Brandishing his customary red briefcase, Alistair Darling looked like a man who meant business when he stepped out to deliver his 2009 Budget. And mean business he did, revealing not only a raft of economic measures to boost the economy, but a ground-breaking commitment to slash Britain's carbon emissions by 34% by 2020.
The Budget was, in the words of the Chancellor himself, the "world's first carbon Budget", and it demonstrates the determination of the UK government to achieve its Kyoto commitment of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. Achieving these ambitious targets will require a concerted effort by both the government and UK industry over the coming years. The meat sector will have a large role to play in this, both in mitigating its emissions and potentially contributing to renewable energy for the future.
In the wake of Darling's Budget announcement, Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), praised the Chancellor for his "brave" commitment to the concept of carbon budgets, but said that the government needs to do more to engage with industry and discuss practical ways of meeting environmental targets.
The FDF has already done a considerable amount of work on the environment front, with its members on track to reduce their collective CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010, compared with 1990 levels. The Federation's 'Five Fold Environmental Ambition' campaign covers not only a reduction in CO2 emissions, but also: a pledge by members to send zero food and packaging waste to landfill from 2015; contribute to an absolute reduction in the level of packaging reaching households by 2010; reduce water by 20% by 2020 compared to 2007; and embed environmental standards in their transport practices.
The latest progress report on these areas will be released later this month, but Leech warned that the government needs to do more to assist industry if it is to continue improving its environmental performance in such a competitive marketplace.
"As part of the UK's biggest manufacturing sector, our members are leading the way on carbon reduction. But to meet our aspiration for a 30% reduction by 2020, government needs to work more closely with us on all aspects of the energy efficiency and climate change agenda," she said. "We need investment in a national infrastructure on energy from waste - for example through anaerobic digestion - and combined heat and power, and would welcome government incentives to encourage industry to take these up."
The government is starting to invest in biogas technologies. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affiars (Defra) recently announced an initiative to help the food industry make better use of anaerobic digestion - a technology that produces biogas from organic material such as manure and animal by-products.
The government will be investing £10m in a demonstration programme to ensure that the future of anaerobic digestion in the UK is as cost-effective and environmentally beneficial as possible. This programme will be delivered through a capital grant competition run by WRAP, with assistance from the Carbon Trust. It will seek to fund between three and six projects that demonstrate the different benefits of anaerobic digestion.
Announcing the project, former Defra minister Phil Woolas said: "Anaerobic digestion is still an emerging technology outside the water treatment industry in this country, and it's clear we are not yet making full use of its potential. It has a number of real environmental benefits which we want to maximise, but to do this, we need to overcome certain barriers, such as the chicken-and-egg stand-off, which can discourage investment in unfamiliar technology, and the lack of understanding of its benefits or the value of its outputs."
Lack of incentives
Although government investment in environmental technologies is welcome, Phil Hambling, food policy manager for the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), says incentives to take up these technologies are unlikely any time soon. "Given the current economic climate and the government's focus on the fiscal sector, it is down to the processing sector to see what we can squeeze out of efficiencies," he says.
Aware that the meat sector must start addressing its environmental impact from within, industry representatives joined forces to create an Environmental Taskforce at the end of last year. The taskforce is co-ordinated by the BMPA and also includes the National Farmers' Union, the British Retail Consortium, EBLEX, the National Pig Association (NPA) and BPEX.
One of its key aims is to create an environmental 'meat road map', which will measure and analyse the industry's environmental performance so far and then look at how current knowledge and technology can be best applied to improve that performance.
"The road map concept was originally created by Defra and the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which produced a document stating what actions can be taken to reduce the footprint of the industry and a timeline to achieve short, medium and long-term aims," explains Hambling. "It is basically about efficiencies and how they can be developed for the benefit of the producer and the environment."
Work on the taskforce has been split into sectors, with each one working on its own item for the project. At the processing end, the BMPA is looking at what the processing sector is doing in terms of monitoring and offsetting emissions and water usage. "The response has been very positive so far," says Hambling. "Processors recognise the value of producing something that gives everyone a platform to benchmark themselves and improve. They also see the value in showing consumers that the industry is managing its emissions and taking action to mitigate the effect of meat production on the environment."
At the farming end, EBLEX has kicked off the road map with a piece of work on beef and lamb. "The idea is to make an assessment of beef and lamb's national carbon footprint now, using existing models from Cranfield University, and then look at how we can apply current knowledge and opportunities to reduce the sector's carbon footprint over the next three to five years," says head of EBLEX research and development Dr Duncan Puller. BPEX is doing similar work in the pig sector, but with a focus on an environmental strategy rather than following the road map model.
The road map project is still ongoing - it is due to be published in November - but Puller says that the main outcome will be "identifying opportunities for improvement through mitigation and reduction".
