Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Beef and sheep farming’s positive environmental impact

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that climate change has again been high on the news agenda.

The publication of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a stark warning on the global impact of climate change, with Britain pinpointed as being at risk from some of the more immediate negative fallout.

Inevitably, such an important and highly emotive subject prompted a swathe of media coverage, outlining the potential impact of a continued, unmitigated global temperature rise.

The meat industry is well-versed in addressing environmental challenges and a line that stood out from one article again raised the question that meat might have to be taken off the menu to help ensure climate change targets are hit.

An element often overlooked, however, is the positive environmental contribution made by grazing livestock. This important factor was raised last year by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Beef and Lamb’s inquiry into the carbon footprint of the beef cattle and sheep sector.

The report, which drew on a broad spectrum of expert evidence, raised a number of important points, including questioning the accuracy of the well-publicised environmental impact of the livestock sector. Crucially, it highlighted a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions and the shortcomings of supranational debate on the issue.

Importantly, the report acknowledged the potential negatives of turning land currently used for grazing animals into arable land. It also highlighted the major role played by grazing livestock in the management of the landscape, an issue addressed in EBLEX’s Landscapes without Livestock report. These are key points, as a little under 65 per cent of our farmland is only suitable for growing grass to feed ruminants.

EBLEX has examined the efficiency of the beef and lamb sector in its three-part environmental roadmap − Change in the Air, Testing the Water and Down to Earth. Covering topics including greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water usage in production and waste in the supply chain, the reports provide a clear insight into the industry’s environmental impact and what it is doing to mitigate it.

Balancing the dual challenges of addressing climate change and food security is important, but to simply suggest removing meat from diets is part of the solution is questionable. The fact remains that the UK’s rain-fed pasture system makes it one of the most efficient places in the world to produce beef and lamb.

By continuing to look at ways of making the industry more efficient, while minimising its environmental impact, there’s no question that the beef and lamb sector is doing its bit. As the APPG report noted, ‘The beef and lamb industry is a net emitter of carbon and therefore has to accept that it has a duty to reduce its environmental impact as much as possible. From our evidence, we are confident that the industry accepts this responsibility and is working on the challenges of meeting it.’