Five cows and climate change

South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper has a splendid article on the conflict between the ‘green’ issue of climate change and the ‘red’ issue of poverty eradication. There is, of course, no dichotomy here. Sustainable ways of addressing climate change *have* to involve the eradication of poverty. It’s true that livestock farming contributes to climate change. What’s interesting here is a new twist.

While most of the environmentally destructive livestock production happens in the Global North in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs), it is poor farmers, usually in the Global South, who end up being the scapegoat for environmental degradation. We’ve seen similar tactics at work before, in the blaming of small farmers for bird flu, a disease incubated and spread by large-scale poultry operations. For those of us concerned both about climate change, and about eradicating poverty, this remind us to point the finger in the right direction….

Five cows and climate change
Kimani Chege
09 October 2007 11:59
While research points to livestock contributing to 15% of global warming, in poor countries livestock is a means of survival. (Photograph: AP)
Michael Kinyua’s cows are the source of all evil. Kinyua lives on the outskirts of Nairobi, in Ruaka. He owns five cows, which he milks to feed his children, wife Nyokabi and himself. Anything left over is sold to his neighbours, former farmers who are now reluctant city-dwellers in the Kenyan capital’s sprawl. His neighbours are wistful for the days when they, too, were independent entrepreneurs, before they sold their farms and found that city life gobbled up their cash.

But according to Western animal rights groups, Kinyua’s five cows are causing climate change. Last month, The New York Times reported that the animal rights movement was singing a very particular variation on the global warming theme. Selectively using mining data from a report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), they argued that livestock fart. Their methane and carbon dioxide contributes to 15% of global warming. Livestock apparently cause more damage than driving.

Kinyua laughs loudly, showing his new false teeth, bought with the proceeds from his milk sales. “What do they suggest we do if we don’t keep these animals? I am just keeping five cows. What percentage does it contribute?” I tell him the vege-tarians say he should not replace the cattle when they die. Kinyua’s face shows a flash of anger.

He has an ally. Carlos Seré, the Uruguayan who heads the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, is outraged at the argument that destroying poor people’s only source of income would be a good thing.

“Research tells us it would make little difference to global warming if we somehow removed all the livestock in, say, sub- Saharan Africa,’’ Seré responds to the campaign. “The impact on livelihoods there, however, would be catastrophic.” In poor countries — many of them south of the Sahara — more than 600-million rural residents do not have the option of becoming venture capitalists or baristas at Starbucks coffee shops. They depend directly on livestock for their survival.

“Do we want to deny one-third of humanity — the two-billion people living on less than $2 a day — what has been such a critical and ubiquitous element in the development of industrialised countries?” Seré demands.

The animal rights activists argue that by switching to a plant-based diet, the demand for burgers and steaks will magically drop. The result: a happier, healthier environment … They don’t mention the additional fields that will have to be ploughed to produce the equivalent amount of protein in plant-based diets.

“What the animal rights folks are not saying [and the FAO report does say] is that for some one billion people on Earth who live in chronic hunger, in degrading poverty and in degraded environments, the lowly cow, sheep, goat, pig and chicken provide nutrition, income and major pathways out of poverty, just as they did, until this century, in rich countries,’’ says Seré.

He also argues for an awareness of subtle differences. “The livestock that eat grain in the United States eat grass in Africa. The beef that causes heart disease in Europe saves lives in Asia. And the manure that pollutes water in Utah restores soils in Africa. The world is big and full of difference between the haves and have nots.”

“One or two cows or a few goats and sheep or pigs and chickens raised on tiny plots of land or in urban backyards reduces absolute poverty, malnutrition and disease and often actually helps to conserve natural resources,’’ Seré adds.

But Kinyua will not have to become a vegetarian. Demand for livestock is skyrocketing in developing countries.

“Before setting ourselves the task of ridding the world of animal flesh, we might try ridding it instead of unspeakable poverty, hunger and disease,’’ Seré points out.