As the cooking pot turns: Staple crop and animal foods are being ‘recalibrated’ for a warmer world

The cows get automated

CGIAR has just published a really useful snapshot of the world’s major food crops, animals and tree and water resources and what is likely to happen to them in the face of climate change, the effects of which on food production will require reexamining what’s in the cooking pot, especially in regions where people already do not get enough to eat. Above, a worker on a small farm in Limuru, Kenya, pushes maize stalks (after their cobs have been harvested) through a pulverizer before feeding the stover to the cows; this is one way small-scale farmers can improve their dairy cow feeding and milk yields while reducing the amount of methane their cows generate per unit of milk produced. (Photo on Flickr by Luigi Guarino.)

CGIAR, the world’s leading international agricultural-research-for-development organization, has just done something really useful. It has published a snapshot of how climate change is likely to affect key food crops and livestock farming and natural resources in poor countries, where these staple foods and resources remain the backbone not only of food security but also of national economies. What happens to maize and wheat and rice and cattle and goats and sheep and trees and water, for example, will foretell what happens to the 1 billion people living in severe poverty today.

This snapshot summarizes the state of knowledge on 21 CGIAR crop commodities as well as on the ‘living’ livestock assets of the poor and the water and tree resources on which they depend.  The study, Impacts of climate change on the agricultural and aquatic systems and natural resources within the CGIAR’s mandate, should help decision-makers at all levels prepare better for future food production on our warming planet.

The summaries, written by scientists at 14 of the 15 CGIAR centres, outline the importance of each commodity for food and nutrition security, its biological vulnerability to climate change, and the likely socio-economic vulnerability of the people affected.

The study shows points up some surprising gaps in our knowledge. For example, crops like cassava and yam, which make critically important contributions to the food security of millions of people and are highly climate-resilient, have been little studied in relation to a changing climate. We also know little about how multiple stressors of animals and plants may combine. We also have big knowledge gaps about likely impacts of climate change on weed, pest and disease complexes. We need this information to help identify and evaluate the trade-offs and synergies of particular climate change adaptation and mitigation options in different places.

A few things are already for certain. We must develop hardier varieties of maize, rice and wheat—the three main food staples around the world—quickly to avoid declines in their yields. And the common sources of protein—livestock, fish, and even soybeans—all face difficulties in adapting to the new normal.

Crops and animals till now neglected by major research initiatives, and now considered ‘old-fashioned’ by many, are likely to play an increasingly important role on global food production once again. Drought-resistant camels and goats, ‘famine foods’ such as heat-tolerant cassava and millet, and dual-purpose crops such as protein-rich cowpea (aka black-eyed peas) and groundnut that feed people and animals alike are all likely to come back to the fore in regions with drying or more unpredictable climates.

In some drying regions, smallholders will be forced to switch from crop growing to livestock raising, and/or from raising dairy cows to raising dairy or other goats. This matters to many. As the new CCAFS policy brief reports: ‘In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, nearly one billion people living on less than two dollars per day keep livestock; two-thirds of those are women. Fisheries and aquaculture support an additional half-billion people around the world. There is no easy answer for adapting these sectors to changing climates.

But the benefits to people from eating fish and animal protein—as well as raising livestock for their livelihoods—will not evaporate as the planet warms; answers must be found in securing their continued availability.’

While the news seems grim, adaptation is possible. Recent CCAFS research in Africa found that farmers are already adapting to climate change. Some 34% of the farmers interviewed in Africa, for example, have reduced their livestock herd sizes and 48% are managing their feed resources better. The better livestock diets also lower livestock methane emissions per kilogram of milk or meat produced. On the other hand, only 25% of the farmers interviewed have begun using manure or compost to improve their soils and only 10% have begun to manage or store agricultural water.

For more information, visits the CCAFS blog page on Recalibrating food production in a changing climate—What do we know and what can be done?

Read a new policy brief by CCAFS that outlines the challenges required in feeding the estimated 9–10 billion people who will live in this world by 2050. In the brief, the need for a complete recalibration of what crops we grow and animals we raise around the world is detailed, as climate change will bring challenges in weather, water use, and increased pests and diseases of crops and animals alike.

The policy brief is based on a new CCAFS working paper. Read the paper by Philip Thornton and Laura Cramer (eds.). 2012. Impacts of climate change on the agricultural and aquatic systems and natural resources within the CGIAR’s mandate. CCAFS Working Paper 23. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

This report was co-edited by ILRI scientist Phil Thornton, who is a scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) who also coordinates one of CCAFS’ research groups. CCAFS is a global partnership launched in 2011 between the research centres of CGIAR and the Earth System Science Partnership. CCAFS facilitates and integrates thematic work across multiple CGIAR Centres and other global, regional and local partners. Its key target groups are resource-poor agricultural producers, and rural and urban consumers of food, in low-income and middle-income countries in the tropics and sub-tropics.

