Livestock Crucial for Coping with Climate Change
(Posted on CGIAR, November 3, 2009)
Submitted by Carlos Seré, Director General, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
As our climate changes, livestock, which are vital to food security and to agriculture in most of the world’s marginal regions, must adapt to survive, and so must the herders and farmers who keep them.
A major global asset, livestock systems occupy 45 percent of the earth’s surface, employ at least 1.3 billion people, and are valued at about US$1.4 trillion. They provide 17 percent of the calories and a third of the protein we consume. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, milk is the world’s number one agricultural commodity, worth about $144 billion annually, and meat from cows, pigs and chickens rank third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
These statistics, however, hide stark regional differences in how livestock are raised. In poor countries, livestock are raised primarily on small farms or herded by pastoralists. Throughout their (usually long) natural lives, they survive largely on grass and other vegetation, including the stalks, leaves and other “wastes” that remain after food crops have been been harvested.
In contrast, livestock in wealthy countries are mostly “factory-farmed.” Using industrial processes, farmers quickly fatten the animals, which in their short lives consume vast quantities of maize and other grains – food that might instead have fed people.
Livestock contribute about 18 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. In Africa, where livestock have proven to be a crucial coping mechanism for poor people trying to survive in difficult environmental conditions, all of the continent’s ruminants combined account for only 3 percent of the total global methane emissions.
Most farmers in developing countries practice either a mix of crop and livestock farming or pastoral production on rangelands. These smallholders and herders leave relatively tiny environmental footprints. Even so, investments that increase their efficiency and productivity in breeding and feeding their animals could remove millions of tons of methane and carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
Scientists believe that climate change will be particularly harmful to producers of livestock and other food in Africa. The productivity of rainfed cropping systems is likely to drop, in some areas dramatically; water shortages will become more common; and important human, livestock and crop diseases will probably spread to new regions and become more severe.
Many of the world’s small-scale livestock keepers will have to adapt by changing the mix of livestock species they keep and the types of crops they grow or by switching to new sources of feed for their animals. Some will probably have to get out of agriculture altogether, at a time when the world is seeking to reduce chronic hunger in the poorest nations.
When negotiators meet at Copenhagen in December to finalize the global climate pact, they must pay attention to the many small farmers and herders who are already feeding most of the world’s poor. African negotiators in particular need to champion small-scale animal agriculture, which remains the backbone of their nations’ economies.
Food security and climate change are inextricably linked. Policymakers must become adept at moving on both fronts simultaneously. And if negotiators hope to address climate change in a way that will also serve the needs of the world’s poorest people, they must begin to encourage policies that support rather than neglect small livestock enterprises.