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UK beef and sheep farmers up in arms regarding climate change allegations

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The recent partial shutdown of London by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion drew a wave of popular support in the news over the Easter period. However, UK climate change solutions have been met with concerns by farmers and growers following a recent report from the Committee of Climate Change on 2 May 2019. Although countless individuals, businesses and organisations are committed to the UK achieving a carbon neutral status, the potential impact on dairy and sheep farmers if legislation is enacted will be severe. 

What climate change solutions could mean for livestock farmers

Many beef, dairy and sheep farmers are up in arms with regard to the recent agricultural recommendations from the UK Committee on Climate Change, aimed at ensuring zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. One of the principal recommendations is that consumers should reduce consumption of dairy, beef and lamb products as they are the most carbon-intensive livestock in the UK and contribute around 20-50% of the country's carbon emissions. 

The Committee suggested that there should be a move towards eating more poultry and pig-based produce, alongside switching to meat alternatives, such as synthetic meats grown in the lab. It was suggested that a 20% to 50% cut in pasture land for beef and lamb production will release between 3 and 7 million hectares of grass pasture from the existing level of 12 million hectares. This pasture could then be used for growing biofuel crops or forests which would assist with absorption of CO2 in the air.

It was also suggested eating more pig and poultry produce and moving towards 'alternative' proteins such as lab-grown 'synthetic' meat should be the direction taken by consumers.

The NFU reaction was a quick rebuttal and a statement to the effect that the organisation did not agree with any reduction in numbers of livestock. However, the NFU has also made a statement of its own targets for zero agricultural emissions by the year 2040, with NFU President, Minette Batters, stating: "Last year’s extreme weather was a stark reminder of the challenges farmers face in maintaining yields and feeding livestock on the frontline of climate change. But not only can agriculture be part of the solution, we can also be a world leader in climate-friendly production. Technology and the bioeconomy present huge opportunities and that is why earlier this year I unveiled an ambitious aspiration for net zero agriculture in the UK by 2040. In order to achieve that, we will need to see the government work with farmers and growers on the new technology and innovation needed to reach this goal."

Additional commentary on the proposals from the sheep farming perspective

Nigel Scollan is the Director of the Institute for Global Food Security and also a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, and he commented: "Without livestock, we would increase our reliance on chemical fertilisers, which are produced by using non-renewable energy and therefore further contributing to our carbon footprint."

Sheep farming is integral to the farming and agricultural jobs sector in Scotland and Quality Meat Scotland commented that over 80% of Scottish farmland is rough grazing and grass which is unsuitable for growing cereals, fruit or vegetables. The same can be said for Wales, which has 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land and 89% is devoted to grazing for sheep or cattle.

Many experts queried the reasons why farming was "taking blame" for carbon production, particularly when agriculture and farming were likely to contribute a good deal to solutions.

Liz Bowles, who heads up the farming department of the UK Soil Association, said: "Producing beef and lamb from grass is one of the most climate friendly ways and more so than producing chicken or pigs."

Many spokespeople from the sheep industry sector commented that UK lamb and sheep meat should be the meat of choice for people with high environmental consciousness rather than cutting down on red meat altogether. Phil Stocker, the Chief Executive of the National Sheep Association, said some of the report's recommendations were "unbalanced, based on inadequate science, and understood little about the UK sheep industry". He added: "It is really frustrating to yet again see our extensive livestock sectors caught up within criticisms of agriculture and their impact on climate change and biodiversity, and little mention of other damaging activities, that may be less popular to criticise. It is seemingly OK to offset emissions from flying around the world through carbon sequestering actions such as tree planting and peatland management, but not OK for a farm to do its own internal offsetting. Yet again livestock farming appears to be an easy target that is fashionable to attack while the reality is that farming methods in the UK contribute positively, and could do even more with the right incentives". 

Mr Stocker added that the UK methods of livestock farming were predominantly based on grass and grazing and is a system that works harmoniously with nature and wildlife, unlike livestock rearing methods in other parts of the globe. The grass-based methods of meat production actually work to absorb and store carbon and cut risks of wildfires in many upland areas. All these factors contribute to enhancing soils.

The National Sheep Association has conducted a good deal of research into the issues surrounding climate change and although they feel that cutting numbers of animals could have some form of cooling impact over a longer timeframe, the benefits of sheep husbandry also include the conversion of grassland into land that can be cropped due to a build-up of fertility in soils. Furthermore, a mixed farm produces a number of biodiversity benefits and adds to daytrippers' enjoyment of visits to the countryside. Mr Stocker also commented that: "In the UK, sheepmeat is consumed in tiny volumes and average consumption is between two and three kgs of meat per year. That relates to between five and eight grams a day so just 10% of WHO recommended meat intakes of 70gms per day. In addition, this is produced predominantly from grass. UK lamb and mutton should be recognised as the environmentally conscious person's meat of choice."

It seems quite clear that this issue will continue to divide opinions in the farming world, as well as arbiters of climate change solutions. The agricultural industry has a large role to play in future climate change solutions, making it an exciting time to work in agriculture. If you're planning a career in agriculture and looking for the jobs that will truly make a difference within the UK and globally, get in touch with the experts at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists. You can get in touch with us here: