How cattle can fight climate change

cow
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If grazed on holistically managed fields, cows in Africa could help local communities secure food sovereignty as well as sink huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere down into the soil.

In Nouakchott, a town on the edge of the Sahara in the North African country of Mauritania, lives a woman named Nancy Abeiderrahmane. In 1989 she founded an organization called Tvivski (PDF) (spring in Arabic) to connects local milk producers in Mauritania with the consumers.

Abeiderrahmane created Tiviski out of frustrations over having to rely on expensive powdered European milk. Today Tiviski provides affordable, locally produced milk to Mauritanians. For the thousands of families who produce milk, the dairy provides a livelihood.

 Tiviski
via Alexander Lykins

Staff at Tiviski, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

In Richard Toll, a small Senegalese town rich with cattle, a veterinarian by the name of Bagoré Bathily had a similar dream. He founded La Laiterie du Berger, French for "the herder’s dairy."

Bagoré Bathily
via Alexander Lykins

Bagoré Bathily, founder of Laiterie du Berger in Richard Toll, Senegal.

Despite Senegal's having nearly 4 million herders, until 2006 almost all of the milk consumed in the country was imported, powdered milk from Europe. Now La Laiterie du Berger produces over 650,000 liters of milk a year, providing a stable income and food supply to nearly 7,000 people.

In Keffi, Nigeria, a dairy farm with a similar mission of improving development through local agriculture is even more impressive. Nagari Integrated Dairy farm was founded by Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu, a former governor, in 1982. In contrast to the previous two farms, Nagari is reported to be one of the largest single integrated dairy farms in Africa, boasting over 37,000 cattle on nearly 3,000 acres. However, Nagari has a similar vision for their organization, in which indigenous ownership, equity and sustainability are key components.

All three dairies have improved food security in their local areas and created economic opportunities for thousands of citizens. All of these dairies cite sustainability within their supply chain as a priority, and all have taken steps to work towards and measure their goals. The good news is agricultural businesses such as these are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa, as locals become invested in combating food insecurity and international funds from companies such as Danone arrive to support these efforts.

These dairies have, however, a less obvious opportunity to take advantage of: the opportunity to help the planet. They have access to tens of thousands of acres of land. All that they need to implement true sustainability is to recognize that the secret to reversing the impact of climate change lies in the soil. A style of grazing, holistic management, uses grazing animals to repair soil health, increase carrying capacity, sequester carbon in the soil, increase its fertility and capacity to retain moisture.

All of these features can hold back deserts and roll back climate change.

Developed by African pasturalist Allan Savory in his 1988 book "Holistic Resource Management," this style of regenerative agriculture mimics the evolutionary grazing patterns of ruminants that led to the creation of the world’s grasslands, the second largest sink of carbon on the planet. Grazing herds of animals, dense-packed by predators, churned up the soil, fertilizing it while grazing. Eating everything, they moved on, giving the ground time to regenerate before they returned.

Holistic Management has been proven to reverse the impacts of desertification, and if applied to an area as large as the Sahel, could decrease the severity and frequency of droughts in Africa. This style of land management could sequester about 4.5 metric tons of CO2 per acre per year, according to such experts as Richard Teague of Texas A&M.

In Africa, there is nearly twice as much farmland as forested land. About 13 million acres of farmland cover the Sahel. This presents a huge opportunity to create a massive carbon sink.  

Carbon Sink
via Alexander Lykins

To create this carbon sink, farmers will need to be educated and trained in holistic management. Fortunately, a hub is set up by the Savory Institute just to the south of the dairies mentioned. The efficacy of this method already has been proven in these areas through projects such as Operation Hope. If carried out properly, this method of farming not only would increase farmers' profits but also help them maintain the important cultural heritage of cattle herding.

Sahel's vulnerable zone

If adopted throughout the Sahel, nearly 60 million tons of CO2 could be sequestered a year. To put that into perspective, that is twice the amount of the annual CO2 produced by all of the countries in the Sahel combined. The single act of adopting holistic management as a practice would make these countries carbon negative.

In addition, this practice could serve as a multi-million dollar boon for economies that then would be able to sell offsets to companies interested in sequestering their carbon. Currently, the value of these offsets is $100 per year for an individual to offset 10 metric tons of CO2.

Farmers of the Sahel have a great challenge facing them, but as with all great challenges there is great opportunity. Hopefully, the farmers will see this opportunity and rise to the occasion, improving their local food security, increasing economic opportunities, decreasing desertification and reversing climate change all through the power of regenerative agriculture.

Editor's note: The original headline, "How cattle can save the world," has been changed.