Comparing dairy farming across continents: Mind the trade-offs

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The “Gazoo” Nitrogen cracker machine. Source: JOZ Westwoud BV. Here is more information About Gazoo.

Kwame Osei is a research assistant at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences and joined the 2024 edition of the e-course on food systems. He writes about the Gazoo, a nitrogen cracker designed to reduce emissions in the Dutch dairy industry. Applying a food systems perspective to livestock issues and solutions in the Netherlands and Africa is for him a transformative experience.

In 2022, I embarked on an incredible journey to the Netherlands to further my master studies in Agriculture Production Chain Management at Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. Little did I know that this experience would completely change how I view farming and its impact on the environment, especially regarding emissions. The core message here? We have a lot to learn from how different regions tackle their unique agricultural challenges, and there's immense value in adopting sustainable practices.

In the Netherlands, the push for high yields has led to intensive farming practices. The Dutch farmers have achieved impressive average milk yields of 8,900 litres (9,200 kg) per cow per year, compared to the average 200 litres (194 kg) in Africa. While these methods increase productivity, they also cause environmental problems, such as high nitrogen emissions that harm biodiversity. It's like having a high-performance car that guzzles gas and pollutes the air – there's a hefty price for that performance.

After my graduation, I joined a research project in the Netherlands with innovative dairy farmers. They process slurry with the Gazoo, a nitrogen cracking machine that separates the liquid and solid fractions. The liquid part can be used as fertiliser, while the remaining solid part is used as bedding. I have seen firsthand the technical challenges and the costs of this innovation. The Gazoo costs approximately 350,000 euros. The Dutch dairy industry developed this innovation to reduce emissions as an alternative to government measures like farm buyouts leading to their closure.

This experience has reinforced my belief that Africa can avoid similar pitfalls by adopting a food systems approach from the start. A key lesson from the e-course is about trade-offs, for example between productivity gains and environmental costs.

African dairy farming has not reached critical levels of nitrogen emissions. We often focus on issues like available inputs, markets that work and food security for all. Nevertheless, we should look ahead and use the valuable chance to proactively implement effective and eco-friendly solutions to balance the trade-offs in livestock.

My journey to the Netherlands has been more than just academic; it’s been a transformative experience for my understanding of global farming. I realised that Africa can learn a lot from Europe. By adopting a systems-thinking approach, we can choose for a more sustainable pathway, we can improve outcomes for both our farming communities and the environment. As we continue to develop agriculture, let’s use these insights to create farming practices that are not only productive but also sustainable. The key is finding the balance.


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Kwame Osei

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