Safeguarding pastoralists and their food systems


Meeting the food demands of a growing global population within planetary boundaries is a challenge. Sustainably producing sufficient protein to meet the requirements of a healthy diet is a particular challenge. Almost 10% of the world’s population derive their protein (meat and dairy) needs from pastoralist production systems, with 65% of meat, and 70% of milk sold on local markets in the Sahel region coming from pastoral systems. In the drylands, highlands, shrubland and wetlands where crop production is often difficult pastoralists are key to food security.

While there is no doubt that pastoralism contributes significantly to food security around the world, in many countries in Europe or North America, overconsumption of animal-derived products leads to obesity and cardiovascular diseases, and the intensive production methods used there contribute significantly to climate change through GHG emissions and a loss of biodiversity. It is thus critically important that this often-polarised debate on the production and consumption of animal-derived products recognises more explicitly the differences between production systems and stresses their diversity. While some livestock production systems undeniably contribute to climate change and harm the environment, others are crucial to people’s livelihoods, nutrition and health and contribute to ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

This year, and on Earth Day, it is important to reiterate SNV’s ongoing commitment to preserve the health of the planet for future generations, including supporting pastoralists in their efforts to safeguard their food systems, considering climate change and insecurity.

Urban Sanitation in Bangladesh - Component 3: Governance, regulations and enforcement
Biosolid in a basin, purified by using flowers

Climate resilience and global food systems

Pastoralism has long been accused of contributing to environmental degradation due to its extensive nature and low productivity. In the 1970s amidst the first climatic disturbances attributed to human-induced climate change, its image was even associated with desertification. However, pastoralism actively contributes to the regeneration of pastures and to the sequestration of carbon in the soil in the most arid areas and consequently its carbon footprint is very small compared to that of more intensive systems such as intensive grazing and ranching.

Also, in areas where rainfall is highly uncertain, pastoral mobility makes it possible to best distribute livestock over the territory according to rainfall and available natural resources, it limits overgrazing and bush fires, develops unused resources, and promotes the dispersion of biodiversity. With such services for nature, pastoralism remains essential to securing the nutritional protein needs of populations – including those most impacted by global warming – in a relatively short distribution chain, not only within pastoral communities but also to larger villages and cities within countries located in the most arid zones. Pastoralists also make it possible to build social ties between sedentary and mobile communities.

Pastoralists: victims of climate change and insecurity

While pastoralists make their livelihoods in some of the harshest environments and unpredictable climatic conditions, they face other challenges due to demographic, economic, and political concerns. Due to the combined effects of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate, and rising costs of food, it is estimated that 35 million people living in the Sahel will be in a situation of food insecurity in 2022, including nearly five million displaced people (CSAO-OECD 2022).

These challenges make it difficult for pastoralists to preserve their food systems, especially for young pastoralists, who continue to face an uncertain future marked by an unpredictable climate, weak pastoral land and water tenure, ethnic stigmatisation, and obstacles to mobility. As they look for a better future and livelihood, many are forced to leave the pastoral life to either diversify their activities or migrate, while others – such as in the Sahel – resort to joining armed groups.

With the spread of insecurity and violence, women pastoralists struggle to maintain a source of food for their families. In Burkina Faso, the growing active presence of non-state armed groups led to a reduction in pastoral mobility which in turn has exacerbated food and nutritional insecurity across the country. Mrs. Aminata Diallo is one one of hundreds of thousands of pastoral women who struggle to feed their families due to insecurity. ‘Before, I could move with the herd and feed my children with milk from our cows. Today, women pastoralists are afraid. We are forced to hide. My cows are only 30 kilometres away, but I cannot milk them. All I dream of is being able to keep a cow or two next to me to feed my children.’

Recognising that pastoralists are above all victims rather than actors causing insecurity or instability is crucial. Pastoralists are a competent and active workforce that is essential to the production of animal protein in arid areas and necessary to maintain and regenerate pasture landscapes.

Pastoralist in Niger

Investing in our planet by supporting pastoralism

As climate change impacts the world’s most vulnerable and threatens to reverse development progress and exacerbate extreme poverty, SNV carries out multiple pastoral projects in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa that:

SNV carries out multiple pastoral projects in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa that:

  • Offer technological, ecological, commercial, and financial opportunities to pastoral communities to enable them to adapt to new environmental constraints without jeopardising their mobility. Read more about this project here.

  • Help young people from pastoral communities to train professionally, find a job or develop their business by relying on the animal trade or related value chains. Read more about this project here.

  • Integrate the management of natural resources into a "landscape" approach to better consider all uses and users in the governance of territories and strengthen economic complementarities, social cohesion, and environmental services. Read more about this project here.

  • Reconsider innovative approaches to maintain mobility of pastoralists that are even more inclusive than in a sedentary environment: Partnership with organisations of pastoralists and breeders, digitalisation of information, conflict sensitivity, inclusion of women and young people, multi-stakeholder political dialogue from local to cross-border level.

For SNV, investing in our planet includes ensuring that vulnerable communities, such as pastoralists, maintain their livelihoods and food systems sustainably while safeguarding the health of our planet. The year 2026, which has been declared the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists by the General Assembly of the United Nations, must therefore serve as a milestone so that pastoralism is put back at the heart of policies for adapting to changes and the resilience of global food systems.

Written by: Catherine Le Come, Global Technical Advisor Livestock, and Serge Aubage, Global Technical Advisor.