From Emissions to Resilience: Climate Change, Food Systems, and the Livestock Sector

March 28, 2020

Human food choices and food systems are inextricably linked with climate change. From crop cultivation to fisheries and from forestry to lab-grown meat, there are strong bonds between food production, sustainable development, adaptation, and mitigation. Food systems have economic, social, and environmental components that encompass production methods, input supplies, land and water use, energy, processing, pollution, waste management, labor conditions, financing, marketing, distribution, governance, and many more. Right now, livestock is one of the largest and most complex food systems in the world, and it is connected to climate change in three major ways.

First off, industrial animal farming is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic emissions. Second, small-scale livestock farming, herding, and crop-livestock agriculture are vital livelihood activities and boost the resilience of rural populations in developing countries. Third, the livestock sector is highly vulnerable to the rising temperatures and changing weather patterns caused by climate change, suffering direct impacts such as floods, droughts, heat stress, diseases, and lowered productivity as well as indirect ones including reduced yield and quality of feed crops, reduced pasture availability, and water logging.

On the one hand, increasing demand for livestock products could hasten vaster and vaster industrial production, accelerate climate change, and cause massive deforestation and ecosystem destruction around the world. On the other hand, a sustainable livestock sector could be pivotal in reducing emissions and helping poor communities adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Global Livestock Production

Livestock are domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting to provide traction or produce commodities such as meat, milk, eggs, and hides. Based on number of animals alone, poultry is by far the largest sub-sector with over 23.7 billion chicken, over three times as much as all other livestock combined, followed by cattle and buffalos with just under 1.7 billion heads, sheep, ducks, goats, and pigs. Four out of five of the highest-value agricultural products come from livestock (dairy, pig meat, beef, and poultry), and livestock accounts for 40 percent of the total value of agricultural output in developed and 20 percent in developing countries.

The livestock sector plays an important role for food and nutritional security, sustainable development, economic resilience, climate change, environmental conservation, deforestation, natural resource use, human health, animal welfare, and agricultural livelihoods. It is estimated that one fifth of the global population depends on livestock for their livelihoods, and the sector is directly relevant to most of the Agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Livestock and Climate Change Mitigation

It is important to understand the scale of the industrial livestock sector's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock creates approximately one seventh of global GHG emissions, more than the entirety of the world’s transportation sector. In 2016, the twenty biggest meat and dairy companies alone emitted more greenhouse gases than the country of Germany. Livestock produces a major part of the emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land uses (AFOLU), one of the key drivers of climate change responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of these emissions stem from dairy and beef production, adding up to a total of 61% of the sector's emissions, followed by roughly 17% for pork, poultry meat, and eggs. Not all emissions come from livestock farming and enteric fermentation: around 45% is attributed to the production and processing of feed crops.

Livestock farming is the world’s largest user of land resources and the largest contributor to deforestation ahead of agriculture for human consumption, palm oil and other biofuels, and wood for paper and construction. In the first decade of the twenty-first century alone, 56 million hectares of land were cultivated with soybean and maize to provide animal feed, destroying and degrading vast areas of forest and removing vital carbon sinks around the globe. Furthermore, livestock production can pollute water sources, deplete the soil, and affect human health through animal feed additives such as antibiotic growth promoters.

Around half of livestock sector emissions are in the form of methane, which is more effective than other greenhouse gases but also quicker to disappear once production has stopped. This highlights the urgency of mitigation actions targeting the livestock sector. Reducing meat consumption, replacing livestock with lab-grown meat, or dismantling the industrial livestock sector could lead to reduced emissions but also present challenges of just transition, nutritional security, and economic resilience.

Currently, the livestock sector is projected to experience rapid growth as population numbers and standards of living rise in many developing and emerging economies, doubling the demand for livestock by 2050. More efficient farming practices and technologies, rotational grazing, better supply chains, soil and manure management, supporting small scale production and local markets, and focusing on crop-livestock-forestry systems can reduce the sector’s footprint, make it more sustainable, and offer a number of benefits to the people that depend on it.

Livestock and Climate Change Adaptation

Apart from its role as a driver of climate change and deforestation, livestock can build the resilience of vulnerable communities across the world. Especially in developing countries, animal husbandry is often an integral part of rural livelihoods, food and nutritional security, and economic diversification that increases coping and adaptive capacities.

In some regions and countries, large herds of livestock form the foundation for a nomadic, pastoralist way of life; in others, livestock is kept in small numbers by sedentary farming communities for dairy, eggs, and poultry meat. There are hundreds of millions of herders around the world, most of which protect the health of their pastures by improving soil fertility, conserving biodiversity, managing fires, and accelerating nutrient cycling.

Integrated crop-livestock farming systems can be found around the world and have been practiced by farming communities for millennia. They provide livelihoods for a billion people and produce a third of the world’s beef and milk. The integration of crops, pasture, and livestock is mutually beneficial as it utilizes idle labor, marginal or idle lands, and crop residue while providing manure to fertilize the fields. Small-scale livestock production preserves and enriches the soil, improves crop yields, intensifies land use, reduces poverty and malnutrition, strengthens environmental sustainability, and allows farmers a steady income even outside harvest seasons.

Conclusion and Outlook

Climate change impacts the livestock sector, and the livestock sector impacts climate change. It is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and responsible for environmental destruction and degradation on a global scale. The IPCC special report on Climate Change and Land recommends to look toward alternative diets that rely on plant-based protein such as pulses, nuts, and seeds to preserve both human and environmental health. Recent research suggests that Paris Agreement targets are unlikely to be achieved without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.

A transition toward meatless lifestyles is possible, but it faces significant challenges of equity, fairness, just transition, stranded assets, and guaranteeing nutritional and economic security of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. However, sustainable, small-scale, and integrated livestock production has been part of the traditional way of life in most developing countries and allows communities to withstand the impacts of climate change.

Looking at smallholder livestock farming and herding as an adaptation measure can help these communities to enhance the sustainability of their crop cultivation, generate additional income, protect soil, water, and forest ecosystems, and promote locally-sourced, cruelty-free livestock products. Transforming the livestock sector towards lower emissions and greater sustainability will be beneficial for the wellbeing of humans, animals, and the planet at the same time.

Further Reading

For additional information on the livestock sector in Sri Lanka please see the following presentation held by SLYCAN Trust at the GCF Open Dialogue on Unsustainable Livestock and its Alternatives in Bogor, Indonesia, on February 14th, 2020: Sri Lanka and the Livestock Sector: Climate Change, Communities, and Sustainability


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About the Author

SLYCAN Trust is a non-profit think tank. It has been a registered legal entity in the form of a trust since 2016, and a guarantee limited company since 2019. The entities focus on the thematic areas of climate change, adaptation and resilience, sustainable development, environmental conservation and restoration, social justice, and animal welfare. SLYCAN Trust’s activities include legal and policy research, education and awareness creation, capacity building and training, and implementation of ground level action. SLYCAN Trust aims to facilitate and contribute to multi-stakeholder driven, inclusive and participatory actions for a sustainable and resilient future for all.