GHG emissions or a one-size-fits-all approach?
That is correct. For example, previous studies indicate that the ‘no-till’ practice sequesters more carbon in the soil. However, other studies have established that this is not always the case. There are cases where the practice results in less soil carbon as it is highly dependent on the soil type and climate. So it is not always a ‘one-size-fits-all’ because different crops react differently in different types of soil, and the soils, climate, cropping and farming systems in Africa are immensely different from those in North America or Europe.
In relation to climate change in Africa what measures have been taken to empower farmers to cope?
I have not been here long, but I have interacted with some of the farmers in the ‘Climate-Smart Villages Project’ led by John Recha and James Kinyangi under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) in East Africa. I do not think the farmers here really care about mitigation because they have so many other worries that are of higher priority than mitigation. They are worried about how much food can they grow and whether they can manage make extra income to take their children to school.
However, most initiatives in Africa focus on resilience than on mitigation; for example, training farmers on different kinds of technologies such as water harvesting and how to deal with situations such as drought. On the other hand, a lot of mitigation measures include taking measures to protect the soil, tighten up nutrient leaks and so on. Here the objective is mainly to improve crop production through sustainable intensification of the cropping system. With intensification you not only improve your yields but you will likely also increase emissions and if you are not careful, these can have detrimental effects on surface and groundwater quality, cause soil acidification as well as cause other sorts of environmental degradation. Hence, we are interested in generating evidence on how farmers can increase production while protecting water quality, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing the other deleterious environmental effects.
In smallholder systems livestock are largely multi-functional. How does this affect uptake of the mitigation and adaption strategies?
The multi-functionality of livestock is important and traditional practices really have a high influence. For example, farmers often use only bulls to provide draft power, because they believe the cows are not strong enough and so they keep animals around that only provide a service to them for approximately six weeks per year. This results in increased farmer expenses for the rest of the year in terms of feed and maintenance. It is not easy to convince these farmers to dispose at least one of the bulls and acquire cows that will serve the same purpose and still give milk throughout the year.
What have been some of your highlights in this work and what is in store?
We started this centre in January 2013 and we have seen tremendous growth in terms of projects, staff and some of the projects on data collection are just winding up. The centre now hosts post graduate students from different parts of the world including Africa, South America and South East Asia. Our focus is on East Africa, primarily Kenya, but we have projects in Uganda, Tanzania and we are looking to expand into action-oriented research in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Malawi. We are also working on a proposal to work in the entire Lake Victoria basin which will include Rwanda and Burundi. It is my first time to work overseas and many of the highlights have been more personal than professional, however on the professional side, getting to interact with smallholders in the rural areas has been amazing!
For more information about the Mazingira Centre contact David Pelster (D.Pelster [at] cgiar.org) and Klaus Butterbach-Bahl (K.Butterbach-bahl [at] cgiar.org).