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The Impacts of Climate Change on Livestock and Sustainable Food Systems

Animal Husbandry - Challenges, Initiatives

Livestock plays a major role in sustainable food systems worldwide, contributing to natural fertilizer production and boosting productivity in regions with low mechanization. Livestock are valuable assets for impoverished communities, providing food, income, and acting as a safety net. Globally, around 500 million pastoralists rely on livestock herding for food, income, and as a store of wealth, collateral or safety net in times of need. Local livestock production systems also contribute to biodiversity preservation and carbon sequestration.

In harsh environments, such as mountains and drylands, livestock is often the only way to sustainably convert natural resources into food, fiber, and work power for local communities. Fodder for livestock becomes a limiting factor after natural disasters and extreme weather events like floods, drought, cyclones etc.

Local communities face many challenges in maintaining their livestock or just keeping them alive during these challenging times. Cattle diseases are common during natural disasters and the availability of medicines for livestock also becomes a challenge. Distress sale of cattle after natural disasters is common. Most often than not, local communities are either ill-prepared to tide over the crisis or find it extremely difficult to arrange for the fodder requirements of their livestock. Most development support agencies are also unaware or have a limited understanding of such ground realities of livestock requirements. 

Globally, increasing incomes, changing diets, and population growth have led to increased demand and made the livestock sector one of the fastest-growing agricultural sub-sectors in middle and low-income countries. This represents a major opportunity for smallholders, agribusiness, and job creators throughout the livestock supply chain. However, if not properly managed, this growth risks accentuating sustainability issues that span equity, environmental impacts, and public health.

Impacts of Climate Change

Global warming and climate change concept
Global warming and climate change

The impacts of climate change has been a serious issue but hidden issue in public policy discussions and climate actions by Governments all over the world. The livestock sector is a pillar of the global food system and a contributor to poverty reduction, food security and agricultural development.

According to the FAO, livestock contributes 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food and nutrition security of almost 1.4 billion people. At the same time, there is wide scope to improve livestock sector practices so that they are more sustainable, more equitable, and pose less risk to animal and human health. Currently, the livestock sector emits an estimated 7.1 GT of CO2 – equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Increasing the efficiency of livestock supply chains is key to limiting the growth of GHG emissions in the future. 

The term “Climate change” refers to the change in the climate patterns in the regions or the globe that can persist for decades or longer, arising from natural causes or human/anthropogenic activity. Climate change is one of the most serious environmental problems ever encountered by the entire global community. The change in the climate is largely attributed to the increased release of GHG into the environment and anthropogenic activities holds responsible for 70% of global GHG emissions. 

Panoramic shot of smokestack emissions from coal-fired powerplants
Smokestack emissions from coal-fired powerplants

The major GHGs are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons. Agriculture and animal husbandry is the second largest and alone accountable for 18% of global, anthropogenic, or human-induced, GHG missions and is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. The livestock sector, which supports more than 12% of the world’s population for its livelihood is a major anthropogenic source of GHG production and emission. 

The impact of livestock rearing on global warming has been found to be significantly high. One of the key factors causing this is the methane emission from the enteric fermentation of ruminant livestock, which is a main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Methane emission is also associated with dietary energy loss; hence, reducing feed efficiency. To address the issue of methane emission from ruminants, changing fermentation patterns through dietary alteration has been proven one of the most effective ways of methane abatement. Desirable dietary changes provide twofold benefits i.e. improve production and reduce GHG emissions.

Overall dietary manipulation by selecting more starch and less fiber in the animal feed is found to be producing less methane per kg feed DM but also forms a basis for higher feed intake and higher production per animal. According to FAO, 2014, GHG emissions by the livestock sector consist of enteric fermentation (39%), manure management (26%), feed (21%), land-use change (9%), energy and post-farm (5%) at the global level. 

Addressing climate change’s impact on the livestock sector requires comprehensive approaches that consider enteric fermentation, manure management, land use change, and energy consumption.

Key Issues and Challenges: A Comprehensive Overview

The key issues and challenges have been broadly divided into technical, institutional/ regulatory, financial, and socio-economic.

