by Tom Weaver

The consumption of livestock derived products is rapidly increasing in the Lower Mekong River Basin. This is largely attributed to increasing standards of living and household incomes. Improvements in production, processing and postharvest practices present new opportunities for livestock owners, but also greater competition. But what might happen to livestock in the not-so-distant future as a result of climate change? How might smallholders remain competitive in terms of production costs, increasing their access to output markets and building system resilience to climate change? Finding answers to these types of questions and others to inform producers who are faced with critical economic

Understanding the climate impacts on livestock at the Basin level is a complex task. Balancing depth and breadth of focus is challenging given the geographic scope and diversity of livestock systems in the region. As part of the Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Study, I am currently conducting research on the climate impact on common livestock within the basin and their role in building community resilience. This work contributes to a broader understanding of key rural livelihood systems in the region.

Livestock are a crucial aspect of diverse livelihood portfolios for the great majority of rural households in the Basin; over 80 percent of rural families employ mixed crop-livestock systems for food production and income. The integration of livestock with cropping systems, fisheries and natural systems is of primary importance to current household incomes and resilience. Therefore, the Mekong ARCC study is taking a broader farming systems approach as climate impacts on the integration of, and relationships between, livelihood mechanisms is fundamental to household’s future adaptive capacity and resilience.

For example, livestock are commonly used as a source of traction for land preparation and in delivering produce to market, while manure contributes essential nutrients for crop cultivation. Stock themselves are often a vital form of wealth storage deployed in response to household shocks, or may be raised as a source of steady income in more commercial systems. Livestock are important for social standing both within and between households, for example small stock such as pigs and poultry are often the responsibility of women, the elderly and children. Animals may be fed on crop byproducts and residues directly linked to local cropping, on cultivated or wild forages or on commercial feeds more closely tied to global commodity prices. Cattle may be grazed in protected areas, while fish byproducts are often fed to balance protein in monogastric diets. Encompassing and influencing these linkages are input and output markets and market factors.

Under the Mekong ARCC Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Study, we have sought to establish the current situation, trends, drivers and linkages between selected species and systems in forming baselines. Key systems used in livestock production have been rigorously selected and assessed with a focus on ruminant, pig and poultry systems. The baselines have then been overlaid with the innovative work of the project climate change modeling team, forming the basis for systematic assessment of vulnerability to climate change threats. In this manner, I believe we have succeeded in teasing out many of the probable impacts of climate change projections on households, effects that were initially challenging to isolate in the ‘noise’ of other biophysical and socio-economic factors affecting the Basin.

Hotspots – areas likely to endure particularly severe climate shifts– have been identified, characterized, and will form a foundation for the development of action-oriented adaptation options to inform stakeholders. In the case of livestock these relate primarily to feeding systems, public and private animal health service provision and ‘linking farmers to markets’.

We are also developing recommendations for adaptation strategies at the Basin level. In the case of livestock, initial findings broadly indicate greater internal, or biological, adaptive capacity to climate change projections among low-input, smallholder livestock systems, whom typically raise more resilient local breeds in lower stress husbandry systems. While more commercial, higher productivity systems, which place stock under greater stress, typically have greater external capacity to adapt their management systems – for example by investing more in animal healthcare. Hence adaptation strategies must consider these fundamental differences.

Strengthening system adaptive capacity will be fundamental to longer-term competiveness in light of the threats posed by climate change. I’m confident this research can aid decision makers and development practitioners in the design and implementation of effective rural development interventions using a climate lens.

I would like to acknowledge my national and international counterparts involved in this study. We come from a range of countries and disciplines, which could make it difficult to find common ground but this is a truly innovative, open-minded and experienced group with a strong sense of collective purpose.

My contact details are provided at the bottom of this post. I’d love to discuss the work, livestock and climate change further with anyone interested, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly.

Tom Weaver is the Livestock Team Leader for Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Study. He has provided technical consulting services to a wide variety of international and national research institutes, development agencies and private companies engaged in livestock and broader agricultural development in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Tom’s background is in livestock production, health and systems research for sustainable livelihood development. He has worked in Southeast Asia for over five years. Tom can be contacted through the project or directly at email: tomweavernz@gmail.com.