As climate change alters the African landscape, making some parts of the continent unsuitable for agriculture, raising camels could supplant crops and other livestock in the hardest hit areas, a study from the International Livestock Research Institute suggests.
Environmental scientist Philip K. Thornton is serious about that recommendation.
In parts of the arid and semi-arid regions of West, East and southern Africa, increasingly inadequate rainfall already causes crops to fail one out of every six years – a rate that is increasing as global warming takes its toll.
By 2050, between 500,000 and 1 million square kilometers of Africa could fall below the crop threshold of 90 reliable of days of moisture, according to a series of computer models that take into account potential impacts from climate change.
Where impacts are most severe, switching from cropping to herding may be the only salvation.
Thornton's research suggests that raising drought-hardy camels could be a viable option for some 20 million to 35 million people living in scattered areas about the size of Egypt that will likely become so arid by 2050 that raising food will be virtually impossible. It could also be more lucrative than people realize.
Camels, which have adapted to the desert over centuries, have unique biological functions which allow them to conserve water in blood, though not in their humps as most people suppose. The hump is actually a fat reservoir.
These animals can go five to seven days without drinking, and can tolerate water that is too brackish for cattle and other livestock. Camels can also get water from desert foliage that other animals can't chew or digest, thanks to a robust mouth and three stomachs which allow even branches, hide and bones to be digested.
Once used strictly as pack animals, camels are already being rediscovered by nomadic African tribes like the Samburu for the value of their milk, meat and even their hair.
This value is represented not only in immediately available food – nomads can live for up to a month on nothing but camel's milk – but in commerce, and it is this second aspect that offers the most hope for poor African farmers.
For example, in the Middle East, camel's milk is a delicacy costing 20 riyals ($5) per gallon. In Africa, it sells for more than a dollar a liter. Shipped to the United States or the United Kingdom, it can cost up to $18 a gallon, when one can find it. In Tunisia, it costs a little more than £2 ($3.25) per liter. In Xinjiang, China, a cup of camel's milk costs 15 yuan ($2.19).
Camel's milk is also nourishing, high in vitamins (including vitamin C), and contains 10 times more iron than cow's milk. Desert camel's milk, which has only 2 percent fat by volume (as compared to an average 4.5 percent for cow's milk), is used in the making of cheese, soap, and ice cream, and its use may soon extend to cosmetic creams and lotions. In the United Kingdom, both Harrods and Fortnum and Mason have expressed interest in the product. In Dubai, a company has even ventured into camel-milk chocolates.
The Emirates Industry for Camel Milk & Products (EICMP) estimates that the market for camel's milk and milk products exceeds $200 million in the Arab world alone. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agrees the potential market could be as much as $10 billion, and their dairy expert, Anthony Bennett, supports that contention by noting that milk – even milk from camels – is money.
"No one is suggesting intensive camel dairy farming. But just with improved feed, husbandry and veterinary care, daily yields could rise to 20 liters" per camel, he says.
Raising camels, and getting the milk from the udder to the market, may be a different story. As the FAO notes, camels are stubborn. They won't release the milk, stored far up beyond the udder, if they don't like the milker.
Camel milk also doesn't submit well to pasteurization, which ensures its safety in hot climates but destroys the beneficial components. Fortunately, even unpasteurized, camel's milk keeps longer than cow's milk.
Two solutions exist: turn the milk into cheese, which resists spoilage and transports more easily, or make it into fermented milk. This latter, called Shubat, is an acquired taste that few outside of Mongolia or Kazakhstan share. The first solution is remarkably easy; the second may require some adaptation. The Dubai solution may be the easiest of all, if the least nourishing.
Camels aren't the only solution, of course.
"Depending on the area involved, if climate change impacts are not too severe, there may be options for including more drought- and heat-resistant crops and varieties in households' cropping systems," Thornton says.
"Maybe in some places there will, in the future, be some options that involve paying households for ecosystems services, such as carbon sequestration in the grassland areas – for these things, though, there are various issues that need to be addressed" such as how best to implement and monitor such projects.
Whatever the solution – new types of crops, camels vs. crops, or ecosystem services – Africa faces an uncertain future, with less than 20 years to develop drought-hardy crops, and few resources to do so.
This is doubly unfortunate, since viable new plant varieties generally take at least a decade to create.
This conclusion is supported by new research from Michael Burke at Stanford which suggests that, by 2050, the climate in Chad, Mali and Niger will exceed parameters required for growing any variety of maize currently under cultivation, and plant geneticists have so far collected very few of the local varieties which have experienced some heat and drought adaptation in places like Nigeria.
Gerald Nelson, agricultural economist and lead researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., agrees:
"We've got to do something serious about agriculture and we've got to start now."
According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), food production in Africa could drop by 50 percent as global warming drives temperatures up and rainfall down. At the same time, Africa is also expected to add another billion people to its population by 2050.
"There are not likely to be "one size fits all" solutions, but we can insure that the resource-poor have viable livelihood options in the future," Thornton says.
Thornton's study, with the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute, of the continent's climate vulnerability was first prepared for the UK's Department for International Development in 2006 and called, "Mapping climate vulnerability and poverty in Africa". Thornton and co-author Peter G. Jones updated it to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Bonn, Germany, earlier this month.
However, money often trumps science. The Bonn meeting produced ideas but no formal agreements for financing climate adaptation in poor countries, and world economies are, by all accounts, lagging in terms of finding the financial resources to both avert global warming and stabilize populations.