Philip Thornton explains about CCAFS: ‘There are many other examples of the way in which CCAFS is working across disciplines and mandates, and across temporal and spatial scales. These include linking to modelling communities from different fields such as crop modelling and global integrated assessment modelling, and partnering with organisations with skills in the development and provision of downscaled models, decision-tools and datasets that provide the necessary granularity for national and sub-national planning. As well as linking across scientific disciplines, CCAFS recognizes the need to span boundaries across research and policy domains. To link knowledge and action entails involvement of policy-makers in all stages of the research cycle, and an understanding of policy as dynamic and polycentric across the public, private and civil society sectors.’

Read of interviews of Phil Thornton in the following media this week:

The Guardian’s Global Development Blog: When the chips are down: potato, maize and rice crop yields set to fall—Farmers in developing world will have to grow different food to prevent world going hungry in changing climate, says report, 31 Oct 2012.

BBC: Bananas could replace potatoes in warming world, 31 Oct 2012.

The role of research in a pro-poor dairy policy shifts in Kenya

The role of research in a pro-poor dairy policy shift in Kenya
New case study highlights lessons learned from Kenya's highly successful Smallholder Dairy Project.
The BBC ‘Small Is Beautiful’ series recently showcased Kenya’s Smallholder Dairy Project (SDP), which won four prestigious international awards during its eight years of operation. Researchers from ILRI and the Overseas Development Institute have now documented and analysed the circumstances and key factors that contributed to the overall success of the Project. This case study document will be particularly valuable to individuals and organizations engaged in policy processes or seeking to influence pro-poor policy changes. Some of the key success factors cited in the report are:

  • Use of evidence. Wide-ranging, highly robust, and relevant evidence was instrumental in influencing policy change in Kenya’s dairy sector. ILRI and the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) collaborated on this project with the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development; the inputs of both highly reputable research institutions added to the credibility of the evidence.


  • Highly collaborative approach. The strong collaborative approach taken by this Project was a major factor in its success in changing policy. Much of this was underpinned by years of previous collaboration between the implementing organizations. Innovative links between the project and advocacy-focused civil society organizations (CSOs) also played a key role. Although research organizations and CSOs differ in mandates and operational modes, effective collaboration between them was achieved by developing and maintaining a shared vision. Linking with CSOs to advocate policy change was crucial to the success of this Project. These links helped the Project open new channels for influencing key individuals and groups and provided the Project with access to grassroots organizations.
  • Citizen voice and representation. The Project staff took advantage of the changing political context in Kenya, including the role of civil society and increased influence of citizens. Project staff took every opportunity to participate in meetings to communicate evidence. Indeed, the years the Project spent regularly feeding research-based information and evidence to other organizations  and stakeholders in the develoment of Kenya’s dairy industry proved highly important. Armed with credible facts, farmers were empowered to speak at a Dairy Policy Forum held at the close of the Project, in April 2005. By holding this Forum, the Project was able to gain support of politicians and other key officials.

The full report, ‘Informal Traders Lock Horns with the Formal Milk Industry: The Role of Research in Pro-Poor Dairy Policy Shift in Kenya,’ can be downloaded here.

Listen to Kenya’s Dairy Story

Small is Beautiful – The Kenya Dairy Story
Kenyans love their milk. Most of the 3 billion litres consumed there each year is produced by smallholders with a couple of cows, and sold house-to-house by thousands of street hawkers and doorstep milkmen. But this whole milk business was under threat. In the third edition of the One Planet series (on BBC World Service) which is sharing small business success, Susie Emmett discovers how the farmers and traders fought back to keep the milk flowing.

Listen to a recording of the BBC World Service broadcast produced by WRENmedia. (See Note below)

Note: The latest numbers

Some of the numbers quoted in this BBC World Service broadcast ‘Small is beautiful’ have been obtained from much earlier estimates. These figures, however, grossly understate the true size and extent of Kenya’s milk sector. SDP has provided recalculated figures, which more accurately reflect the picture in Kenya today.

1. Smallholder dairy farms recalculates to be 1.8 million (up from 800,000)
The estimated 800,000 smallholder farms has been widely cited for many years, during which time Kenya’s population has grown significantly. SDP recalculates the number of smallholders to be 1.8 million.

2. Milk hawkers recalculated to be 39,650 (up from 30,000)

SDP recalculates the number of small milk vendors in Kenya to be 39,650.

