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Mixing it up—The information ‘black hole’ on crop+animal recipes for climate-smart and climate-resilient farms


Male antelope headdress (chi wara), from the Bamana people, Mali. In Bambara, ‘chi wara’ means ‘labouring wild animal’ and is a representation of Bambara mythos about the creation of farming. Chi Wara, a half antelope, half human figure came to earth to teach humans to sow crops, and thus is honoured at both sowing and harvest festivals, where the figure is used to bless the crops. (Text credit: Wikipedia; picture credit: Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; photo by Paolo Manusardi).

This article is written by Philip Thornton

Bunguey is a typical East African farmer. He plants a couple of fields with maize, others with millet. His five cows produce manure to fertilize his crops and milk, a critical source of calcium and protein and micronutrients for his family. His animals stay healthy thanks to a nutritious supplement provided by the leaves and stalks of cereal plants leftover after crop harvests.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, there are millions of similar farms, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east and down into southern Africa. In fact, the vast majority of food produced and consumed in the region comes from what agricultural researchers call ‘mixed’ farms, meaning simply farms that integrate livestock raising with crop growing to take advantage of the synergies between the two.

This fact might seem unremarkable—unless one looks at the vast global effort under way to ensure farmers around the world can adapt to climate change, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change will be especially difficult for food producers to manage.

In the thousands of pages of analyses produced by the highly influential United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, most of the work on agricultural impacts focuses on how rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall will affect crops.

Livestock are considered separately—and relatively briefly.

Even more absent is any understanding of how climate change is likely to affect food production on the hundreds of millions of farms that integrate crops and animals.

As my colleagues and I note in a perspective published recently in Nature Climate Change, this is a substantial information black hole. For millions of African farmers like Bunguey, feeding their families and generating income for things like school fees and healthcare is tied to maintaining an interdependent relationship between crops and livestock—what they (and the rest of the world until recent decades) would simply call ‘farming’.

Mixed farm-systems, which include both crops and farm animals, hold up the world’s milk and food supply. These farms produce over 90% of the world’s milk and 80% of the meat from ruminants, while providing incomes and livelihoods for millions of people in the tropics.—CCAFS blog

Across sub-Saharan Africa today there is a strong consensus emerging—from both governments and donor countries—that the surest path to increasing food security and reducing poverty lies in helping small family farms become more productive, resilient businesses.

But climate change looms as a major spoiler, posing a threat to existing production levels—which are already often insufficient—while dashing any dreams of an agriculture-led economic boom.

That’s because climate projections show that over the next 35 years, across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the global build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will pose serious problems for smallholder farming, such as reductions in the length of the growing season and high daily temperatures that can greatly reduce yields of some major staple crops.

But how these problems will affect individual farmers in Africa—many of whom could also see rainfall become more erratic—depends on how they produce food. The millions of farmers depending on livestock-crop interactions could be at once more vulnerable and more resilient to climate change: more vulnerable because losses in one area quickly affect the other, potentially leading to a rapid downward spiral; and more resilient because intermingling crops with livestock can lead to a more efficient use of natural resources and provide a buffer against losses in a particular season. For example, selling a few sheep or goats can help a family overcome a poor maize harvest.

Addressing the vulnerabilities inherent when crops are mixed with livestock and taking advantage of the resilience inherent in this form of farming require greater understanding of these risks and the benefits.

Yet we are unaware of any comprehensive studies undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa to explore how mixed farms will be affected by climate change and the cost and benefits of different adaptation options.

How will rising temperatures and shortened rains affect a farmer who is predominately growing maize and tending cattle compared to a farmer focused more on growing yams and tending a small herd of sheep or goats? How will a switch from maize to a crop like cassava that is more tolerant of heat and drought affect the amount of crop ‘stover’ available on the farm for feeding its ruminant animals? How does a farmer plough her fields or get her produce to market when climate conditions aggravate the spread of livestock diseases, including those that sicken or kill her prize cows?

Failure to consider the impacts of climate change on farms that integrate crops with livestock may reflect the bias of wealthy countries. In the United States, for example, the overwhelming majority of cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products come from farms that specialize in just one of these. In sub-Saharan Africa as in Asia, on the other hand, the great majority of staples are produced on mixed farms.

Underestimating the importance of livestock in the mixed smallholder farming systems that are ubiquitous across the developing world weakens both emissions reduction and climate change adaptation efforts.

When it comes to adapting to climate change, the traditional mixed farming approach offers big advantages. Yes, we still need focused investments in building climate-resilient crop varieties and animal breeds.

But we also need to start investing in a better understanding of how climate change may affect farms where field and pasture, animal and vegetable and (literally) milk and cereal still sit side by side, in a harmonious whole, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Read a recent perspective by Philip Thornton and Mario Herrero published in Nature Climate Change: Adapting to climate change in the mixed crop and livestock farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa, 21 Aug 2015, doi:10.1038/nclimate2754.

Read a recent opinion piece published by Philip Thornton published in Devex: Why farms of the future need to mix livestock and crops, 31 Aug 2015.

Read an article about the Thornton and Herrero Nature Climate Change paper published by CCAFS: Why mixed crop and livestock farming systems are central for future agriculture development, 24 Aug 2015.

Philip Thornton is a principal scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a flagship leader in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Mario Herrero, formerly of ILRI, now works as chief research scientist and office of the chief executive science leader in the agriculture flagship program of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

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