GWANDA, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Even during droughts like the one that swept across Zimbabwe last year, Isaac Siziba and his wife Khumutso had food. Their annual harvest did not consist of water-dependent crops, but of goats.
“Goats are easy to breed and reproduce fast, even in the worst environment, but with good management perform better and give income quickly,” Siziba said as he stroked a prized Boer ram in his goat pen in Bolobelo village in Gwanda district.
“When I need to buy something or cover some expenses at home, I can easily sell a few goats,” the 49-year-old farmer added. “We pay for food, school fees and cover our debts with income from goats.”
To Siziba, debate among experts about the sustainability of livestock farming – which is criticized by some for its huge environmental “hoofprint” – seems detached from the practicalities of life in Gwanda.
The district, some 150km (90 miles) south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second major city, is located in Matabeleland South province which has a history of harsh drought, making it risky to grow crops.
Livestock farming sustains many smallholder farmers here, while a few grow drought-tolerant crops like sorghum and millet.
“There are not many jobs here, and few young people have the patience to take up goat-keeping, but this has supported my family and we want to grow the size of our flock,” said Siziba.
Goats sell for between $30 and $50 depending on the size and breed.
About 750 million people in low- and middle-income countries depend on livestock farming, which provides them with food, fuel, income and social security - especially in Africa where it is often people’s only means of survival, says the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
Globally, the sector accounts for 40 percent of agricultural GDP, says ILRI.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, four of the five highest-value food commodities in 2013 were livestock, with a combined value of over $600 billion.
But as climate change leads to more frequent droughts and rising temperatures, drying out scarce water sources as well as grazing lands, some experts say livestock poses a threat to the environment.
Livestock production emits half of the world’s emissions of methane, ILRI says. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to global warming.
Gidon Eshel, professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College in New York, co-authored a study in 2014 that found that in the United States, producing beef led to five times more greenhouse gas emissions than either pork or chicken.
“Our increasing dependence on animal products in worldwide diets is a major self-inflicted handicap in our capacity to successfully negotiate climate change,” Eshel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But in populations with low incomes, livestock - including cows - can be the only thing standing between them and hunger, he added.
“I certainly think that preventing hunger is top priority, ahead of environmental considerations,” he said.
The ILRI argues that the solution to the environmental challenges posed by livestock is to manage them better.
“When we realized cars and airplanes were bad for the environment we didn’t do away with them, we worked to find ways to make them more efficient. It’s the same with livestock – we are looking for better efficiency,” ILRI’s director general Jimmy Smith told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It will be impossible to achieve some of the Sustainable Development Goals – agreed by U.N. member states in 2015 as a route to end poverty and hunger, among other key challenges - without including the livestock sector, Smith said.
Studies have shown that about 40 percent of household income for herding communities comes from livestock, he added.
Well-managed livestock farming could reduce global warming while protecting farmers from the economic impact of animal losses as a result of climate shocks and stresses, according to the ILRI.
Raising productivity in animals through better feeds, improved animal health and using the most suitable breeds offers the potential to double yields per animal and reduce their environmental footprint, Smith said.
Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by James Baer, Zoe Tabary and Alex Whiting. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate