Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Putting the record straight on climate change

One of the biggest frustrations for those working in the livestock industry is the relentless attempts by the media and single issue groups to portray the sector as the villain of the piece when it comes to environmental matters.

Far too many people seem willing to accept without question simplistic arguments and global generalisations blaming livestock production as the main cause of climate change which bear little relation to our own production systems in the UK.

So what are the facts about the relationship between livestock production in the UK and climate change?

Agriculture as a whole is responsible for only 7% of the UK’s carbon emissions* due to the industry’s efficient production systems, with livestock production responsible for an estimated 5% of total emissions. This is significantly lower than the often-quoted global figure of 18%**, which has now been debunked by the very scientists who arrived at it. A recent EU report also concluded that the emissions from livestock were estimated to be responsible for only around 9.1 per cent of all emissions in the Union***.

Ruminant animals (such as cattle and sheep) make a significant contribution to the total emissions as methane, a greenhouse gas, is a necessary bi-product of rumen fermentation – as it always has been. When you consider that they turn something highly indigestible (grass) into a very nutritious human food (meat) this is not surprising.

In the UK, beef cattle and sheep graze the 60% of our farmland which is only suitable for growing grass. Without grazing ruminant animals we could not use this land to feed our growing population. Well-managed pasture acts as a carbon sink, capturing carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and further increase the level of greenhouse gases. Therefore, having ruminants to manage the countryside by grazing and maintain that carbon sink mitigates some of the gases that are produced as a result of rumination.

Although UK livestock production isn’t responsible for the level of environmental degradation that media reports would suggest, the industry must still strive to make the 11% emissions reduction required by the Government by 2020 as part of the UK Low Carbon Transition plan.

While this represents a huge challenge, the good news is that reducing emissions and improving efficiency go hand in hand. The two EBLEX roadmaps, Change In the Air and Testing the Water, provide a benchmark of where the industry is now and outline the steps we now need to take. Steady improvements in production efficiency have already taken place over recent years, with 5% fewer prime cattle and lambs required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998. By focussing efforts on the key areas of breeding, feeding and management, the required reduction is within our reach.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Badger cull decision marks major milestone in tackling bovine TB

An announcement from Defra this week about the proposed badger cull may have been lacking the absolute decisive edge that many in the cattle industry had been hoping for but still prompted a collective sigh of relief that something was happening.

Secretary of State Caroline Spelman announced a final industry consultation on whether free shooting of badgers was an effective and humane way of controlling populations of the animals and, therefore, the reservoir of TB in the species that is so easily transferred to cattle. After this, a decision in the autumn is expected to give the green light for culls in two (as yet unnamed) pilot areas next year. If successful, that will lead to wider culling. You can read the full Defra statement on the issue here.

The cull is a complex, emotive issue. This most recent announcement has likely left some who are pro-cull wishing that a more decisive stance had been taken, perhaps not least farmers in the West Country where the emotional and financial effects have been felt the most (this graphic illustrates the issue well).

With estimates suggesting the cost of an average confirmed bovine TB (bTB) incident in cattle is £30,000, £10,000 of which hits the pockets of the farmer from losses of animals, farm costs of testing, and disruption to business through movement restrictions, the impact on the industry is clear. Of course, the wider financial implications are that it cost the taxpayer in England £63m in 2009/10.

The problem is not disappearing. Reports suggest a 6.3% increase in bTB from January to March this year, compared to 2010, and rises of up to 30% in some regions. TB levels in our wildlife population remain significant and reports have clearly spelt out that bTB will persist unless the badger issue is addressed.

While work continues on the research and development of vaccines for both badgers and cattle, until an efficient and cost-effective solution has been developed to stop the spread of the disease, EBLEX will continue to support the Secretary of State’s efforts to limit bTB’s impact on our industry.

What is unfortunate this week is the suggestion that the announcement was made cynically on the last day of Parliament and when the news agenda was focused squarely on the phone hacking investigation to minimise news coverage. After 15 years of debate, is the suggestion really that this was deliberate?