Technical Challenges

  1. Vulnerability of Small Farm Holdings: Small-scale farmers face heightened vulnerability to the impacts of climate change due to limited resources and adaptive capacity.
  2. Dependency on Varying Rainfall: Over 48 percent of dryland areas rely on unpredictable rainfall patterns for crop production, limiting cultivation to a single season from September to December.
  3. Labor Shortage during Peak Seasons: Farmers often encounter labor shortages during crucial periods such as planting and harvesting, leading to delays and potential yield losses.
  4. Lack of Storage Facilities: Inadequate storage infrastructure hinders farmers’ ability to safely store and preserve agricultural produce, increasing post-harvest losses and limiting market opportunities.
  5. Yield Stagnation despite Inputs: Despite applying high levels of inputs, there is a persistent stagnation in crop yields, indicating the need for improved agricultural practices and technology.

Institutional/ Regulatory Challenges

  1. Impacts of Indiscriminate Chemical Use: The excessive and indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides not only escalates the cost of cultivation but also contributes to environmental pollution, posing risks to human and animal health.
  2. Water Pollution from Industrial Effluents: The contamination of water bodies, caused by the mixing of industrial effluents, adversely affects the health of both humans and animals, highlighting the need for stricter regulations and effective monitoring.
  3. Limited Technology Adoption: The low level of technology adoption in agriculture hampers productivity and leads to poor crop yields. Encouraging the adoption of modern farming techniques and providing access to appropriate technologies is crucial for enhancing agricultural productivity.
  4. Political Instability and its Impact: Political instability in a region can disrupt the smooth functioning of the agricultural sector, creating uncertainties for farmers and hindering overall growth and development.

Financial Challenges

  1. Uncertainty in Farmer Income: The lack of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for most crops creates income uncertainty for farmers, making it difficult for them to plan and invest in their agricultural activities.
  2. Inadequate Procurement at MSP: The limited procurement of crops at the MSP at the farm gate level further exacerbates the income uncertainty for farmers, as they may be forced to sell their produce at lower prices in the open market.
  3. Crop Surplus and Price Reduction: The concentration of farmers cultivating the same crop in a particular location often leads to a surplus of that crop in the market. This oversupply can result in a reduction in market prices, impacting the profitability of farmers.
  4. Lack of Market Competition and Marketing Channels: Insufficient market competition and the absence of well-established marketing channels for surplus agricultural and horticultural crops contribute to decreased income for farmers. Limited access to efficient and transparent markets restricts their ability to fetch fair prices for their produce.

Socio-Economic Challenges

  1. Climate Change Impacts: Erratic monsoon patterns and an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as cyclones and droughts disrupt the lives of farming communities. For instance, the devastation caused by cyclone Gaja resulted in the uprooting of over 4.5 million coconut trees in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam Districts, severely impacting the livelihoods of farmers in the region.
  2. Interstate Water Sharing Conflicts: Tamil Nadu heavily relies on neighboring states for its major water sources. Conflicts over water sharing between states create significant problems and uncertainties for agricultural activities. For example, the release of Cauvery water for irrigation, which is vital for cultivating crops in nearly 14 districts of Tamil Nadu, has become highly uncertain, affecting farmers’ access to irrigation water and their agricultural productivity.

Indian Livestock Production and Climate Change 

The interrelationship between climate change and livestock production in India can be assessed in two different points of view. 

1. Impact of livestock production/ animal husbandry on climate change. 

2. Climate change impact on livestock production/animal husbandry. 

According to FAO, 2014, India is one of the six largest GHG-emitting countries contributing to 6% of global GHG emissions. India ranks first in total livestock population which is about 13% of the total world’s population. The increased consumption of meat and dairy products has lead to the expansion of the livestock industry at a phenomenal rate and is endorsed as a major driver of climate change. 

Enteric methane emission from Indian livestock contributes about 15.1% of the global enteric methane mission. Nitrous oxide emissions from livestock production include animal waste or manure management and indirectly from fertilizers used for the production of feeds and fodders and also from leguminous feed crops. 

