Investments in India, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Sudan can make a huge global impact, finds study
Priority to investment in livestock systems in just five countries — India, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Sudan — can make a huge impact in addressing the climate crisis in the global livestock sector, researchers have established in a new analysis.
India’s exposure to climate stress, in particular, exceeds that of other countries at least five-fold, it found. A paradigm shift in the global livestock sector is necessary, according to a study by researchers from Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) Livestock and Climate Initiative and Wageningen University, Netherlands.
The paper also shone light on how and where the transformation in the sector should take place. CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food-secure future.
Combined, the above-mentioned five countries account for 46 per cent of the total value of livestock production, 35 per cent of the total rural population exposed to climate hazards and 51 per cent of livestock greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.
Livestock production contributes to climate change and is vulnerable to it at the same time. It directly accounts for 5.8 per cent of global annual GHG emissions — the percentage is closer to 23 per cent if associated deforestation and soil degradation are included.
Animal-based foods represent about one-third of food systems’ contribution to global emissions. Ruminant animals’ burps and manure release the GHG methane into the atmosphere. There are other carbon emissions associated with animal farming as well.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the authors analysed both the livestock emissions and climate risks of 132 low-and middle-income countries and found that almost everywhere, mitigation and adaptation were entangled.
Across the 132 countries analysed, $660 billion in value of production, 1.04 billion people, 470 million tropical livestock units and 671 million hectares of pasture are exposed to climate hazards.
The most prevalent hazard combinations by percentage of total area were rainfall variability, heat stress and drought (33 per cent); heat stress (28 per cent) and rainfall variability along with heat stress (12 per cent).
The researchers identified India, China, Brazil, Pakistan, and Sudan as top-five investment priorities — places with both high emissions and large numbers of people and animals exposed to climate stress.
Livestock systems in India, Nigeria and Sudan are the most exposed, with India’s exposure to climate stress exceeding that of other countries at least five-fold, the paper further said.
A handful of countries disproportionately contribute to global livestock emissions, mainly because of their size and large populations, said co-author Todd S Rosenstock from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
“These act as critical leverage points for the livestock sector’s interactions with the climate system, land and livelihoods. Effective mitigation strategies must prioritize investments in sustainable livestock practices in these high-impact regions,” he said.
However, that doesn’t let high-income countries off the hook for their farming emissions, or mean investment shouldn’t occur in other low-income countries, cautioned co-author Julian Ramirez-Villegas, from CIAT and Wageningen University.
“It’s just that if you transform the way livestock is produced in these five countries, you have the potential to make a very, very big difference in the climate system,” Ramirez-Villegas said.
Any investment in improving these systems needs to consider both climate mitigation and adaptation, said Ramirez-Villegas — something that most investors and countries are not yet doing.
“You can’t separate the cow that is emitting the GHG from the cow whose production is affected by climate stress,” he said, adding that interventions and policies focussed solely on mitigating GHG emissions could have negative consequences for the ability of smallholders to adapt to changing climate conditions and vice versa.
“We really don’t see a future without livestock,” said co-author Jacobo Arango from the Alliance of the Bioversity International and CIAT.
The research suggested pathways for the necessary transformation. At the most basic level, livestock production must be decoupled from deforestation, said Arango. “We have enough land. Deforestation needs to stop, period. There is no justification for livestock production to come at the expense of forests.”
Boosting technical assistance to help farmers to implement rotational grazing systems is also the need of the hour. Planting trees within pastoral systems, also called silvopasture, also has multiple climate benefits.
Shrubs and trees can improve carbon storage and soil health, increase productivity, boost biodiversity and provide shade to animals during heatwaves.
Giving the example of Colombia, the research said government investment there has helped to spur the expansion of silvopastoral systems by 35,000 hectares in 2023 alone, with the aim of reaching 300,000 hectares by 2026. In Brazil too, several reforestation programs were scaling silvopastures across the country.
Shifting animals’ diets to locally-adapted forage plants is more climate-smart than buying commercial feed. And there’s potential for methane emissions-reductions without slashing herd sizes, too.
CGIAR researchers in Colombia have found that adding forage legumes to traditional grass monocultures can reduce cows’ methane emissions by 15 per cent (in the context of the country).
In Ethiopia, a CGIAR research project brought together remote sensing technology, satellite imagery and on-ground sensors to capture essential data about water levels, flow rates, and water source conditions.
The project provided pastoralists with nearly real-time information to help them make smart decisions about where to bring their herds — and hard decisions about when to cull or sell animals in the case of persistent drought.
“Having 10 weak animals is much worse in terms of mitigation and adaptation than having five okay ones,” said Ramirez-Villegas.
Interventions will need to be tailored to the specific country context, said Arango. But the opportunities for transformation were underfunded.
“If livestock producers across the Global South could improve their grazing management and plant trees and gain access to safety-nets, information and resources to help them make climate-smart decisions, then I think we would make a dramatic change in both carbon emissions and productivity,” he said.