EBLEX currently has a few mitigation projects on the go. One project, co-funded by Defra, is comparing the life-cycle analysis of beef and sheep in the UK to that of animals produced abroad. Puller stresses that this is not for competition purposes, but to compare carbon hot spots in different systems and identify areas of improvement. "So far, the totals are fairly similar, but they stack up differently, so there are clearly areas where we can improve," he says.
Another project, co-funded with the Dairy Co, is looking at existing published data on feedstuffs, to establish what components of a ruminant's diet are better or worse in terms of methane. "So far, we have found that higher-density feedstuffs, such as cereals and grains, produce less methane then grass," explains Puller. "Diet is key, so we are doing quite a lot of work in diet manipulation to reduce methane output."
In the pig sector, work is focused on limiting the implications of increasingly strict environmental legislation.
Plans to extend the scope of the Integrated Pollution Prevention And Control (IPPC) directive threaten to bring another 600 small-scale pig farmers under the regulations, which would cost each farmer up to £25,000 in the first year alone and force many out of business. The NPA and National Farmers' Union (NFU) have been actively lobbying against the changes in Brussels, arguing that the IPPC was originally designed for larger, heavy industry, such as power stations, and is totally unsuitable for small family-run farming businesses. BPEX has been working with farmers to ensure they understand how the new legislation will affect them. "We are trying to make people aware of what is going on and we are working closely with the NFU and the NPA to identify the implications," says Nigel Penlington, pig technologist at BPEX.
The amount of environmental legislation faced by pig farmers looks set to increase. There have been changes to the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone legislation, which will require considerable investment in slurry storage, and there are also proposals to increase water protection zones, increase the regulatory burden associated with spreading ash from on-farm incinerators and crack down on ammonia emissions.
Aside from working with farmers to help them understand and adjust to the new rules, BPEX is also involved in a number of projects to reduce the cost of meeting legislation. One such project is focused on soil stabilisation techniques to increase the types of soil that can be used to build slurry stores. "The technique involves mixing lime or cement powder with subsoil and compacting it," explains Penlington. "The method has already been successfully used for making green waste composting houses and grain store floors and it has the potential to substantially reduce construction costs." Another is looking at near infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS. "NIRS has the potential to allow for cheap and accurate analysis of the nutrient content of slurries and farmyard manures, so fertiliser applications can be accurately planned," says Penlington. BPEX is also developing an environmental knowledge hub website, so farmers can access information as and when they want at the click of a button.
It is unclear exactly what the future holds in terms of environmental legislation for the meat sector, but with strict national targets and increasing attention on the food industry's contribution to the UK's emissions, it is likely that the meat industry will face increasing regulation in the years to come. It is only by meeting the challenge head-on and reducing emissions now that the industry will guarantee its sustainability, and prove to the rest of the world that meat does not necessarily have to be a climate criminal.
A case in point
The meat industry does have the potential to seriously improve its environmental footprint in the future, as has been demonstrated by the award-winning environmental meat venture, Sheepdrove Organic Farm. Sheepdrove is an organic beef, lamb and poultry producer, which is striving to become energy self-sufficient through a combination of wind and solar power.
Several years ago, the business switched over to 'clean energy' provider Ecotricity, which has saved the business over 210t of CO2 annually. Solar PV panels are installed throughout the farm to charge batteries for the automatic chicken feeders, reduce fuel needs from the office and conference centre, heat water, power electric gates and charge electric fences.
The farm runs its vehicles on Liquid Propane Gas, a very clean fuel, and has recently acquired electric-powered vehicles, which will run on solar energy. "We have planning permission for a solar tracker system, which tracks the sun as it moves across the sky, thus catching maximum energy," explains Sheepdrove sales and marketing manager Russell Downing. "That tracker will provide us with enough energy to power all our electric vehicles."
Planning permission for a wind turbine is also in the pipeline. The farm is situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), which has slowed the planning process down, but Downing is confident that they will receive permission eventually. "We have to jump through a lot of hoops but we are hopeful that we will get permission because the wind turbine won't be in view," he says. "If planning permission is granted for the turbine, we hope to get enough energy to be totally self-sufficient on the farm and even give some back to the grid."
Sheepdrove is not just focused on creating its own energy, but also on reducing the overall amount of energy it uses. An energy-efficient hot box has recently been installed in the chicken processing plant, which is on-site to reduce food miles. "We used to have a scald tank, but switched to a hot box, which was designed specially for us and is the first in the UK," says Downing. "It uses less energy, because less energy is needed to create steam than hot water. It is also better for the bacteria count."
Other environmental improvements include: a unique reed bed system to clean and recycle its waste water: a conference centre built from recycled and sustainable materials; and hundreds of trees and hedges planted in a bid to rejuvenate the natural biodiversity of the farm's 150 hectares.
Although more intensive businesses would struggle to match Sheepdrove's success, most could do something to improve their emissions and water usage. Environmental management does not come cheap, but is necessary if the much-criticised meat industry is to have a sustainable future. "We believe that the good-quality meat we provide starts with the ground and the environment," says Downing. "When it comes to the environment, everyone needs to do their bit."