Switching to more chicken, pork and alternative proteins and significantly reducing consumption and production of beef, lamb and dairy products could make a significant contribution to reducing agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases (GHGs), argues the first of two reports from the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) on how to improve land use to meet climate change goals.
The CCC, which gives independent advice to the U.K. government, says that current approaches to land use are not sustainable, however, its findings have not been universally welcomed. The country’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has said that it has been clear in farming’s role in tackling climate change, and reducing livestock numbers does not form part of its policy.
The report’s authors argue that if land continues to be used in the way that it has been it will not be able to support future settlements, maintain per capita food production, and the U.K. will not be prepared for the warming climate, adding that nine of the ten warmest years in the U.K. have occurred since 2002, and 10 since 1990.
Improved farming practices, such as better soil and livestock management, could deliver up to the equivalent of 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission reductions by 2050, although this would still leave agriculture as one of the biggest GHG emitting sectors. But to achieve deep emissions reductions would entail releasing agricultural land for other uses, such as increasing forest cover from 13 percent to 19 percent of the country, and through better and less use of grasslands.
Achieving more with less?
Sustainably increasing stocking densities, accompanied by good grazing management systems, could maximize grassland utilization rates. Moving from continuous grazing systems to paddock grazing, for example, where livestock are moved frequently to select parts of a field, can increase utilization rates from around 50-60 percent to 80 percent, improving agricultural productivity.
However, the production of beef, lamb and milk account for a large portion of agricultural emissions in the U.K. In 2016, for example, cattle and sheep directly accounted for around 58 percent of agriculture emissions, while there are additional soil emissions associated with growing their feed.
Changes in diet, if these lead to reduced production of red meat and dairy, could have a significant impact on emissions.
If consumers were to follow already published government healthy eating advice, there would be an 89 percent reduction in beef consumption, a 63 percent reduction in lamb production and a 20 percent reduction in dairy products from current levels.
Changes in farming practices and consumer behaviors could drive the release of land. Building on improvements in animal health, for example, could reduce emissions intensity through increasing feed conversation rates and fertility, reducing mortality and by increasing growth rates and yields, the authors point out.
They continue that, in looking how to control GHGs they see not only an increase in consumption of pulses, legumes and fruits and vegetables, but also a switch to chicken and pork from red meats, and alternatives, with the latter, they note, offering the advantage of being grown off-farm
While few would question the benefits of improving animal health and feed conversion rates, arguments have been made that the CCC’s view on grasslands is erroneous.
In response to the report, the NFU has said that the CCC simply does not recognize the environmental benefits grass-fed beef and sheep production brings to the U.K., and that it would be a mistake to design a farming system solely around an approach that mitigates greenhouse gases without any regard to the wider impact of such a policy for the environment and food supply.