Livestock and climate changeAddressing the environmental impact of beef and sheep meat production, and in particular reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.

AHDB Beef & Lamb works closely with other industry organisations and producers to look at ways of reducing that impact while increasing efficiency.

Here are some key facts regarding the industry’s contribution to climate change:

  • There are 2.1 million cattle and 14 million sheep slaughtered annually in the UK, supplying over 1.1 million tonnes of meat to the human food chain, with a farm gate value of over £3 billion (1)
  • A significant proportion of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass – without grazing ruminant animals (cattle and sheep) we could not use this land to feed our growing population
  • Actively managed pastures are a good carbon sink, storing carbon which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Current emissions position

  • Agriculture is responsible for 7% of the UK’s carbon emissions, with livestock production responsible for an estimated 5% of total emissions (2)
  • A recent publication (3) from the United Nations suggested global emissions from livestock made up around 14.5% of all carbon emissions. This was revised down from their earlier estimate of 18%, though that figure is still mistakenly quoted.
  • A recent EU report concluded that the emissions from livestock are estimated to be responsible for around 9.1% of all emissions in the Union (4), higher than the UK figure due to our efficient production systems
  • Calculations show an average 100-year Global Warming Potential (GWP100*) for beef of 11.93kg CO2 eq per kg liveweight and for sheep of 11.95kg CO2 per kg liveweight.

The emissions challenge

  • The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan requires that by 2020 emissions from farming are at least 11% lower than the GWP100 levels currently predicted
  • To meet the 11% reduction target for beef, an efficiency gain equivalent to 320g per day extra growth and 5 extra calves per 100 cows per year is needed – and is technically achievable
  • To meet the target for lamb, an efficiency gain equivalent to 20% per day extra growth and 7.5 extra lambs per 100 ewes per year is needed – and again is technically achievable.

Meeting the challenge

  • The good news is that reducing GHG emissions and improving efficiency go hand in hand
  • Steady improvements in production efficiency have taken place over the recent years, with 5% fewer prime cattle and lambs required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998
  • Research indicates that the three main areas of breeding, feeding and management offer opportunities to make the required reductions
  • The genetic potential for progress in beef and sheep breeds for improvements in feed efficiency is largely undeveloped, but modern breeding techniques will allow rapid progress.

Deforestation and imported soya

UK beef and lamb production is not driving demand for imported soya and, therefore, not significantly contributing to deforestation in some parts of the world. The level of soya meal use in sheep and beef diets is very small.

For more information, the two AHDB Beef & Lamb roadmaps, Change in the Air and Testing the Water, provide a benchmark of where the industry is now and what steps we need to take going forward.

  1. AHDB Beef & Lamb, UK Yearbook – 2011
  2. DECC, The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan – 2009
  3. FAO, Tackling climate change through livestock – 2013
  4. EC JRC, Evaluation of the livestock sector’s contribution to the EU greenhouse gas emissions (GGELS) – 2011

* GWP100 is a way of expressing the Global Warming Potential of a number of gases – notably CO2, methane and nitrous oxide – in one currency, namely CO2 equivalence over a fixed time period of 100 years.

Download this fact sheet as a pdf.