What’s next on Livestock, Climate Change and Food Security?

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security21 Dec 2010Katrien van 't Hooft

During the It’s Down2Earth Conference in The Hague, The Netherlands (31 October-5 November 2010), two side-events on livestock were organized, by FAO and by Agri-Profocus respectively. These events yielded different – and in some way contradictory – conclusions.

On the one hand there is agreement that that dairy farming – and livestock keeping in general – stands at a crossroads in its development. At a global level, livestock production is challenged to fulfill the requirements for food-production for a growing world population, as well as to reduce the environmental side-effects and its carbon footprint. There is also agreement that livestock keepers are most affected by climate change, especially smallholder and pastoralist livestock keeping peoples in marginal areas.

On the other hand there are marked differences in strategy of how to resolve this situation.

During the FAO side event it became clear that FAO – together with research partners from various countries – aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (or mitigation) especially through ‘intensification of livestock production’. This is based, amongst other studies, on recent research1 that greenhouse gas emissions per liter of milk of African milk producers (cattle) is 6-7 times higher than from intensive dairy systems in the US or the EU. Therefore it is proposed to raise productivity of ‘traditional systems’ using conventional technology, especially in genetics, feeding and disease control. Other mitigation win-win options proposed are energy-recovery from liquid waste (biogas), and carbon sequestration in degraded grasslands. This climate change mitigation strategy is now being promoted worldwide as the new panacea for livestock development. Support for livestock keepers to adaptation to climate change is embedded in separate programs.

During the Agri-Profocus side event entitled ‘Livestock, Climate Change and Foodsecurity’ several international organisations with long-standing field experience2 exchanged their views, and formulated other – and in some way complementary – solutions.

1. Differentiate between various livestock keeping systems (see figure 1).

Animals in low-input smallholder and pastoralist systems have multiple functions (milk, meat, draft, manure, social & cultural functions), while in high input animal production the focus is on one product, such as meat or milk. This requires different strategies for the different systems.

2. Mitigation through adaptation: optimizing rather than maximizing livestock productivity:

Mitigation and adaptation are linked, when livestock keeping is effectively supported to play it’s essential role in closing nutrient cycles, optimizing mineral efficiency and increasing crop production.

3. Recognition and effective support of pastoralist livestock keepers

Pastoralist livestock keepers are especially affected by climate change, while playing a special role for food security and climate change in the vast dry land areas of the world. It is essential to recognize this role, and to take steps to effectively support pastoral production systems, including the mobility on which it is based.

Past field experience has shown both positive and negative consequences of the conventional ways of intensifying livestock production. The Agri-Profocus partner organisations have gained valuable field-based experience with developing sustainable livestock farming systems over the past decades. This can provide the necessary support and expertise in finding the best ways forward in this situation, effectively complementing and improving the plans formulated by FAO and partners. Agri-profocus aims to bring the experience of the partners together in the APF Livestock & Development network. One of the first actions is to link up with the Dialogue on Livestock Food Security and Sustainability coordinated by FAO, which was also formulated in the Roadmap for Action of the Down2Earth Conference.


    1. FAO, 2010 Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector A Life Cycle Assessment
    2. Including Climate Change Forum Ethiopia, Sustainable Land-Use Forum, Horn of Africa Environment Centre & Network (HOAREC), RBM (West Africa), World Agroforestry Centre/ FAO / Grasslands Carbon Working Group