Indian agriculture contributes 19% of GHGs emissions in which livestock contributes 54% and 2.7% from enteric and manure management, respectively. In a country like India, climate change has induced supplementary stress on the ecological and socioeconomic systems since these are already under tremendous pressure due to increasing population, urbanization, industrialization and land degradation. Climate change hampers the availability of good quality of pastures at a desirable quantity leading to radical nutritional deficiency. 

Climate change has control over chemical and physical climatic factors such as ambient temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, and wind velocity. Change in these factors greatly influences animal production, reproduction animal health, the economics of animal production and natural resource management. 

Climate change directly affects livestock production, especially the crossbred cattle by thermal stress and indirectly by other multiple stresses. Heat stress and nutritional stress are the major factors that severely affect the reproductive performance of dairy cattle. 

The result of climate change has increased the incidence of disease occurrence worldwide. The change in the climatic factors interacts with different organisms in complex and dynamic way and has favored some of the disease-causing organisms and vectors leading to disease outbreaks. Further, multiple stresses on the livestock has made them more susceptible to disease because of decreased immunity and nutrition. 

Also read – Importance of Environment to Human Life

Climate Change and the Indigenous Cattle

Buffalo on road in India

India has 151.17 million indigenous and 39.73 million crossbred/exotic cattle population and among the indigenous cattle, only 22.21 million have been described and categorized into 44 different populations including 39 distinct/registered breeds. It is estimated that crossbred cattle, indigenous cattle, and buffaloes emitted 36.65, 96.85, and 120.83m tonnes of methane in 2012. There is an increase by 54.65 and 9.32% of methane emissions from crossbred and buffaloes, respectively, when compared to the emissions in 2003, whereas there is a decrease in the amount of methane emission by the indigenous cattle by 10.1%, when compared to the emissions in 2003. 

In the last two decades, the indigenous cattle population has decreased by 15.39% and even now the population of crossbred is increasing over the indigenous cattle population at an alarming rate. In recent years there is a decrease in the quality and quantity of milk production by crossbred animals mainly because of its inability to cope with the changing climatic scenario. The amount of milk obtained from crossbred animals is mainly dependent on the feeding of high-cost concentrates. 

Currently, in India, there is a deficit of feed resources to the tune of 7.58%, 56.73%, and 30.37% for dry roughages, green grasses, and concentrates, respectively, and adding to that only 3.3- 4.41% of the total cultivable area is under green forage production. Further hopes of feeding the animals and safeguarding their food security depend on the utilization of unconventional feeds such as crop residues and industrial by-products. Due to increased ambient temperature, crossbred animals try to maintain the core body temperature by increased sweating and panting, resulting in a shift of the energy for the maintenance of the animal than the production. 

On the contrary, indigenous animals have more and larger sweat glands relative to crossbred animals due to higher surface area of the skin, thus increasing the capacity for heat loss and aiding in maintaining the animal’s core body temperature. Properties of the hair coat in Zebu cattle enhance conductive and convective heat loss and reduce the absorption of solar radiation. Furthermore, our indigenous cattle have physiologically low metabolic rates making them more adaptable to varied climate change in the tropics and subtropics. In addition, scientists have identified the heat tolerance genes in indigenous cattle and this has been considered as one of the important traits in crossbreeding programs/policies of many countries in enhancing livestock productivity. For e.g., in Brazil, Indian cattle breeds have been used for genetic improvement that involves the use of Nellore cattle. 

The ability of our indigenous animals to sustain in zero input and its capacity to utilize crop residues and other unconventional feeds makes them suitable for homestead farming of India. The aptitude of indigenous cattle to fight against the increasing diseases in climate change is reflected in the higher levels of globulins in the blood while creatinine levels are less than that of crossbred cattle. 

India owns around 11.8% of the total cattle and hence poses a serious threat in terms of GHG emissions. The strategy of addressing the existing issue of cattle feed and fodder shortage in the country needs to include the learnings from the world.

