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Climate change impacts on livestock: ‘This information does not exist’


Rock engravings depicting long-horned cattle with their heads bowed, from the Early Hunter Period and found at the base of an inselberg at Tegharghart, south of Djanet,Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, a site known as ‘Crying Cows’ because of the way teardrops appear to roll down the faces of the animals (via David Coulson/©Trust for African Rock Art [TARA]).

A new working paper from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has been published on the impacts of climate change on livestock across Africa. Lead author of the new paper, Philip Thornton, is a scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and CCAFS.

The good news is that there are interventions that can help livestock keepers and their stock adapt to climate change. The bad news is that every widely applicable option available has its downsides when it comes to small-scale farmers adopting it.

While we have evidence of how climate change is impacting crop agriculture, and thus can prepare ourselves for how to adapt, there is as yet little evidence for how climate change is affecting the world’s cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry and other livestock. With demand for livestock products exploding in developing countries—it’s expected to double in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by mid-century (and with livestock’s share of agricultural GDP on average 33% and rising)—this dearth of basic livestock information is a big deal.

Future predictions are scary—climate change is likely to reduce the growth of grass and other forages that feed livestock in these regions, as well as reduce the quality of the forage—substantially in some regions—which will directly reduce the incomes of poor and malnourished livestock-dependent households in these regions and the amount and quality of food their human members consume.

Take maize, for example, whose grain is a staple food in Africa and whose stalks and leaves feed ruminant animals in the dry seasons, when green biomass is finished, on smallholder farms across the continent. A big reduction in maize yields, which is just one expected result of climate change, will starve animals as well as people. In addition, the greater heat in a warmer world will reduce just how much feed farm animals can consume, how much they reproduce and how productive they are. Most livestock species, for example, perform best at temperatures between 10 and 30°C; at temperatures above 30ºC, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens all reduce their feed intake 3-5% for each 1°C increase. Less feed, less milk, meat and eggs.

As Thornton and his ILRI colleague Tim Robinson say:

Livestock are a critically important risk management resource; for about 170 million poor people in sub-Saharan Africa, livestock may be one of their very few assets.

The implications are clear:

The 2014 IPCC assessment contains only limited information on the projected impacts of climate change on livestock and livestock systems; more robust and detailed information is urgently needed.

Among the limited information in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) on the projected impacts of climate change on livestock in Africa is this.

  • In Botswana, the cost of supplying water from boreholes could increase by 23% due to more hours pumping under drier and warmer conditions.
  • In Africa’s lowlands, fewer households will attempt to keep dairy cows and many will shift to sheep and goats.
  • In East Africa, the amount of maize stover per head of cattle will drop (on the other hand, the higher temperatures could benefit livestock keeping in the cool highlands).
  • In South Africa, dairy yields decrease by 10–25%.

Add to that the impacts of climate change on African rangeland ‘above-ground net primary productivity’ (aka grass, herbs, shrubs, trees)—obtained using a ‘G-Range’ model developed at the University of Colorado at Fort Collins—which indicate substantial, largely detrimental, changes in livestock feed resources.

‘Finally’, the paper notes, ‘no options stand out that have high potential for enhancing food security and addressing resilience, diversification or risk management that do not also have constraints to their adoption: their feasibility will depend on  local conditions and their implementation will incur costs.

‘Further, no options stand out that have strong impacts on increasing resilience of households, suggesting that there are limits to what can be achieved in increasing resilience through livestock management.

The importance of the policy and enabling environment with respect to adaptation is clear, but identifying the bounds of what endogenous adaptation can achieve in relation to incomes and food security in livestock systems is critical for informing national policy debates.

This information does not yet exist.

Read the working paper by Philip Thornton, Randall Boone and Julian Ramirez-Villegas, Climate change impacts on livestock: CCAFS Working Paper no. 120. 2015. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Read an article on the CCAFS site by Cecilia Schubert about this new working paper of theirs: Climate change impacts on livestock: What do we know?, 10 June 2015.










One thought on “Climate change impacts on livestock: ‘This information does not exist’

  1. Reblogged this on Thought + Food and commented:
    I have shared here issues around climate change and farming but as this piece reflects, not as much is known or discussed about the impact of climate change on livestock. More to learn…..

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