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By Neil Palmer
Lambasted for their voluminous greenhouse gas emissions, implicated in massive land degradation, and denounced for driving deforestation, livestock are supposedly the bad kids on the block - the black sheep of sustainable agriculture.
In short, the sacred cow has long left the building; to misquote Orwell, it’s definitely now a case of “four-legs-bad”.
But the polarisation of the livestock debate has brought about one of the greatest public image travesties of our time. It has seen small-scale livestock keepers, who raise a handful of animals for milk or meat in low-tech systems with a negligible environmental footprint, tarred with the same brush as large-scale industrial producers.
But a new CIAT study could put a cat among the pigeons, and add to the growing body of work by our sister organisation, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), that is providing a more accurate account of the livestock issue.
The latest research was published this week as part of CIAT’s new flagship publication Eco-Efficiency: From Vision to Reality, which details the science of sustainable smallholder agriculture. It shows that well-managed “LivestockPlus” systems involving improved forage crops – plants grazed by livestock – actually have impressive environmental credentials.
An example of one of these improved forage crops is – tragically – one that many have never heard of. Native to Africa, but grown widely in South America and Southeast Asia, brachiaria is a deep rooted grass with multiple benefits.
With its big green leaves, brachiaria has very high carbon accumulation potential, acting as a powerful carbon sink within livestock systems. It can also help retain and even increase stocks of soil carbon, in part by recycling carbon through animal manure and aboveground litter, and also due to its high turnover of roots - each generation of roots adds to the carbon stock deep in the soil.
In fact, the CIAT study shows that high quality forages like brachiaria are second only to native forest in terms of their potential for storing soil carbon. In areas with high rainfall, they could even sequester more atmospheric CO2 than forests. Forthcoming research will look more closely at this.
Given that 80 percent of all agricultural land is used for fodder production, improved grasses like brachiaria could be a powerful crop for mitigating climate change, as well as helping to restore degraded pastures, such as 78 million hectares in the Brazilian Cerrado.
Planting the Cerrado, a huge tropical savannah, with brachiaria could sequester nearly 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over a 14-year-period, says the study. At current rates, that’s the equivalent of taking all diesel vehicles off the roads of Brazil from now to 2030.
It doesn’t stop there. Brachiaria also reduces levels of the most potent greenhouse gas emitted from farming systems - nitrous oxide – by trapping nitrogen in the soil. More nitrogen in the soil means farmers need to apply less nitrogen fertiliser. Not only beneficial within livestock systems, brachiaria could enable scientists to improve the nitrogen-use efficiency of food crops too.
Brachiaria has been shown to produce higher milk and meat yields in cattle – ten times more per unit land area than if the animals grazed on native savanna grass. And because it’s a high quality, easily digestible food, animals fed with brachiaria emit less methane per kilo of meat produced.
With the right policy environment, higher productivity could also reduce the need for larger herds, in turn easing pressure on forests.
In order to maximise carbon capture and storage, environmental sustainability and both economic and social benefits, the CIAT study recommends using brachiaria in “agro-silvo-pastoral systems”, in other words, those that incorporate an eco-efficient holy trinity of food crops, forages and trees.
BLACK SHEEP TO HOLY COW?
Despite all of this, a public image problem persists: everyone knows what rice looks like, and what you do with it. But a field of brachiaria? Forages struggle for empathy and have so far failed to take root in the public psyche. They’re just not sexy.
This is especially true when they have to compete with impassioned cries to support food staples, and images of immaculately tiered rice paddies or breeze-blown fields of wheat. It’s hard to make a clarion call for people to rally around grass, let alone one they probably have never heard of and are not even sure how to pronounce (“Brack-ee-ah-ree-ah”).
But the solution could lie with the developing world’s 1 billion smallholder livestock keepers, who have much to gain from highly-productive LivestockPlus systems. Their involvement could be instrumental in helping to reversing livestock’s negative image, particularly if adoption of these systems means they become recognised as environmental guardians.
As CIAT climate change scientist Andy Jarvis recently put it, smallholders could lead the way in demonstrating the sustainability of integrated livestock systems, and in so doing, “put the rest of the world to shame.”
Neil Palmer works for the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), which is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). CGIAR is co-organising Agriculture and Rural Development Day on June 18, ahead of the Rio+20 summit.