The disappearance of Africa’s indigenous cattle and the dangers of a single breed

Regrettably, Africa’s drive towards increased food security has mainly focused on the single-story mindset approach of the West

Chimamanda Adichie’s excellent viral TED talk fittingly titled “The Danger of a Single Story” brought to light the erroneous but popular Western portrayal of Africa as a disease and poverty-ridden region. More dangerous even is Africa’s adoption of the single-story mindset that characterizes the Western worldview of development. This “development” mindset often places profit, power and prestige before people and the planet. Despite the fact that the world is subjected to extreme distress socially, politically, environmentally, economically and healthwise, the Western development worldview persists. Of interest here is the grave concern expressed by scientists that the Western-promoted emphasis on rearing a singular breed of cattle for economic benefits is yielding catastrophic consequences for the rest of humanity. Africa has largely embraced this ill-advised track, which has led to the rapidly decreasing number of its indigenous cattle breeds, which comes with long-term negative effects on food security.

Indigenous African Cows

For centuries, Africa’s indigenous cattle generously dotted the landscape of the continent, providing food, manure, hide, medicine, and enterprise. Research has established that African cattle have more genetic diversity than other cow species found in other parts of the world. It should go without saying that the more genetically diverse, the more the world gains.

Another outstanding feature of indigenous African cattle is their ability to exhibit robust resistance to numerous diseases. For instance, Trypanosomosis, a disease transmitted by Tsetse flies, can be fatal and has been known to wipe out whole cattle populations. Yet, many African cattle breeds, such as the N’Dama cattle, which are found in central and West Africa, are able to withstand this disease well.

Further, the N’Dama and Ankole cattle species have been known to be resistant to tick infestation, a disease that can be distressing to cattle. The Tswana cattle species found in Southern Africa is highly tolerant to tick attacks. Heartwater disease is another cattle disease to which many African breeds, such as the Tswana and Landim cattle from Mozambique, have built resistance. There is evidence that the Landim cattle and others are equally resistant to foot and mouth diseases.

In terms of tolerating extreme weather conditions, many African cattle breeds can effectively regulate their body temperature in the face of extreme heat, for instance. The case of the Karamajong cattle breed in Uganda, which can survive even when their water access is limited to once every two days, is a good example. Turkana cattle in Kenya can walk for days while eating poor pasture and drinking very little water. Mozambique’s Landim cattle have developed resistance to hot and humid climates and can comfortably survive through very long dry periods. Ethiopia’s Jem-Jem cattle are very well adapted to extended cold and wet weather.

Examples abound. The Ankole cattle, found mostly in Eastern Africa, is recognized globally as an outstanding breed of cattle. Several studies have established that the meat is very low in fat and has even much lower cholesterol content than most other commercial beef in existence globally. Milk from the Ankole cattle is known to have a very high butterfat content, as high as 10%, which is much higher than that of the average commercial breed. The cattle breed’s maternal abilities far outweigh those of other breeds.

Additionally, the Ankole cattle can tolerate extreme weather since their large horns act as some form of radiator to regulate body temperature. The disease resistance threshold of the Ankole cattle is much higher than normal. Diseases such as trypanosomiasis, foot and mouth diseases, and many bacterial, fungal, and viral infections are either easily repelled or naturally treated by the cattle. Moreover, farmers in many African pastoral communities hold knowledge of indigenous herbs that can be used to treat or prevent many of these diseases.

The Decimation of Africa’s Local Cattle Breeds

The decimation of Africa’s local cattle breeds can be traced to both the Global North’s orchestrated Green Revolution and the infamous Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank and the IMF. Globally, the first Green Revolution began in the 1950s and 1960s and lasted until the 1980s. It was an endeavour of Western countries to boost food production in the Global South. The Green Revolution programme emphasized the use of enhanced seed varieties, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The Global North promoted plants and seed varieties that yield profits in the shortest amount of time. Similarly,the Structural Adjustment Programme of the 1980s and early 1990s promoted the importation of agricultural inputs from Western countries.

