Issues Magazine

Livestock, Food and Climate Change

By Carlos Seré

The 800 million livestock keepers of the developing world are among those communities at greatest risk of climate change. They need technological and policy support to produce the greater amounts of milk, meat and eggs needed to feed the world – and to do so more efficiently with less environmental cost.

Agriculture, on which we all depend for our food, is under threat from climate change. There is no doubt that systems worldwide will have to adapt, but while consumers may barely notice in developed countries, millions of people in developing countries face a very real and direct threat to their food security and livelihoods.

Even without climate change, many agricultural systems in developing countries are nearing crisis point. Feeding a rapidly rising global population is taking a heavy toll on farmlands, rangelands, fisheries and forests. Water is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. Climate change could be the additional stress that pushes systems over the edge.

The contribution of agriculture itself to climate change is often overlooked. Current practices, including the conversion of forests and grasslands to crops and pasture, result in significant releases of greenhouse gases, with estimates as high as 33% of total emissions. This clearly needs to be addressed in mitigation strategies.

The climate is changing, and livestock as well as agricultural systems must also change if we are to avoid catastrophe. Livestock producers will need to adapt their production systems to cope with the changes and to reduce their carbon footprints.

Differences in Livestock Production

Livestock systems are a significant global asset, occupying 45% of the Earth’s surface, employing at least 1.3 billion people, earning some US$1.4 trillion , and contributing 17% of the food energy and 33% of the protein we consume.

These global livestock statistics, however, hide stark differences in how livestock are kept and used. Most livestock in poor countries are still raised on small farms or herded by pastoralists and subsist throughout their (usually long) natural lives largely on grass and other vegetation, including the stalks, leaves and other “wastes” of food crops after their grain has been harvested. In rich countries, in contrast, most livestock today are “factory-farmed” using industrial processes, in which the short-lived animals are quickly fattened by their consumption of vast quantities of corn and other feed grains edible by humans.

The global outlook also hides vast differences in the roles that livestock and their many products play in rich and poor countries. Farm animals are the main assets of some 800 million of the world’s small-scale farmers, for example, providing them not only with food but also with manure to fertilise their nutrient-starved croplands, traction for pulling ploughs and transporting goods to markets, and a means of saving money in rural areas not served by banks. Indeed, the world’s most vulnerable communities employ livestock-keeping as a main strategy for reducing their risk of crop failure and other disasters.

Livestock Production in Poor Countries

The vast majority of livestock-keepers in developing countries practice either mixed crop-and-livestock smallholder farming or agro-pastoral production (which mixes crop farming with livestock herding) or fully pastoral production on rangelands. These livestock smallholders and herders have tiny environmental footprints; they apply no or few external inputs such as chemical fertilisers and improved seeds to their farming systems.

Furthermore, livestock are one of very few options available to the developing world’s rural poor to help them generate incomes and build livelihoods. Livestock keeping is not only a pathway out of poverty for these people, but also a way for most vulnerable households to diversify their risks and increase their assets and resilience in the face of climate, market and disease shocks.

Even with livestock playing such central roles in the livelihoods of poor people, per capita consumption of milk and meat in poor countries is at least five times lower than that of people in affluent societies. Raising the extremely low levels of consumption of animal-source foods by the more than one billion undernourished people in the world who subsist largely on starchy diets would greatly improve their nutrition, enhancing in particular the cognitive development of children and the health of women of childbearing ages.

Due to rising populations and middle-class incomes in the developing world, particularly in burgeoning cities and emerging economies, the global demand for livestock products is rising. This rising demand for milk, meat and eggs could benefit many poor people if they can increase their livestock production to meet the new demand.

At least 90% of the planet’s 1.3 billion poorest people live in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, of which some 60% depend on livestock. Experts predict that climate change is likely to hurt both these poor livestock keepers and the ecosystems on which they depend. The productivity of rain-fed cropping systems is likely to drop, and to do so dramatically in some areas; water will become scarcer, and water shortages more common, than today; and important human, livestock and crop diseases are all likely to spread to new regions and/or become more severe.

Many of the world’s 800 million small-scale livestock keepers will be forced to change their husbandry practices to deal with these major changes in their agro-ecological environments. They may, for example, change the mix of livestock species they keep, or change the types of crops they grow, or switch to new sources of feed or new feeding strategies for their animals. These changes will require support.

Livestock-Based Climate Change Adaptation Strategies

As the climate changes there will inevitably be impacts on livestock and livestock-based systems. At the same time as the global demand for livestock foods increases, so do animal numbers, with increasing impacts on ecosystems such as marginal rangelands. We need to manage growth of the global livestock sector sustainably as well as equitably through adaptive strategies that simultaneously address the climate challenge to livestock production and the impacts that livestock production have on the environment.

These adaptive strategies will include diverse options from which livestock keepers can select according to their circumstances.

