Climate friendly farming: The facts about British meat

Maggie and Dave Kelly's Hereford Cattle_69011British beef is produced to some of the highest welfare and environmentally sustainable standards in the world. Shoppers are looking to buy local, sustainably produced meat and most retailers are now increasingly sourcing British beef and lamb to meet this demand.

British farming with its extensive, grass-based, grazing systems produces some of the most sustainable beef in the world. According to the Government’s Committee on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions from UK beef are about half the global average1. So, not all red meat production around the world is the same. British farmers are very proud of their high standards of production and aim to farm in as climate friendly a way as possible with a view to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The question is not whether to eat meat or not. The key consideration must be where the livestock was farmed and the environmental and welfare standards of where it was produced. And this is where British beef has a great story to tell.

What are the environmental benefits to British livestock?

The UK climate is ideal for growing grass for animals to eat. Around 65% of farmland in the UK is best-suited to growing grass rather than other crops2. If we did not graze livestock on it, we could not use it to produce food. Grazing livestock on this land allows us to turn inedible grass into high quality, nutrient-rich beef and lamb. This land also provides a valuable habitat for many native wildlife species that need open grassland to forage, such as hedgehogs and lapwings.

British beef and lamb is among the most efficient and sustainable in the world due to our extensive, grass-based systems. Emissions from beef production in the UK are about half the global average, according to the Government’s Committee on Climate Change3.

87% of UK beef is produced using predominantly forage based diets4, with only a very small amount of soya in rearing diets. This means UK beef production is not a driver of deforestation in other parts of the world.

Cattle feed infographic_69617

Livestock plays an important role in maintaining and enhancing the soil used to grow crops too. The introduction of grass and clover leys and livestock into arable crop rotations is beneficial to soil health and fertility5, with manure from grazing livestock helping to boost soil organic matter6.

Leicestershire arable farmer Phil Jarvis (pictured below) has introduced four-year grass and clover leys and shorter two-year herbal leys which are grazed by both his neighbour’s sheep and his own Leicester Longwools. This regenerative approach helps build soil fertility, health and combat grass weeds while using some of the current agri-environment options in Countryside Stewardship.

Phil and Ruth Jarvis with their Leicester Longwool sheep_26649

There are also several examples where livestock are critical to the lifecycle of wildlife – for instance, the Large Blue Butterfly. The Large Blue breeds in warm and well-drained unimproved grassland and livestock play a key role in producing suitable habitat conditions through grazing7.

What do the experts say?

“Land abandonment poses one of the greatest threats to biodiversity as it removes the brakes on succession. Most open landscapes in the UK will revert from grassland to scrub and, ultimately, to woodland as large plants reach for the light and outcompete many smaller species. Grazing and disturbance by livestock – particularly by native breeds that can outwinter - ‘re-sets’ this ecological clock, allowing a high diversity of these valuable early-succession flowers to thrive in open sunlight.

“Early succession habitats like hay meadows and permanent pastures, grazed by the right amount of livestock at the right time, can support an astonishing 770 species of wild flower and are crucibles of biodiversity. Nearly 1,400 species of pollinators and other insects rely on species-rich grassland for their survival and they, in turn, support a myriad of bird and animal life. Re-creation of these open habitats must be seen as a priority as urgent as planting trees.”

Dr Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist:

In the UK, 81% of total greenhouse gas emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), 11% are methane, and 4% are nitrous oxide. For UK agriculture, 12% of its emissions are CO2, 56% are methane and 31% are nitrous oxide8. So, methane emissions from UK agriculture account for around 5.5% of the country’s total GHG emissions.

The production of GHGs is a significant issue for the livestock sector and livestock farmers in this country are striving to reduce these emissions. Emissions from UK livestock are estimated to be around 5% of the country’s total GHG emissions9, significantly lower than the estimated EU wide figure for livestock of around 9.1% of all emissions10. This is in part due to the UK’s efficient production systems.

greenhouse gas emissions infographic_73877

But science is emerging on the differing behaviour and impact of long-lived GHGs like CO2 and nitrous oxide, and short-lived GHGs like methane. Methane is classed as a short-lived gas because it lasts in our atmosphere for around ten years until it gets broken down to water and CO2. The concentration of this CO2 ‘breakdown’ is insignificant in terms of climate warming impact, measuring in parts per billion and happening at a scale that grassland and vegetation can readily re-absorb. In contrast, CO2 is a long-lived gas which is released directly into the atmosphere by energy suppliers and transport sectors, among others, and stays there for hundreds of years, continuing to contribute to global warming.

