Wednesday, 2 October 2013

GHG emissions from livestock revised down in new FAO report

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock are a serious issue for the sector. It is something on which EBLEX took a lead early on with our roadmap work and we continue to press the messages of how cutting on-farm environmental impact can go hand-in-hand with improved returns.

We have several projects looking at how changes in feed can cut emissions from animals and we play an active role in the Government’s Greenhouse Gas Action Plan work.

So it can be frustrating to see throwaway lines in the mainstream press, often from single issue pressure groups, blaming livestock for climate change; the kind of “stop eating meat to save the planet” message which crops up with regular monotony.

The most quoted figure to support this is that 18 per cent of global GHG emissions come from livestock, which came from the 2006 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report Livestock’s Long Shadow. That report went on to say that the contribution was “a higher share than transport”.

However, in 2010, scientists involved in writing the report admitted that it was flawed in some areas and the United Nations said it would revisit it to address concerns.

Last week, we finally saw the review published. The headlines from “Tackling climate change through livestockare that the 18 per cent figure has been revised down to 14.5 per cent, the report has a less accusatory tone, with more of a recognition of the role of livestock in society and the economy and a more positive view of what can be done to improve things – not just by reducing numbers and consumption. It enthuses that 30 per cent efficiency gains are achievable in the industry without significant changes to production methods. It is all about more efficient working.

The livestock sector is estimated to emit 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) annually. The main sources of emissions are: feed production and processing (45% of the total, including Indirect Land Use Change), enteric fermentation from ruminants (39%), and manure decomposition (10%). The remainder is attributable to the processing and transportation of animal products. About 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of methane (CH4).

For ruminants, particularly cattle, the report states the greatest potential involves improving animal and herd efficiency, eg using better feeds and feeding techniques, which can reduce methane (CH4) generated during digestion as well as the amount of CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure. Improved breeding and animal health interventions will allow herd sizes to shrink, while manure management that ensures recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy.

Better management of grazing lands could improve productivity and better manage the land as a carbon sink with the potential to help offset livestock sector emissions. Grassland carbon sequestration could significantly offset emissions, with global estimates of about 0.6 gigatonnes CO2-eq per year. This last statement in particular is a bold one as there is such debate in scientific circles around how to accurately quantify the potential mitigation in carbon sinks under grazed grassland. (For more on this, see the Beef & Lamb APPG report)

These are all areas where EBLEX already has active projects, which is good news for farmers and for the long term prospects of meeting tough emission reduction targets.

It is worth noting also that this report looks at the global picture. Some parts of the world, such as the UK, are much more efficient at producing beef and lamb because of their geography and climate, and have less reliance on additional feeds. Our own look at the efficiency trend of the industry in this country showed that we are heading in a positive direction, reducing on-farm GHG emissions through improved efficiency by 17.9 per cent for beef in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, and 9.3 per cent for sheep over the same period.  This does not mean though that we should not continue to improve our performance.

This new report from the FAO should be welcomed but should not lead to us relaxing our efforts. There is much that individual farmers can do to reduce their emissions without dramatically changing their production methods (read more here).

Hopefully it will allow observers, commentators and detractors of the industry to keep a better sense of perspective when looking at our environmental impact. After all, while we have seen a 50 per cent rise in global numbers of livestock since 1961, we have seen a near tenfold increase in the number of vehicles.