Simulating the effects of climate change on crop yield and rangeland vegetation indicates that adaptation will require around 3% of total agricultural production costs in 2045. Shifting towards mixed crop–livestock systems could cut adaptation costs to 0.3% of the total, as well as reducing deforestation by about 76 million hectares worldwide.

"Public policy is often focused on improving the climate resilience of crop production, thereby neglecting the pivotal role of livestock within agriculture," Isabelle Weindl of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, told environmentalresearchweb. "Taking into account major aspects of uncertainty like the effectiveness of carbon-dioxide fertilization, we show that changes in rearing and feeding livestock represent a low-risk adaptation measure with various co-benefits."

Mixed crop–livestock systems are likely to be more resilient to climate extremes, improve nutrient recycling and increase income diversity. According to Weindl, by creating the right incentives, a transition to mixed crop–livestock systems could alleviate pressures on tropical forests from agriculture, increase market-orientated production, and improve rural livelihoods, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and East Asia. The team also found that grazing systems were more favourable in some regions, especially in South Asia and North America, because climate change has a relatively positive impact on grass yields compared to crop yields.

Weindl and colleagues from Germany, Austria and Australia believe that mixing crops and livestock production systems is a win-win strategy that links climate-change adaptation and mitigation, and could contribute to "climate-smart agriculture". "Our results complement recent advances in quantifying potentials to abate greenhouse-gas emissions in the livestock sector, among others, by shifts in production systems and improved management," said Weindl.

The researchers traced the implications of different climate projections through the agricultural system, integrating crop modelling and economic modelling. On the livestock front, they considered beef, sheep and goat meat, pork, chicken, eggs and milk. Systems wise, they analysed three rangeland-based systems, and three mixed crop–livestock systems, including rain-fed and irrigated approaches, an industrial system, and a smallholder system.

"We provide new insights into biophysical impacts of climate change on cropland and grassland productivity with global coverage, where results for managed grassland are of special interest," said Weindl. "Combining a dynamic global vegetation model with an agro-economic model, we present a comprehensive assessment of climate impacts on agricultural production and related adaptation costs, with a focus on adaptation measures in the livestock sector. Simulated transformations in [this] sector are an effective lever to improve agricultural resource management and economic outcome, possibly even contributing to emission reduction."

The team will now focus on assessing the impact of livestock production on global water resources, in addition to climate change. "The livestock sector is increasingly regarded as a significant contributor to humanity's water footprint, water pollution and water scarcity," said Weindl. "Further research will....explore not only the potential of dietary changes towards a more vegetal-based diet to reduce agricultural water use, but especially how changes in livestock-production systems affect both green and blue water resources and water scarcity."

Weindl and colleagues reported their findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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