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Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Food Production

21 June 2011

The UK's Low Carbon Transition Plan calls for an 18 per cent reduction on the 2008 levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which stood at 610 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, writes Chris Harris.

For the farming sector, the target by 2020 is a reduction of 11 per cent.

However, according to Chris Lloyd from the English Beef and Lamb executive, there are a great many myths that have been spread about greenhouse gas emissions and there is a common belief that CO2 is only greenhouse gas.

However, Mr Lloyd told the recent outlook Conference in London that others are also important especially where the food chain is concerned.

Methane has 21 times greater global warming potential than CO2 and nitrous oxide has 296 times greater global warming potential than CO2.

Refrigerant gases are thousands of times greater than CO2.

UK agriculture actually produced less than one per cent of the total CO2 emissions in the UK. However, it produces 37 per cent of the methane produced in the UK with 85 per cent of this coming from rumen fermentation.

It produces 66 per cent of the nitrous oxide with 70 per cent coming from livestock farming.

However, as part of the total CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions, UK agriculture only produces seven per cent of the total UK emissions.

For UK agriculture and the livestock sector to achieve the necessary cuts, the UK industry through EBLEX has drawn up a roadmap to mark out where and how the industry can reduce its carbon footprint by 11 per cent by 2020.

In a survey of farms, it was found that there was a vast disparity between the best farms and the worst and this variance meant that the 11 per cent target is achievable.

Mr Lloyd told the conference that the top thirds of farms in the survey were found to produce on average 6.2 kg of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse has emissions while the bottom third was producing 19.1 kg of CO2 equivalent.

The survey found that increases in efficiency by improving feed conversion efficiency, fertility and longevity the farms could also reduce their carbon footprint.

"Where you are increasing efficiency from a gross margin point of view, the farmer is also reducing his carbon footprint," Mr Lloyd said.

"More efficient farms have a low CO2 output."

He said that the complexities of food supply, resource use, biodiversity, landscape and water are now much better understood there is a much better description of the industry which will help target future work.

However the demand of food supply mean that greenhouse gas emission issues have to be addressed proactively for years to come.

Mr Lloyd said that improved economic performance goes hand in hand with lower CO2eq costs of production and that while both cattle and sheep produce valuable products for human consumption they do have a greenhouse gas "cost".

"We can reduce this greenhouse gas considerably if we apply what we know," he said.

Mr Lloyd concluded that there are large areas of the UK cannot reasonably produce food for people without cattle or sheep. He said the land such as the uplands is only suitable for producing livestock, so organisations that demand a reduction in meat eating and a reduction in the number of animals to reduce emissions are not providing practical solutions.

He said that unless consumer behaviour changes reducing production at home will simply export the problem.

He called on the industry to own the issue and make a contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of production through efficiencies.

He said the industry needs to robustly defend the role of ruminants in food production, soil management as a carbon sink, habitat management and landscape management.


June 2011

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