Wednesday, 16 December 2015

How do we reduce the environmental impact of livestock production?

There is no doubt that livestock contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By-products of the rumen, notably methane, are expelled from both ends of sheep and cattle, float up into the air and contribute to the country’s carbon footprint.
 
Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) has estimated that emissions from livestock account for 14.5 per cent of all global GHG emissions. This leads to cries to reduce or stop eating meat to save the planet, as well as unfavourable comparisons to emissions from transport, however counter-intuitive that may be.
 
What is also not in doubt is that we should work towards reducing emissions from the sector through a variety of routes, be it better animal husbandry, genetics or feed efficiency work. However, it is not right that the industry should be made (seemingly the sole) scapegoat for environmental ills with simplistic arguments about reducing meat consumption. Remember, reduced meat consumption leading to reduced livestock may reduce overall emissions, but will not improve efficiency by even 0.0001%. Reducing the number of cars on the road would not improve the efficiency of the vehicles, would it?
 
The carbon footprint of the industry has been brought back into focus in the last month with the COP-21 climate change talks in Paris. While livestock was not central to the main talks, it did allow pressure groups and industry detractors to take aim at us again. That’s why the International Meat Secretariat (IMS) decided to pull together an international panel of speakers at a press conference to highlight some of the positive strides being made around the world to reduce our environmental impact.
 
Hosted at the offices of Interbev (AHDB Beef & Lamb’s equivalent in France), the panel comprised Alexander Döring, of the European Feed Manufacturers Association (FEFAC), John Brook , of the United States Meat Export Federation (USMEF), Dave Harrison, of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, Guillaume Roué, IMS President, Jurgen Preugschas, IMS Chair of the Sustainable Meat Committee, Fernando Sampaio, of the Associação Brasileira das Indústrias Exportadoras de Carne (ABIEC), in Brazil), James Wilde (AHDB) and Bruno Dufayet, of Interbev.

Panellists in Paris highlighting how their countries are tackling the emissions challenge
Each speaker gave a brief summary of some of the key activity in their country to tackle the emissions challenge before the assembled journalists, mostly from the French agricultural press, asked questions. The session served to demonstrate the massive amount of work ongoing and the huge amount already achieved, which gets little acknowledgement generally, whilst reaffirming the countries’ commitment to reducing their respective carbon footprints.
 
Each country has its own story to tell. In France, Bruno talked about the sequestration value of grazed land which is increasingly being used to offset the emissions footprint, an issue which is widely ignored most of the time because the science behind literally varies from field to field, leaving many scientists unwilling to commit to numbers. Fernando talked about efforts in Brazil to combat deforestation – and the reforestation work going on. James highlighted the fact that between 1970 and 2010, emissions from beef animals in the UK were reduced by 40 per cent, as well as talking about the environmental roadmap work for beef, sheep and pigs to help drive the industry forward.
 
There were also some key underlying messages that all countries had in common. These were that livestock:
 
  • uses mainly land not suited for crops and for which there is no other productive use
  • are efficient recyclers, transforming 80% of all feed that is not edible, such as grass, biomass, crop residues and by-products, into high-value nutritious animal protein
  • produce important by-products including power, fibre, medicines, slurry for biogas, and manure to maintain soil fertility, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers
  • are necessary for food and nutrition security as well as diversity to diets, and
  • help address the multiple challenges of malnutrition, which include wasting, stunting, obesity, and anaemia in women of reproductive age.
 
Guillaume Roué, president of IMS, summed it up well when he said: “We all come from different countries, with different production systems, and we are all commercial competitors. But it is important that we work together on key issues that affect us all, like greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare and human health and nutrition.”
 
The challenge remains to highlight all the good work that is being done to reduce our carbon footprint while working to get a more balanced debate on emissions. Yes, livestock do emit gases, and we must continue to work to improve this further, but they are also vital to sustainable food production, make best use of available land for producing food for a growing population, aid biodiversity, and manage swathes of our land as an effective carbon sink.
 
It seems though that in an era of fast lifestyles, it is the speed of our change which may be our Achilles heel. After all, you can’t put a catalytic converter on a cow to reduce emissions like you can on a car, can you? Change in our sector will take time.