The conventional interpretation of methane emissions suggests that falling methane emissions would continue to lead to global warming. But recent research results from Oxford University11 show this is wrong. Falling methane emissions would, in fact, lead to stable or lower global temperatures. This research is important as improvements in the productivity of grazed livestock should significantly decrease the climate heating impact of current levels of red meat and dairy production.

British farming is ambitious to reach net zero GHG emissions by 204012 and work to achieve further production efficiencies is a key part of this. Measures like using natural feed additives and further improving cattle and sheep health will help reduce methane emissions from livestock. These steps, along with the British herd size remaining steady, mean the impact of methane from livestock will decrease gradually, provided the number of animals does not increase. To stop further global warming, the priority must be reducing the levels of long-lived gases like CO2, while progressively reducing methane levels will cool the climate.

65% UK farmland best suited to grazing infographic _70605

Actively managed pastures that are grazed by livestock are a good carbon sink, capturing CO2 in the vegetation and storing carbon in the soil which could otherwise be released into the atmosphere, as are hedgerows that separate fields. If this land was put to other uses, and the soil was disturbed, there is a risk that much of that carbon stored within it would be lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving efficiency go hand in hand. Steady improvements in production efficiency have taken place over recent years, with 5% fewer prime cattle and lambs required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 199813.

Research indicates that breeding, nutrition and animal health offer opportunities to make further reductions and farmers are already making improvements in these areas14. By using better genetics and making further improvements to animal welfare we will continue to reduce our emissions.

Beef and sheep farmers across the UK are also embracing a range of practices which both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable them to be better prepared for the impacts of a changing climate15. For example: by using co-products like brewers' grains and by-products like bread crusts, livestock farmers help reduce the food chain’s greenhouse gas footprint. Many livestock farmers are also helping deliver clean, renewable energy which contributes towards powering millions of homes16.

Renewable energy 10 million homes infographic_70610

Sheep also produce wool, which is worth £100 million to the British economy17. Wool offers a range of solutions to problems we currently face. It is 100% natural, a renewable fibre source as sheep produce a new fleece every year, and is biodegradable.

Around 40% of the weight of clean wool is pure biogenic carbon18 – carbon captured by formerly living matter which has absorbed carbon through its life. Sheep consume this biogenic carbon when they eat grass and transform it into the amino acids of the wool fibre. Wool can be used in clothing without any concerns over microplastics and microfibres, and is a natural insulator which can help reduce domestic carbon emissions when used in the home. But we only have this fantastic natural resource if we have a profitable livestock industry.

Livestock and the value of wool infographic_71229

What do the experts say?

“Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change.”

Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II

Animal health and welfare

The UK offers some of the best farm animal welfare standards in the world19, with a robust and comprehensive legal framework protecting animal welfare; extremely mature and well-developed industry bodies that recognise the importance of animal health and welfare; and a significant number of credible quality assurance and health and welfare schemes and/or initiatives. In general, the principal producing and exporting countries located in South America, North America, Oceania and Asia have a much less developed legal framework compared to the UK.

Antibiotic use infographic_70609

The UK is the fifth lowest user of on-farm antibiotics across 31 European countries, beaten only by the Nordic countries (Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland) where the dry, cold climate is a key factor in stopping bacteria breeding and therefore reducing demand. The amount of antibiotics used on UK farms has been reduced by 53% between 2014 and 201820.

The Animal Protection Index21, which ranks countries around the world for their commitments to improving animal welfare, identified the UK as one of only four countries to receive the highest grade.

In the global context, the UK’s regulations set, and British livestock farmers operate to, some of the best animal health and welfare standards in the world. Voluntary codes of practice and a well-developed system of farm assurance further build on legislative standards to offer a high level of welfare protection.

Nutritional benefits of red meat22

Red meat is recognised as an important part of a balanced diet. Red meat is one of the richest sources of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins in the diet, as well as a significant source of protein. Red meat now has much lower fat contents than it did 20 years ago, with fully trimmed lean beef containing just 5% fat. Currently 91% of UK households regularly enjoy red meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

91% of households eat red meat infographic_70608

Where did we get our information?

