In Ahero, a wetland area near Lake Victoria’s Kisumu city, Vincent Odhiambo, a rice grower, floods the field by directing water channels into different blocks after preparing the fields.
“I have been growing rice for more than 15 years. This is what I depend on for ensuring that my family has food and money. I sell most rice, and the rest is food for the family,” says Odhiambo.
Odhiambo is, however, not aware that his rice farming could be having any negative impact on the climate. “I know that smoke from cars, factories, and chemicals can damage the air we breathe, but rice is good.”
He is one of more than a million farming households depending directly on rice for food and income security in East Africa. However, a white paper prepared by the Environment Defence Fund (EDF) shows that global rice production releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – as much as 1,200 average-sized coal power stations.
Flooding of rice fields isn’t necessary for rice to grow but instead serves as an efficient way of preventing the spread of invasive weeds. The microbes that feed off the decaying matter in these fields produce methane, which takes up 12 percent of global annual gas emissions.
Methane is more than 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than C02, although, in the atmosphere, it reacts with other chemicals in the air and breaks after just a few years.
Ruminant animals tend to have greater greenhouse gas effects.”
Many other forms of farming also take their toll on the climate. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), meat and dairy are major contributors, accounting for around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A report published by Carbon Brief quotes Prof. Sir Charles Godfray, a population biologist and head of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, saying: “In a very broad-brush approach, the products from ruminant animals – sheep, cows and their relative animals with four stomachs – tend to have greater greenhouse gas effects. Part of this is because digestion by ruminants produces a lot of methane.”
The stomachs of ruminants contain specialised bacteria capable of digesting tough and fibrous material, like grass. The digestive process causes the animals to emit methane.
In comparison, plant-based foods have much smaller carbon footprints. On average, emissions from plant-based foods are 10-50 times smaller than those from animal products.
Ethiopia has the largest livestock population of any other country in Africa, making it an East African powerhouse in leather and meat factories.
However, internationally, Africa is far from a significant culprit in emissions of climate gases. Dr. Richard Munang, the former United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Africa Regional Climate Change Programme Coordinator, now Acting Deputy Director, UNEP Africa Office, says Africa is responsible for only 2-3 percent of global emissions. Of this amount, up to 56 percent are land-based, driven by land degradation and the destruction of ecosystems. Agriculture is often to blame for destroying ecosystems to gain more farmlands.
“If you were to go down to country levels, you will realise that most countries in Africa emit less than 1 percent, in fact, a fraction of 1 percent (of global emissions). Logically speaking, it follows that Africa does not have any significant emissions to cut,” says Munang.
However, while climate change is global, he says, the poor are disproportionately vulnerable to its effects because they cannot afford the goods and services they need to buffer themselves against the worst of the changing climate impacts.
He says the continent loses up to USD 48 billion worth of food each year on its food systems due to reduced harvests.
“Considering that the continent has committed to emission cuts in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), including in land-based actions like agriculture which are the leading sources of emissions through degradation, the key, therefore, is that these emissions reduction must align with actions that accelerate the realisation of socio-economic priorities – food security, creation of income and enterprise opportunities, expansion of macroeconomic growth.”
Munang further says it is time to seek lasting solutions, like solar dryers, which dehydrate rice up to 48 times faster than regular drying. “This is minimising losses while maintaining quality to increase earnings of farmers.”
Solar dryers, on average, enable farmers to achieve up to 30 times income increases. They have been proven to lower emissions by over 200,000 tonnes relative to an alternative fossil-fuel-driven value addition solution.
Emissions reduction must align with actions that accelerate the realisation of socio-economic priorities.”
Still another example is waste recovery. Rice husks, a byproduct of rice, can be added-value. Converted to fuel briquettes, the husks offer an alternative to charcoal use which drives deforestation and degradation, which, in turn, triggers emissions.
“Rice husks can also be converted to bio-fertiliser, lowering emissions resulting from the chemical fertiliser supply chain.”
Munang describes the approach as “mitigation powering adaptation” – where efforts to lower emissions in agriculture are tied to value-addition to unlock essential income and socio-economic opportunities. “This is how we ought to approach agriculture emissions in Africa, a negligible emitter.”