Head of Research Nikki responds to EIT report
EIT Food is a European organisation, working to build innovative, inclusive and resilient food systems. They recently published a report, “Achieving Net Zero Targets in the Ruminant Livestock Industry in the UK and Ireland”, which obviously has implications for Pasture for Life, and also the two EU funded projects (Pathways and Re-Livestock) with which we are involved, to model sustainable and resilient livestock futures in Europe.
The lack of low input or organic stakeholders involved in the report formation is telling, however it is positive to see the livestock sector being proactive. We would caution against default intensification of livestock practices, instead promoting efficient, low input systems that actively promote agroecosystem functioning as part of a just transition to net zero.
The report sets out six recommendations, which we generally agree with, but would encourage a much broader view of achieving net zero within the context of the multiple crises of climate, biodiversity loss and human health which will take a more complex and nuanced response. However, we recognise the challenges of distilling the complexity of these issues into an action oriented report.
Climate change has occurred because the carbon stored in soils and deeper underground has been depleted, through fossil fuel extraction and use, industrialisation and land management practices. The equilibrium has shifted so that the carbon pool in the atmosphere has increased. We need to develop and promote agricultural systems that support nature, healthy food production, and effective natural process that reduce further emissions and return to a state of equilibrium where there is more carbon stored in soils.
The recommendations follow, with reflections on each from the Pasture for Life research team.
1. Standardisation of GHG data to establish baselines and enable benchmarking.
We support the recommendation to standardise assessment tools, as well as the need to account for sequestration in different systems. However, the role of grassland methanotrophic activity is not mentioned. Appropriate grazing management can stimulate the growth and activity of methanotrophs in grassland (Li et al., 2020) which also needs to be accounted for when considering emissions and sequestration in relation to methane. Likewise, whilst the report recognises the relatively short half-life of methane in the atmosphere (with GWP* vs GWP100) there is no reference to the growing evidence on rates of methane oxidation which also varies, depending on soil microbial activity. This link to soil health, which can be achieved in optimised grassland management is an important consideration particularly when intensified management of grasslands may reduce the methane sink capacity of soils (Täumer et al., 2021). We would also encourage the sector not only to consider biodiversity and habitat management as additional to a net-zero future, but as an integral nature based solution in restoring the carbon balance.
2. Cut methane emissions by optimising the age of ruminant livestock slaughter.
This approach to emissions reduction could be considered simplistic and we would urge caution when using simplistic solutions to address complex issues. We support the aim to improve efficiency in grass-based production and share the view that this should be a high priority for both research and on-farm innovation. We know this is being prioritised by Pasture for Life members in their own practice and their participation in research projects. The argument of optimising age of slaughter, primarily achieved by reducing days to slaughter, does make sense to some extent in relation to decreased ill-health and parasite burden but when rapid finishing is set out as a goal in its own right, there are important caveats to take into account. Should interventions be required to enable reduced days to slaughter, these could necessitate higher emissions from practices such as soil cultivations, re-seeding and additional fertiliser applications, which may negate any lowering of life-time enteric methane.
Often the term ‘efficient’ becomes synonymous with ‘intensive’ however with respect to protein efficiency, pastoralism is high performing. Protein efficiency is reflected in the human-edible protein balance, an index value that represents the human-edible protein output per unit of human-edible protein input required to produce it (Butt, 2011). Those countries where pastoral livestock systems are prevalent far outperform other countries in terms of protein efficiency. As an example, the pastoral livestock sector in Kenya produces 20 times as much human- edible protein as it consumes, whereas in countries boasting highly efficient livestock systems, livestock is fed up to twice as much human-edible protein as it produces (Butt, 2011). Furthermore, pastoral systems provide additional ecosystem services such as biodiversity and habitat management outcomes. Recent research indicates that livestock raised in circular economy systems without human-edible inputs such as cereals could potentially provide 20–40 percent of global protein requirements (Van Zanten et al., 2018).
It is worth reflecting on the growing dairy beef sector here, where there are more dairy and beef cows and heifers than slaughter cattle, (and generally they are bigger), so the benefits of improving longevity and lifetime performance of this maternal group, as well as calving at two years could be more beneficial for the sector as a whole. We need to aim for more than 2-3 lactations from our hard working dairy cows, learning lessons of the unintended consequences of low fertility and longevity caused by a focus on productivity at any cost. We would also caution against the assumption that technical interventions are required to improve fertility, fecundity and other genetic traits. Improved monitoring, selection and on farm measures that give autonomy to farmers rather than outsourcing solutions could significantly improve the productivity, efficiency and profitability of the national beef herd.
The target of earlier slaughter could be considered as contradictory to a number of other points made in the report, highlighting the complexity of the issue and the need for systems thinking approaches that give clarity over the trade-offs between reducing GHG emissions, improving water quality, optimizing grassland, reducing fertiliser use and reliance on imported feeds, healthy soils and reversing biodiversity loss.
This is the recommendation of greatest concern to Pasture for Life, particularly when the phrase ‘optimal age of slaughter’ is represented as reducing the days to slaughter without wider system changes that can have a significant impact on profitability, efficiency and ecosystem health.
3. Rewarding farmers through policies.
We support the recommendation that exporting meat production and its associated emissions to other countries should be discouraged, as producing meat locally contributes to increased security (and importantly, resilience) of supply. We are also pleased that the report recognises that Net Zero is an industry target that may not always be appropriate or achievable for all individual businesses within the livestock sector and as such this needs to be considered in designing interventions and regulations. This is why it is particularly important not to just consider Net Zero through a ