Science Blog

The Cows Come Home

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

Cows get a lot of bad press these days. They are blamed for climate change and deforestation and even unhealthy diets, as if it’s their fault that people like to scoff down cheeseburgers. In fact, the widely repeated assertion that “animal agriculture and eating meat are the biggest causes of global warming” is nothing but a myth. Livestock production is a significant contributor to carbon emissions, to be sure, but the real problem is how the production is done in rich countries. For a billion mostly poor farmers in developing countries, cattle and other livestock are not a problem: they’re a solution.

I’ve read scientific papers explaining all that, but it was really brought home to me, literally, talking to my mother-in-law, Hilda. She’s a medium-sized farmer (I hope she won’t take that the wrong way) in the highlands of Kenya, not far from the town of Limuru, which many tourists are rushed through – I like it, but I have to admit there’s not that much to see – on their way from Nairobi to the Rift Valley. She has some tea, as everybody does up there, for cash; but also grows maize and beans and potatoes and cabbages, mainly for the use of her extended family, including me. Whenever we visit, we go back home with some potatoes, if nothing else. (There’s a national potato research station only a few kilometers away, at Tigoni, but that’s another story.)

But Hilda also keeps some land aside for Kikuyu grass, and another bit as pasture. That’s because she has a few cows, and they need to eat. The number has varied, but there’s always been at least a couple since I’ve been visiting, and that’s twenty years now. Their milk has helped to pay the school fees of several of my nieces and nephews over the years. They’re hard work – the cows, not the nieces and nephews – though not as much as they used to be; but Hilda, and millions of other farmers like her in Kenya and around the world, would not do without them.

They do need to eat, however, those cows. Hilda’s Kikuyu grass is just one of hundreds of plant species that scientists have looked at as sources of food for livestock, or forages in the jargon. It’s nutritious and grows well in the Kenyan Highlands. But it does occasionally encounter problems with diseases and pests, and climate change isn’t helping.

That’s where genebank collections come in. There aren’t that many forage collections in the world, but two of the biggest are at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. They hold tens of thousands of accessions, or different seed samples. Within that incredible diversity lie the solutions to the problems of Kikuyu grass. And also to the problems of livestock farmers of places where that species won’t do, and different ones are needed. Species like Brachiaria, an African forage grass that was a great success in South America, and is now going home. And cows will produce less greenhouse gases if they are fed better quality, more digestible forage, which you can breed for.

Like cows themselves, keeping forage collections healthy and productive is hard work. Each species has its own requirements and peculiarities, and there are hundreds of them to deal with, to conserve and research. That’s why CIAT, ILRI and other forage genebanks around the world are coming together to develop a truly global strategy for maintaining and using forage diversity. The strategy is being facilitated by two respected forage scientists, Bruce Pengelly and Brigitte Maass. They have started to produce a newsletter, which you can subscribe to. One issue is just out, and it describes forage diversity conservation work in China, the USA, Australia and South Africa, among other places. The next one is due out in December. In time to show Hilda when we visit for Christmas.

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