Putting livestock food on the climate-change table

It’s time for climate negotiators to put meat on the bones
of the next climate agreement

By Carlos Seré, Director General, ILRI

Mozambique, Tete province, Muchamba village

Worldwide our climate is changing, and livestock, which are vital to food security and to agricultural systems in most marginal regions of the world, must adapt to survive, as must the herders and farmers who keep them.

Livestock systems are a major global asset. They occupy 45% of the earth’s surface, employ at least 1.3 billion people, and are valued at about 1.4 trillion US dollars. They provide 17% of the calories and a third of the protein we consume. According to FAO, milk is the world’s number one agricultural commodity, worth about $144 billion annually, and meat from cows, pigs and chickens rank 3, 4 and 5, respectively.

These statistics, however, hide stark differences in how livestock are raised. In poor countries, most livestock are raised 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’ of food crops after the grain has been harvested.

In contrast, most livestock in wealthy countries are ‘factory-farmed’ using industrial processes. These short-lived animals are quickly fattened by feeding them vast quantities of corn and other grains – food that could be eaten by people.

Livestock contribute about 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. The vast majority of these emissions come from wealthy countries practicing factory farming. All of Africa’s ruminants combined, for example, account for only 3 percent of the global methane emissions from livestock.

Most farmers in developing countries practice either mixed-crop and-livestock farming or pastoral production on rangelands. These smallholders and herders leave tiny environmental footprints in terms of inputs. Even so, investments that increase their efficiency and productivity in terms of breeding and feeding could remove millions of tons of methane and carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Livestock play central roles in the lives of the poor. If livestock are lost, households can slip into chronic “poverty traps”. Experts believe that climate change is particularly hurting Africa’s livestock and other food producers and the ecosystems on which they depend. And they predict things are going to get worse on the continent, probably much worse. The productivity of rain-fed cropping systems is likely to drop, and do so dramatically in some areas; water shortages will become more common; and important human, livestock and crop diseases are likely to spread to new regions and become more severe.

Many of the world’s small-scale livestock keepers will have to adapt, for example, by changing the mix of livestock species they keep and the types of crops they grow, or switching to new sources of feed for their animals. Some will probably have to get out of agriculture altogether.

When negotiators meet later this year in Copenhagen 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. And they must begin to pay attention explicitly to farm animals that remain neglected by policymakers even as they become increasingly important to food security and raising smallholder incomes. African negotiators in particular need to be champion the cause of 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 our climate negotiators hope to address the needs of more than a billion animal keepers n the world, they must begin to provide differentiated policies that support rather than neglect the multifarious small livestock enterprises that make food production possible throughout the developing world.

2 thoughts on “Putting livestock food on the climate-change table

  1. Showing,rather, hammering into the head of policy makers the clear link between livestock, climate and food at the onset of Copenhagen is a strategic communication priority for ILRI. “Put meat on the bones” of the wonky skeleton of this summit is a brilliant logo, along with the Article of Dr Rich “African meat for global tables”. We will get not a better deal for ILRI after Copenhagen . Prejudices, false perceptions distorted by northern realities are hard to change. ILRI Asia needs the same clarity on research and communication priorities resonating in C. Sere’s articles. It should be imperative to look for new alliances to embark on projects capable of providing more facts and a clearer voice to document the structural changes taking place in the Asian livestock scene. The objectives is to identify not only the actors,the drivers,winners and losers of these changes but also for enabling innovation. Communication should focus on fostering new project partnerships and on sharing information on sustainable intensification of animal productions, low-carbon value chains and options for managing risks associated with climate change. India is a country facing the livestock dilemma every day. It is the best open field to plough and plant the seed of change.

  2. Small scale mixed portfolio of livestock practices must be encouraged as tool for empowerment and food security in the developing countries of the world.This practice will help sustain many youths and retires in Africa
    A mix of livestock portfolio can be harnessed to maximise land usage and minimise methane emmission
    I have been a strong advocate of a periurban or backyard mixed livestock production for food security and wealth maximisation in Africa
    Amixed livestock portfolio that will guarantee a continous cash flow to meet cash requirements of the poor people of Africa can be combined with a capital appreciative livestock species that will improve capital gains of these categories of people and also serve as collaterals for funding requirements
    I have in mind a conbination ospoultry/cattle fattening, poultry/pig fattening/or poultry/fish cropping ventures
    Ii is very possible to integrate poultry feed into viable cattle feed as supplement to home wast feeding
    Ihope the copenhagen discussion will address such innovations and package them as strategic recomendations for many third world countries. I wish you a wonderful delibrations
    Dr Stephen Adejoro is veterinary consultant and presently head of Research and marketing of Zartech Ltd Nigeria

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