A better beef industry

30th May 2019

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With beef increasingly in the firing line over its emissions, Sarah Wynn suggests actions farmers could take to make production more sustainable

As the UK looks for ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, there is a growing focus on the role of agriculture and food production as key contributors of emissions. Beef production has come in for particular scrutiny, and many are now calling for a reduction in the amount of beef in our diets – or its complete removal.

Characterised by small-to-medium farm enterprises that work independently of each other, the UK cattle and sheep industry provides 1.1m tonnes of red meat to the human supply chain annually, with a farm gate value of £3bn. Uniting all beef farmers to drive industry-level change poses a significant challenge, but will be necessary to reduce beef production-related emissions to a sustainable level.

Beefing up efficiency

“Increasing fertility, lowering mortality rates and improving live weight gain would make systems more efficient“

On the farm, increasing fertility, lowering mortality rates and improving live weight gain would make systems more efficient, meaning more kilograms of meat could be produced using the same, or lower, levels of input. This would minimise the emissions produced while maintaining a living for the farmer.

Understanding emissions levels from different feeding systems is important, allowing farmers to make informed choices about their animal feeding regime. For instance, reconsidering the proportion of feed produced on farm (such as moving to a grass or forage-based system), the type of feeds imported (avoiding those with embedded land-use change emissions, such as soy) and the nutritional content of feeds (such as adjusting protein content to reduce nitrogen loss in excreta) could all help to reduce a farm's overall emissions.

By increasing the carbon stored in their land, beef farmers can further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To ensure that stored carbon increases annually, rather than remaining at an equilibrium, farmers need to actively increase the carbon stored on the farm on an annual basis. This could be done through the planting of trees and hedges. 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 greenhouse gas emissions is still an emerging area for the UK beef sector. Worldwide, there is a high demand for beef, but as with all food sources, there are opportunities to ensure that the end products come at a lower environmental price.

For there to be a reasonably rapid reduction in emissions output from beef producers, the mechanisms from the marketplace and policymakers need to be clear: they should be accessible to farmers, and transparent in terms of what is being bought and sold.

The UK beef sector needs to show it is being proactive when it comes to reducing emissions from production and capturing carbon in the land bank. While there are challenges to overcome, if the producers, via their representatives, can meet these challenges, they may create market opportunities for this high-value protein product grown across the UK. By being proactive and leading the way on greenhouse gas emissions, the industry can send a strong message to consumers and influence its own marketplace.

Sarah Wynn is managing director of sustainable food and farming at ADAS, an RSK company.

Image credit: iStock


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