  1. Land use: Policies for a net zero UK, Committee on Climate Change, January 2020
  2. Farming Statistics: Provisional crop areas, yields and livestock populations at June 2019 – United Kingdom, Defra/National Statistics, 2019
  3. Land use: Policies for a net zero UK, Committee on Climate Change, January 2020
  4. Cattle Farm Practices Survey 2019, Defra
  5. Livestock and the arable rotation, AHDB, 2018
  6. The benefits of sheep in arable rotations, National Sheep Association, 2017
  7. Large Blue priority species factsheet, Butterfly Conservation/Defra
  8. Final UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics: 1990 – 2017, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy/National Statistics, March 2019
  9. Final UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics: 1990 – 2017, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy/National Statistics, March 2019
  10. Evaluation of the livestock sector’s contribution to the EU greenhouse gas emissions, European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2010
  11. Climate metrics for ruminant livestock, Allen, Cain et al, Oxford Martin School, Oxford University, 2018
  12. Achieving net zero: Farming’s 2040 goal, NFU
  13. Change in the air: The English beef and sheep production roadmap, phase 1, AHDB Beef and Lamb
  14. NFU, NFU Cymru, NFUS, UFU, British Livestock and Climate Change
  15. NFU, NFU Cymru, NFUS, UFU, British Livestock and Climate Change
  16. NFU, NFU Cymru, NFUS, UFU, Delivering Britain's Clean Energy From The Land
  17. Producer information and wool values, British Wool website
  18. Wool and the carbon cycle, International Wool Textile Organisation website
  19. Farm animal welfare: Global review summary report, Evidence Group/NFU, 2018
  20. Targets Task Force: Two Years On, Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), October 2019
  22. AHDB, Red meat and nutrition: The facts

Related categories: Environment Livestock

Last edited: 24 November 2020 at 13:27

Have your say

Countryside website team - 14/02/2020 17:29:58

Hello, Countryside editors here. In response to Maureen's question, the average dairy herd size in the UK is only around 150, with cattle being even lower at only around 25. These businesses are still predominantly run by small family businesses. This time of year, especially with the wet weather we’re currently having, cattle are often housed just because it is too cold to keep them outside and the cattle are more comfortable being sheltered from it. British cows live off a grass-based diet and are grazing this grass for most of the year, or as long as the weather allows. The UK has some of the highest standards of animal welfare, which farmers are proud to adhere to, whether their cattle are out in the fields or being housed during the winter months.

Sarah - 06/02/2020 14:32:42

I am relieved to have found this article. There is too much media attention given to ruminants being one of the 3 biggest threats to the climate. This is being taken as scientific evidence that we should stop eating beef - a new disappointing story from Edinburgh University voting to ban red meat appeared today. We need to challenge this with positive messages about grass fed beef - and the science that supports our claims - how does grass fed beef compare with intense soya fed South American beef? What are the figures? What is the carbon cost of importing sufficient protein for vegan diets and the cost of manufacturing this protein. How does this compare? My view is our main message appears to be Back British Farming but we need to lead with scientific evidence. I can’t find the figures to use to show why British Grass fed beef is not contributing to climate change.

Anthony West - 26/01/2020 16:42:20

I agree with a lot of this article. I am concerned however that the government is heading for a no-deal Brexit which could mean food produced to lower standards being imported. If I am wrong in my assumption please let me know.

Maureen RichardsMBE - 20/01/2020 09:42:10

How Much Factory Farming do we still have in our country? and What is being done to stop this terrible way of farming ? We only have to drive around to see the decline in the fields full of animals to know it is still being used, and we live in Devon which does seem better than the further you drive up the country?

Jacky Harrison - 20/01/2020 09:10:56

Great article - need to feed it to the tabloids - with simple messages

Jillian Edwards - 20/01/2020 08:31:04

God help us if our PM allows US produced beef and poultry into the UK. It will be sold more cheaply, therefore being bought mainly by those on low incomes and do enormous damage to our livestock industr.

Mary Simpson - 19/01/2020 14:55:48

I am totally against the importation of meat products from the US. I feel that it will be detrimental to the health of UK residents. I feel all fresh US meat plus and and ALL pre prepared meat products should be clearly labelled - Contains US MEAT.

Jackie Harrop - 15/01/2020 23:15:26

Buy British eat meat

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