On 28 March, The Observatory’s Guyo Malicha Roba joined a ‘Table’ conversation exploring the roles of livestock in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hosted by TABLE and Cornell Food Systems & Global Change, panellists discussed the environmental impacts of livestock, considering different narratives and the extent that livestock are global villains or local saviours…

Watch the conversation:

Roba’s contributions covered various aspects, informed by his pastoralist background, previous engagements, and current work with the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action.

Three things that worry him in the global debate and narratives around livestock and the environment are:

First, the evidence on the livestock carbon footprint in sub-Saharan Africa is very patchy and we are far away from building this stronger evidence around extensive livestock system such as those found in pastoralist areas.

Second, is the danger of over-simplification. Globally-applied metrics hardly account for the diversity and differences in production systems which vary greatly across  cultural, livelihood, environmental and production methods. So, when the same framing and thinking is applied across different systems, we tend to deepen the same faulty narratives.

Third, which is again gaining strong traction in Eastern Africa, is the push to reduce herd sizes and, by extension, to shift diets away from meat. This, he said, is very “troubling if you come from pastoral areas where your main food and the main system is livestock.”

He argued that next big investments should be made  to build evidence around these issues – across diverse livestock systems – so that we have better informed and more balanced decision.

He highlighted two important priorities:

First, as climatic condition shift, the forms of pastoralism – the livestock numbers, their species diversity, livestock portfolios and the rangeland conditions are shifting drastically. We need more research to document these shifts and their impacts on people, their livelihoods as well as the environment, ecology and biodiversity.

The second area concerns the voices of those who are affected by this debate. Pastoralists or their associations, he said, are frequently missing on the table … and, as such, perilous choices are made without their voices.

More generally and unfortunately, he argued, since we have a long way to go in terms of building evidence around these issues, for now we are still using a northern narrative on southern livestock.

 In his closing comments, Roba emphasized the importance of advancing this conversation. While we all can agree that livestock impacts are part of the climatic debate, he said, we need to look much more closely at the different metrics used. The use of single metrics around efficiency, around per capita contribution of an animal, etc., is likely misleading and is not the best approach to adopt.

We need to evolve our metrics so that we start believing in the numbers floating around. Otherwise, they can be very misleading and contribute to blanket policies and investment choices – that do not do justice to the diversity and roles that many local livestock systems play.

Read a summary of the discussion