Combating the critics in the climate change debate

AS the next decade approaches, Joanne Pugh looks at some of the challenges we may face in the future in a special series considering consumer perception of livestock’s role in climate change and animal welfare.

With celebrities demanding ‘meat free Mondays’ and all the hype about cattle and sheep destroying the planet with methane, it would be very easy to think the general public is against beef and lamb production.

The debate over climate change is unlikely to go away so various industry bodies are working hard to defend agriculture and help farmers arm themselves against members of the public who believe reducing livestock numbers will save the planet.

Speaking at a Farming Futures conference last week, Duncan Pullar of Eblex said: “Remember, cattle and sheep produce a valuable product. It does have a greenhouse gas cost but we know how to reduce that and will do more work in that area.”

He said UK agriculture had already made massive strides and would continue to do so, driven as much by a desire for increased efficiency and profitability as by the fact more meat from fewer animals would reduce methane production per kg of finished product.

Reduction

Between 1998 and 2008, the number of prime cattle and lambs required to produce a tonne of meat reduced by 5 per cent. But Government demands an 11 per cent reduction in agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and although technically achievable, it is a faster rate of improvement than currently being achieved, according to Dr Puller.

He does argue, however, the red meat sector has the knowhow and work is being done to expand that knowledge.

To meet the 11 per cent target, for beef it means an efficiency gain of 320g extra DLWG and five extra calves per 100 cows per year, and for sheep 20 per cent extra DLWG and 7.5 extra lambs per 100 ewes.

So when your well-meaning, next door, neighbour asks what you are doing to save the planet, you can say the livestock sector knows what it has to do to meet the Government’s targets and is working in that direction.

As Dr Puller points out, feed utilisation efficiency, productivity (milk production and meat growth), fertility, disease resistance and longevity are all heritable, so continued selective breeding will help. Progress has also been made in grass breeding and management, which again aids efficiency.

All this is a great defence for agriculture, argues Mr Puller, but farmers have to be seen to be using existing and new tools.

“As an industry we have to own this issue,” he says. “We can and should make a contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of production and we should robustly defend the role of ruminants in food production, habitat management and landscape management.”

Debate

Habitat and landscape management were discussed extensively at the conference, held at FAI Farms, Wytham, Oxford.

Mike Gooding of FAI said biodiversity within grazed plots was double that in unmanaged areas, sparking a debate about intensive agriculture (potentially more efficient) versus extensive (producing meat from land impossible to cultivate for human food crops).

This 60 per cent of land not suitable for food crops is important in the argument for red meat production, especially if, as Dr Puller suggests, farmers continue to increase efficiencies within an extensive farming systems.

The important thing was communicating these messages to the general public, which was an area Mr Gooding urged farmers to work harder in.

“We’ve got to get off the back foot because I think we have many answers to the problems, we’re just not very good at showing it,” he said, arguing everyone should participate in Open Farm Sunday, inviting the public onto their farms and explaining their role in food production, animal welfare and climate change.

Emission facts

  • UK agricultural emissions are 7 per cent of the UK greenhouse gas footprint, significantly lower than the accepted world average of 18 per cent.
  • 60 per cent of agricultural land in the UK is only suitable for grazing systems. To make a contribution to the food chain that land requires ruminant livestock, as they are excellent at converting low-quality forage to a high-value human food.
  • The 2.9m cattle and 16.7m sheep slaughtered annually in the UK, supplying more than 1.1m tonnes of meat to the human food chain.
  • Steady improvements in the efficiency of beef and sheep production have taken place in the past decade, with 5 per cent fewer prime cattle and lambs required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998.
  • Further improvements could be made by increasing feed conversion efficiency through genetic selection. This is an underdeveloped technology but modern breeding techniques will allow rapid progress.
  • Actively managed pastures are a good ‘carbon sink’ (i.e. it absorbs more carbon that it releases).
  • Reducing the environmental impact of the UK livestock sector is not as simple as just reducing the number of cattle and sheep. Unless UK consumers eat less red meat, reducing UK livestock will lead to more imported meat and increased greenhouse gases in other parts of the world (i.e. ‘exporting the problem’). This could potentially increase total greenhouse gas production, as the UK is more efficient at beef and lamb production than some other countries.

Source: Eblex

Get the message across

You can help defend criticism of the agricultural sector by taking every opportunity to give members of the public a more balanced view of livestock and its role in climate change.

Download the Farmers Guardian climate change factsheet using the links on the right to have some ammunition against the people taking down our industry and show them how misguiding some of the current claims in the media are.

More inofrmation is also available from Eblex’s Environmental Roadmap, published last month. For more details visit www.eblex.org.uk/roadmap or download the report from the links on the right.

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