3. Number of dairy cattle recalculated to be 6.7 million (up from 3 million)
There are concerns about the reliability of the official cattle figures for Kenya; no livestock census has been conducted for decades and the methods used to estimate cattle numbers are imprecise. A conservative estimate of the size of the national dairy herd using detailed SDP survey data suggests that there are about 6.7 million dairy cattle (2.7 million high grade and 4 million crosses) owned by 1.8 million rural smallholder farms mainly in the Kenyan Highlands. This projected cattle population is more than twice the officially reported figure of 3 million for the national herds.

4. Total milk produced recalculated to be 4 billion litres per annum (up from 3 billion)
Based on SDP’s recalculated cattle projections above, SDP recalculates total milk production in the rural highlands to be an estimated 4 billion litres per annum.

5. Annual consumption of milk recalculated to be 145 litres per person (up from 100 litres)
SDP recalculates annual milk consumption by Kenyans to be 145 litres per person, making Kenyans amongst the highest milk consumers in the developing world. The rural areas have an estimated population of about 14.5 million people. Assuming that the estimated 9.6 million people living in the urban areas mainly depend on milk from the high potential areas, and that 13 percent of production goes to calf feed or spoilage loss, milk availability from the highlands was estimated to be about 145 litres per person per year. Previously, milk consumption in Central and Rift Valley provinces, which are important milk production areas, has been estimated to be between 144 and 152 litres per person per year.

Source: SDP Policy Brief No.10.

BBC World Service features Kenya’s dairy story

The third edition of the BBC World Service series Small is Beautiful will be broadcast on Thursday 6th April and this week looks at Kenya's highly successful informal dairy sector.
The BBC series is examining the future of small business and which types of businesses will survive in the long term. In a world that seems to be dominated by big corporations, will it be the big businesses that produce high quantities at least cost that will survive, or the smaller ones?

The series Small is Beautiful takes its inspiration from a book published thirty years ago by the famous economist E.F. Schumacher. In his book, “Small is Beautiful”, Schumacher argued that small business is better for people, better for national economies and better for the environment.

This week you can hear about Kenya’s thriving milk industry. The programme will be broadcast at 09.30 and 17.30 on BBC FM in Nairobi on Thursday 6th April, or you can listen online at the BBC website from 10.06 GMT Thursday 6th April.

Previous broadcasts in the BBC World Service Small is Beautiful series looked at the producers of Parma Ham in Italy and banana producers of the Caribbean.

Key drivers of the informal dairy sector in Kenya
Kenyans love milk! They consume more of it than almost anyone else in the developing world. On average, each Kenyan drinks about 100 kilograms of milk a year, four times the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the milk bought is raw milk supplied by the informal dairy sector. Mostly because of higher price, processed pasteurized milk is consumed in much smaller amounts, except in Nairobi. Studies indicate that the formal market will grow only as household incomes increase. Thus, the informal market is likely to predominate for many years to come, as it is driven by demand from mostly poor consumers.

There are several reasons why raw milk is so popular in Kenya:

  • Raw milk is 20 to 50 percent cheaper than pasteurized milk, as its supply involves fewer costs
  • Many prefer the taste and high buttermilk content of raw milk
  • Raw milk can be sold in variable quantities, allowing even very poor households access to some milk
  • In areas where transport is poor, it is often easier to find a farmer with a cow than a shop with packaged milk
  • It is traditional that raw milk is boiled before consumption, and consumers feel justifiably that simply boiling raw milk removes most health hazards.

ILRI and partners recognise the roles played by both the informal and formal dairy sectors and have long been advocating for policies that support the harmonious coexistence of the two sectors and their further development in the medium term, while aiming for growth in the formal sector in the longer term.

The Kenya Smallholder Dairy Project
The highly successful Kenyan Smallholder Dairy Project (SDP) was jointly implemented by the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). SDP carried out research and development activities to support sustainable improvements to the livelihoods of poor Kenyans through their participation in the dairy sub-sector. Learn more about Kenya’s unique dairy industry through a series of briefs produced by SDP.

SDP Policy Brief 1

SDP Policy Brief 2

SDP Policy Brief 3

SDP Policy Brief 4

SDP Policy Brief 5

SDP Policy Brief 6

SDP Policy Brief 7

SDP Policy Brief 8

SDP Policy Brief 9

SDP Policy Brief 10

SDP was led by the Ministry with primary funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID). SDP worked with many collaborators, including government and regulatory bodies, the private sector and civil society organizations. By combining the research capacity of KARI and ILRI with the experience and networks of the Ministry, SDP provided high-quality and wide-ranging research information to support smallholder dairy farmers, market agents, stakeholders and policy-makers from 1997 to 2005.
For more information go to the SDP website at