Rear Animals

Animal rearing itself can be an adaptation option. As the climate changes and cropping along with rainfall becomes more unreliable in many regions, taking up animal husbandry will offer farmers a useful additional means of making a living. Such livelihood diversification is a key strategy in reducing vulnerability to climate change.

Change the Mix of Animal Species Kept

Farmers and herders can change the mix of species they keep to better match their changing environments and thus maintain or raise their production levels. Pastoralists in drying climates may begin to keep some camels as well as cattle, sheep and goats, or may begin keeping a greater proportion of small stock. In regions getting wetter, camel herders may choose to begin keeping some cattle.

Us or Improve Local Breeds

Farmers can also make use of different native and/or improved breeds of livestock that best suit their particular changing environment or circumstance. Many of the tropical breeds of developing countries, for example, have evolved means of tolerating extreme heat, poor feed and scarce water, and farmers facing harsher climates can make more use of these hardy indigenous animals.

Farmers can also utilise breeding programs that provide higher-yielding cross-bred animals or that improve specific traits (e.g. fertility, milk yield, growth rate) of their local breeds. Because keeping breeding records is a challenge for many smallholder farmers, scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partner organisations are employing participatory approaches in which a community identifies its specific breeding objectives and then uses the entire community herd or flock as a single breeding pool for improving those traits.

Better Control Livestock Diseases

A warmer world will be a sicker world in many regions of developing countries, whose tropical climates already dispose them to tremendous disease burdens in animals as well as people. The animal diseases that still plague developing countries can cause great economic as well as nutritional costs. And as some 60% of all human diseases are, like bird flu, transmitted between animals and people, it is doubly important that we develop ways of better controlling livestock diseases in poor countries.

Researchers at ILRI and partner agencies are working to develop and deliver better diagnostics and vaccines for animal diseases of the developing world, while also taking a holistic “one-health” approach to disease control, which aims to integrate work at the interface of human, animal and environmental health.

Provide Livestock Insurance

Index-based insurance products are a new way to manage the increasing climate-related risks faced by many pastoralists. To protect livestock herders in Kenya’s vast northern drylands from devastating animal losses due to periodic droughts, ILRI and partners are designing, developing and implementing “index-based” insurance products with commercial partners. Unlike traditional insurance coverage, which pays insured clients on a case-by-case basis, after individual assessments of losses have been made by the insurance company, this index-based insurance scheme will make payments to all herders who have bought a policy within Kenya’s Marsabit region when satellite data shows that the amount of forage available in that region has fallen below a pre-determined level.

Livestock-Based Climate Change Mitigation Strategies

Almost all human activity causes some emissions of greenhouse gases. Global livestock production contributes up to 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. But given the central and varied contributions that livestock make to the lives of more than one billion small-scale livestock producers and sellers, emissions from their livestock enterprises are relatively modest.

Most livestock-base greenhouse gas emissions come from industrialised countries practising factory farming, and the least come from developing-country family farms. Within the developing world itself, most greenhouse gases attributed to livestock production are emitted by rapidly expanding industrial livestock operations in Asia and the felling of forests in Latin America to make pastures for livestock grazing. (Carbon dioxide is produced by deforestation and other land practices that encourage the decomposition of organic substances.)

Nonetheless, as livestock production in developing countries increases to meet an increasing demand for milk, meat and eggs in those countries, it will become increasingly important to develop cost-effective and easy-to-use options for mitigating the impacts of developing-country livestock systems on climate change.

Reduce Methane Emissions from Livestock

Methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, is produced by the rumination and belching of hoofed, cud-chewing animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. Methane emissions per ruminant in poor countries tend to be relatively high because these animals subsist on poor diets that reduce the efficiency with which they convert their feed into milk and meat. Providing ruminants in developing countries with better quality diets increases their feed-conversion efficiencies and reduces the amount of methane produced per unit of meat or milk. New feeds and improved feeding strategies are thus also urgently needed for smallholder households raising ruminant animals.

Switch from Ruminant to Monogastric Animals

In some circumstances, switching from cattle, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals (which possess four-chambered stomachs for breaking down cellulose) to pigs, chickens and other monogastric stock (which possess single-chambered stomachs) will reduce a farm’s total methane emissions. But because high amounts of grain used to feed monogastrics can offset the methane saved by not raising ruminants, alternative feeds and feeding practices are needed for smallholder pig and poultry producers.

Impose Regulations for Manure Management

Another greenhouse gas emitted in livestock systems is nitrous oxide, which is produced by spreading manure and slurry over lands. Regulatory frameworks could reduce nitrous oxide emissions from manures, particularly by enforcing better management of excreta in developing countries and applications of slurry and manure in developed countries. Furthermore, developing ways to monitor and verify reductions would open the door to mitigation payment schemes.

Pay Pastoralists for Ecosystem Services

Rangelands would store much greater amounts of soil carbon than they do now if we put in place sustainable land-use and livestock policies and practices suited to local conditions. Such interventions could not only store more carbon but also provide small-scale farmers and herders with payments for conserving wildlife and providing other ecosystem services to the wider community.