Improved feeding and forages at a crossroads: Farming systems approaches for sustainable livestock development in East Africa
This perspective article (PDF) in the Outlook on Agriculture argues that farming systems approaches are essential to understand the multiple roles and impacts of forages in smallholder livelihoods. Dairy development provides substantial potential economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in East Africa, but productivity is constrained by the scarcity of quantity and quality feed. Ruminant livestock production is also associated with negative environmental impacts. Improved livestock feeding and forages have been highlighted as key entry point to sustainable intensification, increasing food security, and decreasing environmental trade-offs including GHG emission intensities. The article shows that improved forages in East Africa are at a crossroads: if adopted by farmers at scale, they can be a cornerstone of pathways toward intensified sustainable livestock systems in East Africa. Forages occupy a key role in smallholder farming systems, linking soil, crop, and livestock components. Changes in livestock feeding can have multidimensional impacts on farmers’ livelihoods in terms of productivity and environmental quality. Systemic characteristics, including the need to change the entire production system and multidimensionality of livestock, affect adoption of improved forages and call for multidisciplinary thinking. Further, forage technologies need to be matched with agroecological and socioeconomic contexts to address competition for land and fulfill various production objectives. Robust, “scalable” systems agronomy is needed to develop context-specific advice and decision support on socio-ecological niches for forages. Farming systems modeling can be employed to estimate multidimensional impacts of forages and for reducing agro-environmental trade-offs. Translating modeling results into decision advice, without losing sight of farming systems intrinsic complexities, needs further development. Multidisciplinary farming systems approaches are pivotal to bring tropical forages into wider use and to support sustainable livestock development trajectories in East Africa.