The Stern Report: implications for the UK livestock industries

Climate change has climbed to the top of the charts in very short order, both from a government and public point of view, writes Nigel Penlington, MLC pig technologist.

It all crystalised in the Stern Report which has caught both media and public interest.

At last there is recognition that decisive action is required quickly if the effects of climate change are to be contained within manageable proportions and not result in irreversible catastrophic consequences for the planet and all its inhabitants.

Working with the environment on a daily basis means livestock farmers are aware of the effects of climate change now and are taking a keen interest in predictions - the big problem is, which to believe. Common topics of conversation include, lack of seasonality and irregular temperatures, longer growing seasons and changes in rainfall patterns.

ACTION NEEDED

The Stern Report calls for a move towards a low-carbon economy and the fact that what we do now will not affect us for 40-to-50 years, therefore what we do over the next 10-to-20 years will influence what happens beyond the second half of this century so action is needed today.

It is estimated the 14% of the world's greenhouse emissions result from agricultural activity; the same as from both transport and industry (manufacturing), the proportions for each country will differ. The use of life cycle analysis allows policy makers and business analysts to predict the net effect from changes to production systems, for example the implications of changing from conventional to less intensive systems.

Defra has funded one such model by Silsoe Research Institute, partners from the agricultural industry including the MLC have contributed data and helped with evaluation. Such a tool can help identify the most effective ways of reducing the industry's carbon footprint. One example is the use of global positioning technology to match inputs to crop requirement - ie animal feed - this has multiple wins, for example, less nitrogen fertiliser is required, thus reducing carbon emissions and nitrous oxide emissions can be cut through less residual unused nitrogen remaining in the soil after winter while crop yields and quality are maintained.

SAVING STRATEGIES

The report identifies increased efficiency as a way of saving both money and emissions. Such a strategy has long been at the heart of livestock producer's philosophy; genetic improvements in breeding coupled with increased feed conversion efficiency are good examples. It is important that we are careful when assessing efficiency improvements, faster daily liveweight gain is one thing, but does marketable yield increase as well, does the product meet market expectations? The pig and poultry sectors are able to participate in a scheme where the Climate Change Levy on fuel bills can be claimed back as a rebate in exchange for improved energy utilisation efficiency, the measure applied being energy used per unit of production, in the case of pork, per kg of meat.

A significant number of producers are participating in this scheme and to date the sector targets have been exceeded, this is a further example of action already in place and delivering change.

Energy efficiency, especially electricity is often the first place which comes to mind when thinking about reducing fossil fuel use. Through farm assurance schemes, energy audits are being carried out, the Milk Development Council has developed a package for dairy farmers. BPEX is working with the Carbon Trust running farmer energy efficiency workshops incorporating the results of some on farm monitoring work it has commissioned. Stern mentions that mitigation should be viewed as investment, this is the approach being taken by these bodies and farmers together.

The report mentions transition towards a low-carbon economy will bring challenges for competitiveness and opportunities for growth. Increased fuel taxation will be a burden for an industry unable to pass added cost up the chain, if these cannot be absorbed then it is possible some home production will be lost with the possibility of this being replaced by imports with a greater carbon footprint. Care is required at government level that this does not happen. Others will respond differently, as they have done in the past, either by improving efficiency or through innovation.

NO RED TAPE

For innovation, barriers such as red tape need to be removed and encouragement provided through either supportive measures or technical assistance. This is already starting to happen with interest in bio-fuels and the recent investment in farm bio-digesters, indications are that the first seeds of this industry are being sown in the UK.

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