The transformations that accompany growth are an opportunity to move the livestock sector toward more sustainable development and improved contribution to human diets. Productivity levels and practices can be managed in ways that address adverse impacts on land, water, and the environment, as well as the risks posed to animal and human health.

Animal Husbandry and Dairy Development Initiatives

  • Enhancing resilience to climate change through the promotion of breeding with indigenous cattle varieties.
  • Expanding grazing areas in villages to increase fodder availability for livestock.
  • Renovating village ponds to improve rainwater harvesting for animal drinking purposes.
  • Entrusting veterinary universities with disease surveillance and the development of disease outbreak forecasting for short- and long-term periods.
  • Organizing capacity-building programs to empower farm women and landless farm laborers in effective and profitable dairy management.
  • Promoting alternative agro-based livelihood options such as livestock rearing, honeybee rearing, goat farming, and mushroom production as additional sources of income for the farming community.

Production of Feed and Fodder for Livestock 

Livestock Feed and Fodder Production:

  • Distribution of Power Chaff cutters to farmers to reduce fodder/feed wastage. Each chaff cutter costs approximately Rs. 15,000.
  • Establishment of silage units (1-5 tonnes capacity) for the production of silage. The cost of each silage unit is estimated at Rs. 30,000.
  • Creation of fodder block-making/densification units on farms to reduce fodder volume, minimize wastage, and enrich crop residues. Fodder densification enables efficient preservation, storage, transportation, and distribution to farmers.

Mainstreaming Livestock Adaptation Strategies:

  • Development of knowledge products such as films, research papers, and posters for wide dissemination.
  • Training and exposure visits for farmers and livestock rearers on agronomic, natural resource management, and economic livestock adaptation measures.
  • Creation of a central knowledge repository on climate change adaptation to facilitate evidence-based policy and program formulation in the livestock sector.
  • Provision of open access to knowledge-sharing platforms (portals, repositories).

Current Climate Variability and Future Projections:

Agriculture, heavily reliant on rainfed farming and limited irrigation water, is highly susceptible to changes in climatic conditions.

Environmental Sustainability in the Livestock Sector 

cropped image of farmer feeding cow with hay in stable
Farmer feeding cow with hay in stable

For improvements in the livestock sector’s contribution to sustainable development. It will be important for countries to manage and respond to the growing demand for animal protein in ways that are significantly less harmful for the environment and contribute significantly less to climate change. 

Investing in veterinary services and animal disease surveillance is also crucial to improve animal health and welfare, reducing the economic impact of animal diseases, improving food safety, and reducing risks of antimicrobial resistance. The prevention of animal diseases can limit the transfer of animal pathogens to humans and control the emergence of deadly zoonotic diseases at the animal source, where the action is most cost-effective.

Improved livestock management is an integral part of the “One Health” approach, which seeks to optimize human, animal, and planetary health. As part of its commitment to helping countries build sustainable, nutritious food systems, Governments need to make significant livestock investments toward greater sustainability and climate-smart outcomes. All investments are designed with mitigation and adaptation in mind. 


The impacts of climate change on livestock and sustainable food systems are significant. Livestock plays a crucial role in providing food, and income, and acting as a safety net for impoverished communities. They also contribute to biodiversity preservation and carbon sequestration.

However, challenges arise in maintaining livestock during natural disasters and extreme weather events, leading to distress sales and a lack of support from development agencies. While the livestock sector presents opportunities for smallholders and job creation, it needs to be managed properly to avoid exacerbating sustainability issues.

Climate change is a pressing issue that affects livestock production and agriculture, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and impacting animal health and reproduction. Indigenous cattle show adaptability to changing climate conditions and can contribute to sustainable farming practices.

Addressing climate change’s impact on livestock requires comprehensive approaches that consider various factors like enteric fermentation, manure management, land use change, and energy consumption. Moreover, the key challenges include technical, institutional/regulatory, financial, and socio-economic aspects that need to be addressed to promote sustainable agriculture and livestock production. Initiatives focusing on breeding indigenous cattle, improving fodder production, and promoting alternative agro-based livelihoods can enhance resilience and sustainability in the livestock sector.

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.

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