Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Putting the record straight on climate change

One of the biggest frustrations for those working in the livestock industry is the relentless attempts by the media and single issue groups to portray the sector as the villain of the piece when it comes to environmental matters.

Far too many people seem willing to accept without question simplistic arguments and global generalisations blaming livestock production as the main cause of climate change which bear little relation to our own production systems in the UK.

So what are the facts about the relationship between livestock production in the UK and climate change?

Agriculture as a whole is responsible for only 7% of the UK’s carbon emissions* due to the industry’s efficient production systems, with livestock production responsible for an estimated 5% of total emissions. This is significantly lower than the often-quoted global figure of 18%**, which has now been debunked by the very scientists who arrived at it. A recent EU report also concluded that the emissions from livestock were estimated to be responsible for only around 9.1 per cent of all emissions in the Union***.

Ruminant animals (such as cattle and sheep) make a significant contribution to the total emissions as methane, a greenhouse gas, is a necessary bi-product of rumen fermentation – as it always has been. When you consider that they turn something highly indigestible (grass) into a very nutritious human food (meat) this is not surprising.

In the UK, beef cattle and sheep graze the 60% of our farmland which is only suitable for growing grass. Without grazing ruminant animals we could not use this land to feed our growing population. Well-managed pasture acts as a carbon sink, capturing carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and further increase the level of greenhouse gases. Therefore, having ruminants to manage the countryside by grazing and maintain that carbon sink mitigates some of the gases that are produced as a result of rumination.

Although UK livestock production isn’t responsible for the level of environmental degradation that media reports would suggest, the industry must still strive to make the 11% emissions reduction required by the Government by 2020 as part of the UK Low Carbon Transition plan.

While this represents a huge challenge, the good news is that reducing emissions and improving efficiency go hand in hand. The two EBLEX roadmaps, Change In the Air and Testing the Water, provide a benchmark of where the industry is now and outline the steps we now need to take. Steady improvements in production efficiency have already taken place over recent years, with 5% fewer prime cattle and lambs required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998. By focussing efforts on the key areas of breeding, feeding and management, the required reduction is within our reach.