Over time, however, it became clear, especially to health, social and environmental scientists, that the use of such synthetic additives and modified breeds poses a grave threat to humanity.  Despite this realization, many farmers across Africa have been led to replace indigenous breeds with western breeds, especially the Holstein cattle variety, which produces much more milk and meat and needs less grazing space.

The Dangers of a Single Breed

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s global assessment of biodiversity stock raised alarm at the one-per-month rate of disappearance of diverse breeds in favour of only commercially relevant species. In Africa and other countries of the Global South, local breeds are being discarded at an alarming rate without enough studies being done on their genetic components. The International Livestock Research Institute reports that 22% of “African cattle breeds have already become extinct in the last century, and 32% of indigenous African cattle breeds are in danger of extinction,” warning that if nothing is done to reverse the trend, the Ankole cattle could become extinct in the next 50 years.

But why should Africa care about the traditional cattle breeds when all the continent should worry about is the breed of cattle that should give citizens more milk and meat and take up less grazing space, all attributes of the European Holstein cattle? Here is the reason.

Recent research is unearthing the dangers of diminishing indigenous African cattle and the promotion, through artificial insemination, of the Western-originated Holstein cattle variety. Scientists are seriously concerned that as the world’s diverse cattle breed diminishes, the existing breeds will be less able to withstand disease outbreaks, which will be generally unsustainable environmentally and economically. Moreover, the meat of such breeds would contain fewer nutrients.

African indigenous cattle breeds exemplify the excellent tropical breeds that possess some genes needed to maintain the presence of any form of cattle breed in the world. However, since they do not produce as much milk and meat and cannot be kept in a stall for their lifetime, they have been denounced by American and European corporations.

The Western Holstein cattle breed has been aggressively sold to Africa in recent decades. Millions of containers of semen from Holstein cattle are shipped to African countries annually. The imported semen is artificially inseminated into either Holstein cows or indigenous African cows to produce a hybrid. Most of the companies that market the commercial semen spend a lot of money on marketing and propaganda. They convince governments and farmers across Africa that only the semen from the American Holstein cattle should be used to inseminate their cattle, carefully hiding the fact that semen from Holstein cattle lacks genetic diversity. Worse off, cattle produced using such semen are not only more susceptible to infections but are equally lacking in compounds that human beings who consume them or their products need to sustain their health and build immunity.

Holsteins provide more milk but are more expensive to keep, are easily susceptible to diseases, and cannot withstand heat and drought, which has led to the loss of many cattle herds across Africa as a result of their poor adaptability. African indigenous cattle live on less water and even less pasture. Although Holstein might not need open grazing, it consumes much more pasturage in order to maintain its milk output. Despite the increasing volume of milk produced across Africa, food security remains a challenge. Some of this milk goes to waste since storage and transportation systems within much of rural Africa are not conducive to the sale of fresh milk.

A Call to Act

Regrettably, Africa’s drive towards increased food security has mainly focused on the single-story mindset approach of the West, which much research has now established to be detrimental to people and the planet. Africa’s efforts at ensuring a food-secure future have mostly been initiated, funded and operated by external parties. These strategies have focused on the destruction of what the continent needs to build an authentic and independent sustainable food system. This is an urgent call to action for Africa to cease being complicit in – and to outright halt –the destruction of its species. Africans will have to build organic agricultural systems that emphasize people and the planet as opposed to profit and power.

Food insecurity remains a challenge for Africa despite years of embracing the Holstein cattle and denouncing traditional African cattle. Clearly, traditional African cattle breeds cannot be blamed for food insecurity in the region. Rather, the continent and the world are losing so much due to the decreasing number of traditional African cattle breeds in the region. Africa will have to choose a different pathway to advancement in agricultural production. That path does not exclude any breeds but includes all plant and animal breeds, knowing that every part of nature plays a role in sustaining the planet and its inhabitants.



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