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Better smallholder dairying for better incomes and climate resilience by and for the poor

By Lili Szilagyi and Polly Ericksen

woman feeding cow

A farmer feeding a dairy cow in Kenya (photo credit: eadairy/Flickr).

In response to increasing populations, incomes and consumption of meat, milk and eggs, the livestock sector is growing rapidly throughout the developing world. However, climate change is likely to hurt small-scale livestock production in the coming decades by reducing both the quantity and the quality of forage in some regions and by increasing heat stress in farm animals. The higher average temperatures, more erratic rainfall and more frequent extreme weather events that climate change is causing could also increase the spread and severity of livestock diseases, including those like bird flu, Zika and Ebola that can spread to people.

Improving smallholder dairy: a promising innovation

Fortunately, the smallholder dairy sector offers a wide range of opportunities for enhancing the resilience of small-scale livestock-keeping populations while also increasing their efficiency and productivity and mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock that help cause global warming.

For example, improved feed and forage management and production helps to improve the livestock system productivity while stabilizing the ecosystem services such as soil and water retention. Interventions to increase heat tolerance in livestock through smart breeding and reducing animal heat stress through effective cooling systems can ensure productivity is maintained in spite of climate change. Improving animal health, such as by vaccinating animals against disease and by raising disease-resistant animals, will also improve animal productivity and reduce risk for new climate-related diseases.

East Africa Dairy Development project mainstreaming climate actions

The East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project is a good example of a sector development program endeavouring to realize climate benefits. EADD focuses on developing the livestock sector in the East African region by providing better business delivery services, chilling and processing facilities, and better access to production inputs and markets through local business hubs. The program covered 179,000 smallholder families in its first phase. Now in its second phase, which started in 2014, the program is working with an additional 136,000 smallholder families, who it is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emission intensities through improved livestock productivity.

Interventions to make the smallholder dairy sector more resilient can deliver positive co-benefits for low-carbon development. For example, even modest feed improvements can significantly reduce emissions per kilogram of meat and milk. Better grazing management can increase the amounts of carbon stored in grasslands and better manure management can reduce emissions from livestock.

Importantly, a resilient and vibrant developing-country livestock sector will also help to improve the nutrition of many hungry and undernourished people.

Livestock is a priority for economic growth in many regions around the world. Interventions to improve smallholder dairy are therefore logical as well as best-bet agricultural adaptations that will help increase people’s food security and their adaptation to climate change while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

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Lili Szilagyi is a communications consultant for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Program Management Unit and for CCAFS East Africa.

Polly Ericksen is program leader for the Sustainable Livestock Systems Program at the International Livestock Research Institute.

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