Global approach to tackling net zero in livestock production

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

At a keynote session sponsored by Devenish, speakers from the UK, Brazil, Africa and Australia agreed that the major issues 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 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 and also improve profitability.  But 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 helped 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, and is another technology which could be implemented asspart 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,” comments Dr John Gilliland, Director of Global Agriculture and Sustainability at Devenish.

“To meet 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 the food required while protecting the environment.”

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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.