It’s a common scene across many African countries’ rural areas: cows grazing peacefully. But, by 2050, heat stress induced by climate change may drastically alter this familiar picture.

New findings from the International Livestock Research Institute show that, unless massive adaptation measures are put in place, the number of extreme heat events driven by climate change – especially in the continent’s tropics – will increase. Poultry and pigs already face major heat stress challenges in many regions of the tropics where they are currently raised. The same is true for all five major domesticated species in large swathes of West Africa, where heat stress is likely to make it nearly impossible for livestock to be kept outdoors.

Heat stress is likely to be only the beginning of the problems. Not enough is known about likely future impacts of increased climate variability on feed and forages, grazing area and water, or about shifts in climate-sensitive diseases and disease vectors and their impacts on livestock.

Even under relatively mild but realistic climate scenarios, it will be necessary to reconfigure and relocate agricultural systems. This will have profound consequences for people’s nutrition and well-being. Livelihoods will be threatened. The livestock sector contributes about 30-50% of agricultural GDP and supports the food security and livelihoods of about one-third of Africa’s population, or about 350 million people.

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Picture: A herd of cows returning from a drinking hole in Amboseli, Kenya. Buena Vista Images/GettyImages

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