Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Emissions from livestock: inquiry highlights flaws in measurement

‘Eat less red meat to save the planet’ is a mantra our industry faces frequently from those parking responsibility for climate change almost entirely at the hooves of beef cattle and sheep.

While it is accepted that methane is an inevitable by-product of grazing ruminants and that the carbon footprint of the beef and lamb sector is an important issue, the industry’s efforts to mitigate this and highlight the positives that grazing livestock can bring to their respective landscapes are often overlooked by its critics. Indeed, our work in these areas has been showcased in our environmental roadmaps – Change in the air, Testing the water and Down to earth, as well as our Landscapes without Livestock report.

The bottom line is that the real level of emissions from the UK livestock sector may be significantly lower than currently reported if offsetting factors, such as the benefits of biodiversity and managing the landscape, are factored in. This is common practice in other sectors, why not ours? Land Rover’s Carbon Offset Programme is one such example whereby for a small fee, as part of the cost of a new Range Rover, money goes directly to Climate Care to offset the greenhouse gases connected with manufacture of the vehicle.

This week a report published by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Beef and Lamb highlighted the complexity of the issue, not least the lack of clarity and consistency in relation to measuring the environmental impact of beef and sheep farming.

Published after a four-month inquiry, which included written and oral evidence submissions from EBLEX, Defra, other industry stakeholders and environmental representatives, the report concluded that more robust scientific data and a standard model to measure carbon sequestration is needed to help the industry meet the challenges of sustainable food production and reducing its environmental impact.

Importantly, the inquiry did acknowledge the good work already being undertaken by the industry to address its environmental impact. It also highlighted the positive environmental benefits of grazing livestock such as landscape management and protecting biodiversity can bring. Additionally, it made the important point that while debate around the subject often centres around carbon footprint, understanding of what makes up the carbon footprint of grazing livestock is alarmingly shallow.

Citing a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions, the report noted that even debate among EU member states is not based on comparable data. And with variations from different production systems impacting on the amount of methane emitted from ruminants, it rightly points out that there is no ‘one size fits all’ data set. Similarly, the issue of carbon sequestration is highlighted – it is included in French carbon footprinting assessments, but not in British ones, putting British producers, the report asserts, at a distinct disadvantage when carrying out like for like comparisons.

Consistency is everything and, as is pointed out, we are not currently able to quantify the carbon footprint of red meat or other food products. As such, without robust scientific grounding the ‘eat less red meat to save the planet’ argument simply doesn’t stack up in terms of credibility.

Clearly, more work is required to acquire more scientific data and agree a consistent sequestration model which can be applied internationally to enable policymakers to hold a more informed debate on sustainable food production. Hopefully the APPG inquiry and subsequent report will stimulate further debate on this important issue and generate progress as we move forwards.

All reports can be found via the corporate publications page of our website by clicking here.