The big picture
Agriculture is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions at a global level and as countries look at ways to reduce their GHG emissions there will be an increasingly strong focus on the role that agriculture (and food production) has in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the key actions that is being flagged in the media is to cut out beef from our diets. So what implications does this have for the industry? According to the AHDB there are 2.1 million cattle and 14 million sheep slaughtered on an annual basis in the UK, providing 1.1 million tonnes of red meat to the human supply chain, with a farm gate value of £3 billion. Any changes in production whether driven by trends in consumer consumption, or changes in practice driven by external pressures have the potential to impact the profit and productivity of a large number of UK beef farmers.
Reducing emissions from beef
There is no getting around the fact that beef production results in the emissions of nitrous oxide and methane, both of which are potent greenhouse gases. It is therefore important that the sector takes action to improve efficiency, minimising the amount of emissions produced per kilogram of meat grown and sold. The more proactive the sector is seen to be in taking action to reduce emissions the less restrictions and requirements are likely to be imposed from outside. However, the beef production system in the UK is characterised by small to medium farm enterprises, who work independently of each other, with differing business drivers and motivations for producing their cattle. This makes pulling together to drive industry level changes a real challenge.
Further action will be needed on each and every farm in the country to take responsibility for the beef production related emissions, and work on minimising these to a sustainable level. There are actions that can be taken on farm to help make systems more efficient (increased fertility, lower mortality, improved live weight gain), i.e. getting more kg of meat out of the same or lower level of inputs. This results in minimising the amount of emissions produced whilst still maintaining a living for the farmer.
Farmers can make choices regarding the animal feeding regime, investigating emission levels from different systems. For instance, making decisions on the proportion of feed produced on farm (such as moving to a grass/forage based system), the type of feeds imported (avoiding those with embedded land use change emissions such as soya) and the nutritional content of feeds (e.g. adjusting protein content to reduce nitrogen loss in excreta).
Beef farmers in the UK tend to manage large areas of grassland and therefore have the potential to contribute towards the reduction of GHG emissions through increasing the carbon that is stored in their land. However, it would be disingenuous to state that ‘there is lots of carbon stored in grass so the farm doesn’t need to change practice’. Actions need to be taken to actively increase the carbon stored on the farm on an annual basis, ensuring that the stored carbon increases annually, rather than being maintained at equilibrium. These increases in carbon storage may occur through the planting of trees and hedges, where increases in biomass capture increasing amounts of carbon each year. There is some potential to increase carbon in soils, although this is a long term process and only provides small incremental benefits each year.
Incentivising business and land management practices with a specific focus on reducing GHG emissions is still an emerging area of activity for the beef sector in the UK. There is a high demand in both the developed world and the emerging economies, for what is a valuable source of protein –beef – but it does come, like all food sources at an environmental price.
For there to be a reasonably rapid reduction in emission output from beef producers, the mechanisms, both from the marketplace and from policy makers need to be clear, accessible to farmers, and transparent in what is being ‘bought’ and ‘sold’
What happens next?
The UK beef sector needs to be able to demonstrate that it is taking action to both reduce emissions from production, and capture carbon in the land bank that it farms. If the producers, via its representatives are able to participate positively, in a proactive way, this may create market opportunities for this high value protein product that is grown across the UK. By demonstrating that action is being taken the industry will have a stronger message to take to consumers, and be able to influence its own marketplace.
ADAS is currently working with the AHDB, Quality Meat Scotland and HCC to develop a GB Beef Sustainability Framework this project will support the industry in demonstrating its sustainability credentials, and the actions that are being taken to further reduce the impact on climate change.
For more information, please contact Sarah Wynn & Helen Ovens