Carbon footprint for red meat has fallen, study finds

The carbon footprint for UK livestock sector has fallen consistently over the last four decades, a new modelling project has estimated. 

The project, commissioned by Eblex and executed by leading on-farm environment assessor the E-CO2 Project, indicated that improved performance has driven the improvements in lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of red meat producers in every decade for the last 40 years.  

The beef carbon footprint fell from 23.05kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (kg CO2-e) per kg of liveweight, to 14.41kg CO2-e, while beef production reduced its GHG output by an equivalent of 9.4% every decade. The figure for sheep also showed a reduction over the period, with the carbon footprint falling from 13.8kg CO2-e to 11.78kg CO2-e over the period and a GHG reduction of 9.3%. This, the project said was due to greater output per ewe and reduced reliance on artificial fertiliser.

However, Eblex, which revealed the figures at its annual conference on Tuesday (30 October), said that with the UK Climate Change Act 2008 requiring an overall reduction of 80% in GHGs from 1990 levels by 2050 across the UK economy, the scale of challenge for beef and sheep meat producers should not be underestimated. Defra has set the agriculture sector an interim target to reduce its contribution to GHGs by 11% by 2020, based on 2008 figures.
Eblex industry development manager Chris Lloyd said: “While we realise there are limitations to the modelling, what this does show is an overall downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions from performance improvements and greater efficiency within enterprises, and this is a positive story for the industry.
“Rather than becoming a scapegoat for emissions, we can demonstrate continued and progressive reductions in our carbon footprint without the need to rely on decreased livestock numbers. Our ongoing work to improve efficiency, delivered through the Better Returns Programme, can only help this further.
“When you add into the debate the value grazing livestock bring in terms of managing the countryside and the potential positive credits from grazed grassland working as an effective carbon sink, it starts to paint a very different environmental picture of the industry from the unbalanced one so often painted.
“The fact remains, though, that there is more we can do and we continue to work hard to improve on-farm efficiency, working towards some very tough targets. As an industry that relies heavily on extensive production systems, it highlights the challenge faced by sheep farmers, in particular, looking to produce food from some of the poorest land the country has to offer. The climate and terrain play such a large part in production output, and technological and management improvements are hard-won.”
The project took historical performance and production data for beef cattle between 1970 and 2010 to create the model, backed by estimated values based on E-CO2 models. To create the comparisons, it used the top eight factors that influence GHG emissions, modelling these by using a scaled-down carbon calculator. The key data looked at performance indicators such as cow and ewe weight, culling rates, liveweight of finished animals, daily liveweight gain, fertiliser use and feed use.

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