New map reveals livestock’s central role in a climate resilient future

Local innovations include drought-tolerant breeds, better feeds and data-driven advisory tools for farmers

Facing repeated waves of droughts, northern Ethiopia in the 1980s played host to mass starvation, death, migration, and displacement on a shocking scale.

As just one part of the wider famine that gripped Ethiopia in this period, water scarcity, crop failure, and the failure to provide relief ultimately left some 1.2 million dead, and 2.5 million people internally displaced throughout the country. 

However, some villages were able to not only escape these ills but have illustrated how other parts of the world can face the present-day challenge of climate change and prevent similarly disastrous scenes in the future. Their lifeline? Livestock.

Ficus thonningii, a species of tree noted for their drought-tolerance, are a common sight in the villages of the dry and mountainous regions of northern Ethiopia but are typically only maintained for shade and ornamental purposes.

Through trial and error, villagers learned that planting these drought-tolerant trees in the areas where local livestock grazed yielded nutritious milk and meat, even while drought wiped out other crops.

Not only that, the combination of trees, forage, and livestock in what is known as a “silvopastoral” system meant that livestock had a greater amount of biomass from which to graze, at a much-reduced level of water use.

Through these indigenous livestock management systems, some Ethiopian villages escaped the worst of the drought and built a long-term resilience to harsh climatic conditions.

Unearthing this story, and others like it from around the world, can help us to understand how livestock can play an even more central role in helping to mitigate, and build resilience to, the impact of climate change. 

A new map launched by members of the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) community today sheds light on the important role that livestock play in building climate resilience for rural communities. The map features 20 innovations crowdsourced from organisations working around the world to improve the lives of livestock keepers and their animals.  

Explore the map of livestock and climate resilience innovations

Confronting climate change

The contribution of livestock systems towards climate change has long been recognized. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), livestock production, which includes producing and transporting the feed given to livestock, contributes to around 14.5 percent of total human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. There is, however, huge variation in emissions depending on the species, the production system, and the geographic area.

Much progress can be made towards reducing this impact. Modelling by the FAO has demonstrated that there is potential for up to 30 percent reduction in emissions if farmers adopted better management practices already practiced by their neighbours.

However, livestock production is also threatened by climate change. Rising temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and novel pests and diseases, will all have a drastic impact on how livestock animals feed, produce, and reproduce. 

Likewise, any decrease in the health, nutrition, or wellbeing of livestock due to climate change will have a knock-on effect for the hundreds of millions of rural people who depend on livestock systems in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). This may disproportionately affect women, who constitute a greater share of the world’s poor livestock keepers. Climate change threatens rural economies, as livestock also contribute to about 25 percent of total agricultural GDP in low and middle-income countries.

Despite these threats, and the significant potential for the sector to help rural communities adapt, livestock production only receives a fraction of climate adaptation funds. In 2019, efforts to build a sustainable livestock sector in Africa received just US$33 million

The new map highlights opportunities that could encourage a balance between economic, environmental, and societal sustainability in managing livestock.

Ultimately, better evidence and data are vital for informing policies and investments to ensure low and middle-income livestock systems can survive and thrive despite the global climate crisis. 

More comprehensive reviews of existing evidence, more projects generating and sharing evidence, as in the examples below, are needed to support better understanding and more informed decision-making.

Building climate resilient livestock systems

From smallholder livestock keepers in Ethiopia to scientists in Edinburgh and pastoralists in India, the solutions and innovations raised by these groups can help pave the way for a greener form of livestock production, whilst ensuring livestock systems build the resilience of those communities most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 

Local innovations lead the way

Local innovations hold great potential for building climate resilience through livestock, as they are attuned to local conditions, and the needs and challenges of the communities under pressure.

Planting trees for greener livestock production in Ethiopia

The Ficus thonningii silvopastoral systems adopted by Ethiopian farmers are a prime example of a local innovation in livestock management contributing to heightened resilience towards the pressures of climate change.

Originally adopted during the droughts and famines in 1980s Ethiopia, researchers from Mekelle University have found that the practice has now been adopted by more than 20,000 households across northern Ethiopia as of August 2017. 

This practice has also reduced the water use of livestock by up to 83 percent whilst providing more biomass for grazing animals to feed. Researchers now plan to expand these efforts across Ethiopia and the surrounding region.

