Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Efficient and sustainable beef and lamb production in the UK

Sustainable and environmentally friendly beef and lamb production. A topic we are all too familiar with for attracting often unfair criticism in an unbalanced debate.

Sheep and cattle expel gases as a by-product of rumination. These contribute significantly to GHGs. That is a fact but that’s only part of the picture.

A focus on land and water requirements in livestock production are also mainstays of the critics that come around on a regular basis, often serving up sweeping one size fits all statistics that don’t necessarily paint a true or clear picture.

While no-one would question that some of these generate headlines, the important point often missed is their accuracy and context, particularly when applied to the UK. A case in point was a US study last year finding that beef production requires 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than other types of livestock production, for example. More recently, claims have also been made that it takes 16,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. This is not reflective of beef production in England.

New recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, America’s national dietary advisory panel, that makes recommendations to the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, has suggested eating less red and processed meats, citing global food production as the leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and fresh water consumption.

It all makes for frustrating reading that paints a skewed picture of a resource-hungry industry that pays little regard to its environmental impact. This is simply not the case, certainly not in the UK.

In the UK we primarily graze ruminants to convert grass, which cannot be used to feed people, into nutritious food for our growing population. More often than not these animals occupy areas of farmland which couldn’t be used to grow other crops, meaning that livestock rearing is the only way this land can be productive. Our rain-fed pasture system means the UK has one of the world’s most efficient production systems, among the most sustainable in the world. As such, it takes just 67 litres of water from the piped supply to produce 1kg of beef. Similarly, it takes 49 litres of water to produce 1kg of sheep meat – not enough to half fill a standard bath tub.

And that’s without mentioning the wider environmental benefits of the industry. Grazing cattle and sheep play a crucial role in landscape management and maintaining biodiversity. Permanent pasture’s ability to capture and store carbon, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, should also not be ignored.

There’s no doubt the industry is more than aware of its environmental impact and responsibility to reduce it. EBLEX’s three-part environmental roadmap, for example, looks at practical ways of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. EBLEX also funds numerous research and development projects in the area of climate change. We're also involved in the industry-led Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP), together with the other AHDB sectors. Performance improvements in the beef and sheep production sector in England have resulted in lower GHG emissions in almost every decade for the past 40 years, according to work commissioned by EBLEX. We are trying to reduce this further.

What is a certainty is that, for some, beef and lamb production will remain in the crosshairs as an easy target, where generalised criticism is par for the course. If they took time to look at UK systems, they would see it is actually a very sustainable place to raise beef animals and sheep. However, our industry’s commitment remains to take a responsible and proactive approach to further reducing its environmental impact.

Facts about livestock and climate change can be found in the news section of the on the EBLEX website