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Livestock and climate change: Where the BIG opportunities lie


Some of our biggest opportunities for both reducing and coping with climate change lie among the one billion poor people raising farm animals across the developing world (ILRI poster).

Systems analyst and livestock-climate change scientist Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) says livestock systems in developing countries remain understudied. This even though livestock keepers, whether pastoral herders or ‘mixed’ crop-livestock farmers, are essential to development destinies in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the world’s poverty and hunger remain the most concentrated.

The good news is that there are many ways small-scale livestock keepers can adapt to the changing climate, e.g. by making their production more efficient—a triple win for raising household incomes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product and coping with variable climates.

The bad news is we still haven’t reliably reckoned the costs and benefits of many livestock adaptation options in developing countries.

The mixed news is that supporting the world’s one billion small-scale livestock keepers to adapt to climate and other changes will require the all-too-elusive ‘enabling environments’ so often cited in the development literature these days. The usual suspects include judicious policies, appropriate technologies, adequate infrastructure and access to information, all to be provided by countries with scarce resources to do so.

Thornton begins by making the case for the central, and growing, importance of livestock systems:

  • Livestock systems cover 2.5 billion hectares of land globally.
  • Mixed crop-livestock systems produce over 90% of the world’s milk supply and 80% of the meat from ruminants.
  • Mixed crop-livestock and rangeland-based livestock systems provide most of the staples consumed by poor people.
  • Demand for milk, meat and eggs is skyrocketing in many developing countries as populations and incomes rise.

But, Thornton reminds us, many smallholder farmers and herders wanting to meet this rising demand by increasing their production will have to accomplish this in the face of increasingly variable climates and extreme weather events. (And in the face of relative disregard for the smallholder livestock sector by research and development agencies and national governments, a distinctly odd omission considering the many ways livestock systems can help food producers adapt to changing climate patterns.)

Here’s what Thornton says are the key livestock-focused messages from the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (available online at

(1) New research since 2007, the year of publication of the previous Assessment Report, provides more evidence and higher confidence than previously on reduced forage quality, with concomitant reduced livestock productivity (and therefore reduced household incomes and nutrition) in both high and low latitudes. In a warmer climate, many livestock species will suffer reduced feed intake, reproduction and performance.

(2) Contrary to the mass of evidence collected about crops systems under climate change, little evidence yet has been compiled of the impacts climate change is already having on livestock systems, and most of what exists concerns only livestock diseases and disease vectors.

(3) We still lack aggregated summaries of climate change impacts on livestock systems, and impacts on interactions between cropping and livestock on mixed farms, both with and without climate change adaptation measures. And despite the central importance of livestock in helping hundreds of millions of people to manage their farm risks (e.g., when crops fail, animal stock is sold to buy food and other essentials), just how increasing climate variability will affect risk and well-being among poor livestock-keepers remains largely unelucidated.

(4) Although people can adapt their local livestock systems in many ways to cope with, and in some cases take advantage of, climate change, and although there is high confidence about the multiple and substantial benefits livestock-based climate adaptations can provide, we still lack information needed to aggregate the possible costs and benefits (both social and private) of these adaptations.

Fishermen, sahelian goats by the Niger river.

Fishermen and Sahelian goats by the Niger River, in Segou, Mali (photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann).

While AR5 contains little new information on climate change impacts on livestock systems, we know many ways livestock keepers may, and do, respond. Three (overlapping) optimal responses are described by Thornton and his colleague Mario Herrero, formerly of ILRI and now at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

First, people can increase the resilience of their livestock systems to climate shocks. Better use of different livestock breeds and crop varieties, especially native ones that have evolved to withstand temperature extremes, drought, flooding and pests and diseases, is fundamental here. The leaves of some tree and legume species, for example, can significantly improve the diets of cattle, sheep, goats and other ruminant livestock as well as increase carbon sequestration. Higher quality ruminant diets will reduce the methane output per unit of product, so target quantities of meat and milk can be obtained with lower overall methane emissions and fewer animals.

Second, people can diversify their livelihoods to broaden their options by adding more species of plant varieties or animal breeds, by switching to drought-tolerant crops such as millet, by interspersing their crops and cropping and livestock systems in time and space, by starting to process farm products, or by undertaking off-farm work.

Third, people can better manage the risks they incur, due, for example, to more frequent droughts. (It can take families in Africa and South Asia up to a decade to restock after a drought has killed many of their animals. Some are never able to recover their livestock livelihoods.) A new option in some regions is to take out weather-indexed insurance, which pays policy holders in response to ‘trigger events’ such as abnormal rainfall. Pilot projects in East Africa by ILRI and partners highlight the potential for providing remote livestock herders with indexed-based livestock insurance.

Thornton concludes with three precepts the livestock research-for-development communities should bear foremost in mind to make a bigger difference.

Attend to context
Silver bullets won’t work. Every option enhancing resilience, diversification or risk management in given regions and circumstances will fail in others. The context is decisive: local circumstances determine what works and what doesn’t.

Gather the evidence
Levels of resilience, diversification and risk management within the developing world’s livestock-keeping communities depend not only on agricultural management but also on enabling policy environments, which in turn can (and should) be shaped by reliable evidence.

Link science to policy
Close links between livestock-focused scientists and policymakers will have to be forged to deal with the uncertainties, trade-offs and synergies arising from implementing various livestock policies suiting various circumstances.

Read the paper: Climate change and livestock in developing countries: Possibilities for adaptation, in Agriculture for Development, a special issue of Climate Change and Agriculture of the Tropical Agriculture Association, No. 22, Summer 2014.

See another article about this paper: Agriculture for development: Challenges under climate change and the way forward, written by Cecilia Schubert and posted on the CCAFS Blog (Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) on 9 Oct 2014.

Note: Philip Thornton is a principal scientist in the Livestock Systems and Environment Program of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya. Thornton also serves as a theme and flagship leader in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). He is based in Edinburgh, where he is an honorary fellow in the University of Edinburgh’s College of Science and Engineering. Thornton is a contributing author of the chapter on ‘Food Security and Food Production Systems’ of Working Group II, on ‘Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability’, of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014.

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