Strengthen resilience of mobile pastoralists

Likewise, in response to the threat of increased water scarcity and security as a result of climate change, pastoral communities in some of the driest regions of the world are turning to their livestock as a key platform from which to build resilience for the future. 

Mobile livestock to build climate resilience in India

In Rajasthan, India, researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) found that the mobile livestock practices adopted by pastoralists in the region helped build the resilience of their communities to the growing pressures of climate change, whilst helping them to maintain livestock as a profitable and nutritious resource. 

By migrating their animals, researchers found that Rajasthani livestock keepers contributed to less environmental degradation when compared with sedentary livestock and were also able to keep their livestock healthy and productive, even during periods of scarcity and insecurity. Adopting these mobile livestock practices allowed these keepers a flexibility that is well suited to the unpredictable nature of climate change’s impact, building resilience whilst also reducing the footprint of livestock on the natural environment. 

Reduce climate impacts on livestock health

The impact of climate change also poses difficulties for livestock health, especially in areas where poor health is already a challenge. Livestock are a key economic and nutritional resource for many rural communities, but climate change can contribute to, among other things, heat stress, which can impede animal yields and reproduction. Improving livestock health goes hand in hand with building resilience to the impact of climate change.

Herd management for resilient livestock in Madagascar

In response to these rising health challenges due to climate change, researchers from Land O’Lakes Venture37 set out to improve livestock health in southern Madagascar so that these animals can remain a valuable and resilient resource for smallholder farmers even after the impact of climate change has been realized.

Livestock-owning households in southern Madagascar suffer mortality losses worth US$8 million every year, which will rise as livestock face additional health challenges due to climate change.

By undertaking vaccination programs and parasite control, researchers from Land O’Lakes were able to reduce mortality losses to vulnerable livestock owning households from 18 percent down to 10 percent, keeping livestock healthy, and building their resilience in the face of growing climatic challenges.

Unlike many plant crops, livestock can remain resilient and productive during more extreme weather. Researchers from ICARDA found that feeding cactus pears to livestock in combination with other local products, allowed these animals to continue receiving energy and vitamin-rich fodder during feed and water scarce periods. By continuing to promote their good health through new ways of feeding, livestock can remain a productive and resilient resource for the communities who need them most.

Advance cutting-edge solutions

As the world faces the rising impact of climate change, data-driven and scientific solutions will enable livestock to build and scale up resilience for communities across the developing world.

Indigenous Ethiopian chickens reveal adaptive genes for tropical environments

Researchers from the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH) are leading the way in discovering how the resilience of livestock can be built upon to further rise to the challenge of climate change.

For instance, researchers have found that the genes of indigenous Ethiopian chickens are adapted to local agro-climatic conditions, including extreme temperature, rainfall, water and low food availability. The researchers believe they could harness this adaptability and, through breeding programmes, develop more climate resilient and highly productive village poultry.

Likewise, CTLGH scientists are also studying how genome editing could make use of a particular gene in European cows that promotes better thermoregulation. By editing the ‘SLICK’ gene displayed by European cows into African cattle, these livestock would become more resilient and more productive for their keepers under the harsher conditions brought about by a changing global climate. 

Data-driven solutions are also at the forefront of ensuring livestock remain resilient against these rising challenges. The Regional Drought Monitoring and Outlook System for South Asia, launched by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), is a game-changer for livestock keepers across the region.

By providing reliable and almost real-time drought indicators, the Monitoring and Outlook System provides farmers with a valuable tool to prepare for outbreaks of drought, informing them of when to take the necessary steps to protect their livestock. 

New evidence for climate discussions

These stories highlight the vast potential for promoting the climate resilience that exists in livestock around the world. 

These groups, whether they are adopting livestock innovations on a local, village-level scale, or developing new solutions in labs and long-term case studies, are building resilience against the impact of climate change, with great potential to be further scaled up on the ground.

As the COP26 Climate Talks get underway in Glasgow, this project offers valuable evidence for policy makers to address the role that livestock play in climate adaptation, rural development, and global food security.

The Livestock and Climate Resilience map is a joint production of SEBI-Livestock, The Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH), the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security (GAAFS) (all at the University of Edinburgh), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). These organisations are members of the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) Community of practice.

Feature image: Cattle in Lhate Village Mozambique. Photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann (source).