A Global Approach to Tackling Net Zero in Livestock Production

23rd April 2021

A global approach and greater collaboration will help the industry meet net carbon targets according to speakers at the recent British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) conference who called on the supply chain to work in partnership, both between sectors and internationally, to achieve net zero.

At a keynote session sponsored by Devenish, speakers from the UK, Brazil, Africa, and Australia agreed that the major factors restricting the UK's progress in the move to net zero were neither unique to the UK, nor to a specific sector of UK agriculture. These issues include the development of new technologies to reduce carbon footprint, the acceleration of the widescale uptake of current and new technologies to mitigate greenhouse gas production, and the need to communicate more effectively with the wider population.

Consequently, there will be significant benefits from adopting a joined-up approach with increased collaboration both within the UK and globally.

Quoting a recent CIEL report, Dr Elizabeth Magowan from AFBI stressed the integrated nature of the challenge. She says agriculture currently accounts for 10% of the UK's annual greenhouse gases with two thirds of this coming from livestock. She says it is anticipated that the proportion attributed to agriculture will increase as other sectors, such as transport, successfully implement mitigation measures and low carbon solutions.

"This means the focus will remain on agriculture. Increasing efficiency is a major way most businesses can work towards net zero while also improving profitability. However, it estimated that a high uptake of current technologies will only achieve a 19% reduction and history shows a sub-optimal uptake of technologies proven to increase efficiency and profitability while reducing emissions.

"But herein lies a dilemma. Systems with lower emissions are often less well-received by the consumer on welfare grounds. Housed dairy cows have lower carbon impact per litre than extensively grazed cows. Free range poultry, whether broilers of layers, have a higher CO2 impact than housed birds. We also know that housed animals can be associated with higher ammonia levels."

Dr Magowan stressed the need to embrace new technologies, for example, to reduce waste through precision farming techniques, to develop new methods of fertiliser formulation to reduce nitrous oxide, and approaches to increase carbon sequestration. But at the heart of improvement must be a common approach to carbon accounting including the full implications of on-farm mitigation and carbon offsetting. And then farmers must be bought on board and supported to make the changes.

As all countries face similar issues and challenges, Michael Battaglia from CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, stressed carbon reduction must be seen as a global approach. "Approaches in one country or region can work effectively in other countries so sharing of experiences is crucial if the global issues are to be addressed.

"Take the development of novel supplements to increase ruminant productivity while cutting methane production. In Australia, common red seaweed (asparagopsis) has been used successfully as a feed additive, reducing enteric methane output in beef units.

"It occurs in many countries and while it has not been grown commercially at scale yet, significant developments and small sale production is either underway or in development in Australia, the EU, Canada, Vietnam, USA and NZ. Production platforms include land-based tanks and ponds, plus ocean farmed."

Silvopasture, where trees are planted in grazing areas to increase carbon storage while providing shelter for animals has been employed successfully in South America was introduced by Alexandre Berndt of EMBRAPA. It is another technology which could be implemented as part of the UK's armoury of mitigation technologies. Whatever technologies are employed, however, need to be easily implemented if farmers will adopt them at a time when margins are being squeezed. "As we learned from Polly Ericksen of ILRI, livestock production delivers multiple public goods including improving nutrition and human health, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa," comments Dr John Gilliland, Director of Global Agriculture and Sustainability at Devenish.

"Meeting the 2050 net zero target is going to require the whole industry to work together to drive efficiency and ensure new technologies are used effectively across all sectors, making use of developments from elsewhere in the world.

"At the same time, it will be essential that global teams work together to achieve the targets and communicate with society, so they understand the steps taken by the industry to deliver nutritious food whilst protecting the environment."

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