Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Emissions are falling, but the challenge remains for livestock sector

The issue of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from livestock production remains a contentious one. It is still a young science so refinements in measurements continue and different countries look at things in different ways. There is no single agreed methodology. The one absolute is that industry detractors and certain single issue pressure groups are quick to point to any figures (whether they understand them or not) as definitive proof of damage to the environment and that we should eat less meat as a result. If only we as an industry could be so sweeping and absolute in our responses. We try to rely on latest science and data though.

It is therefore always welcome when we get some positive news on this front to add to the library of information we can refer to when asked for polite, brief comment on the issue in the face of screaming, negative headlines.

Research commissioned by EBLEX, working with The E-CO2 Project, modelling emissions levels using historic data from the last 40 years, suggests GHGs from both beef and sheep meat production in the UK have fallen every decade since 1970.  The beef carbon footprint fell from 23.05kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2-e) per kilogram liveweight, to 14.41kg CO2-e between 1970 and 2010. For sheep, the figure fell from 13.8kg CO2-e to 11.78kg CO2-e over that period.

 For the beef sector, that is a reduction in GHG output of 9.4% every decade. The figures for sheep, though hindered by a lack of consistent quality data, still showed a reduction over the period. In the last ten years alone, this delivered a credible reduction of 9.3% through greater output per ewe and reduced reliance on artificial fertiliser. There are limitations in the data, but the trend is irrefutable.

However, with the UK Climate Change Act 2008 requiring an overall reduction of 80% in GHGs from 1990 levels by 2050 across the UK economy, and Defra setting the agriculture sector an interim target to reduce its contribution to GHGs by 11% by 2020 based on 2008 figures, the scale of challenge for beef and sheep meat producers should not be underestimated.

As an industry which relies heavily on extensive production systems, it highlights the challenge faced by sheep farmers in particular looking to produce food from some of the poorest land the country has to offer. The climate and terrain play such a large part in production output, and technological and management improvements are hard won.

It would also be helpful if we were allowed to “count” the positives we bring to the environment, such as managing the countryside and keeping grazed land as an efficient carbon sink. And of, course, there is an environmental cost to whatever food production enterprise uses a given area of land. Take all these points together and we see a very different picture from the one so often painted.

We can only hope that when the FAO publishes a new assessment of GHG emissions from livestock production, hopefully before the end of the year, we will see a figure closer to 9% of all global emissions coming from livestock emissions, rather than the 18 per cent so often quoted. And we suspect when you drill down into that further, the emissions from beef may be as little as five per cent. But don’t expect solid science to stop the screaming headlines just yet.