A new study shows that Rwanda’s One Cow per Poor Family program can significantly cut food insecurity – and with improved cattle feeding, it can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity too.

The study, conducted by CIAT with partners including the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), used survey data from almost 900 farmers across Rwanda’s complex landscape, to compare potential impacts of different policies and programs designed to boost agricultural production and reduce poverty while assessing their environmental impact.

As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Rwanda struggles with severe erosion and declining soil fertility. Agriculture supports 80 percent of the population, and the Rwandan government is committed to finding low-carbon development options.

The One Cow per Poor Family initiative, known locally as Girinka, was one of the policy programs studied. It found that, while the Girinka program could increase food sufficient households by 11%, it as much as doubled – and in some cases tripled – greenhouse gas emissions from farming households.

“The question we set out to tackle was: what options can we put forward that not only help farmers produce more food but that don’t come at the cost of a higher environmental price tag?,” said co-author Cyprian Ebong, an animal nutritionist, and senior adviser to RAB at the time of the study.

Feed it right
Since 2006, the Girinka program has provided poor households with a dairy cow free of charge, with a target to reach 350,000 farmers by 2017.

“Our study shows that giving households a cow is very ‘pro-poor’,” said Birthe Paul, an environmental scientist at CIAT and lead author of the paper. “It improved food security among the country’s poorest people.

“But it comes with a trade-off: it starkly increases GHG emissions – specifically methane – a result of the digestive process in the stomach of the cow.”

Although Rwanda has low GHG emissions in general, the research points to options for improving what the cows eat, as a means of boosting production of meat and milk and reducing GHG emissions intensity at the same time.

Recent research by CIAT in East Africa has shown that improved varieties of the forage grass Brachiaria can boost milk production by up to 40 percent. High-yielding, nutritious, and in some cases drought-tolerant, Brachiaria is easier for cows to digest, meaning the animals produce far less methane per liter of milk or kilo of meat produced.

The grasses have other climate-friendly qualities, preventing soil erosion and storing more carbon in their deeper root structure, and preventing the release of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, from the soil. Varieties bred specifically for Rwanda and other countries are also more resilient to local pests and diseases.

Better varieties to beat climate change
“Our message is that, to reduce the environmental ‘hoofprint’ of livestock production, and maximize the potential of a program like Girinka, it would need to be combined with improved livestock feeding to reduce the GHG emissions intensity,” continued Paul.

According to Ebong, these benefits can be increased if farmers are given animals that eat less but produce more than others with the same amount of feed.

Beyond Rwanda’s patchwork landscapes and volcanic beauty, there are implications for other countries where poorer families are given a cow to boost income and food security, such as the Send a Cow programs in Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

CIAT and partners including RAB are working to further improve forage grasses so they are more resilient to threats such as drought, pests and diseases – and to ensure they are available to farmers.

Many farmers struggle to find quality forage feed, especially during the dry season. By working with both public and private sector partners, researchers aim to make seeds available to farmers, so they can improve their income and boost food security but without a cost to the environment.

Call to action:
• Further funding is needed to support research to reduce the environmental impact of livestock keeping, and to support the design of poverty-reduction programs that include livestock.
• Further investment is required to improve varieties of forage feed to make them suitable for local conditions, and to improve access to forage feed for farmers.
• Researchers should work with farmers to identify cattle breeds that produce more milk and/or grow faster with less feed.
• Support work to establish commercial forage seed production in Africa, through partnerships with private sector seed companies, so that larger quantities of high-quality seed can be made available to farmers.
• Further investment is needed to support international and national research organizations to build capacity in forage development and selection – including breeding. This would also enhance the reach of forage seed marketing in the region.

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This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Humidtropics and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the Agricultural Synergies project funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation through Princeton University. Baseline survey data used was from the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) project. This work was implemented in collaboration with the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Wageningen University and Research (WUR), and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The Open Access paper, Agricultural intensification scenarios, household food availability and greenhouse gas emissions in Rwanda: Ex-ante impacts and trade-offs, is published in Agricultural Systems.

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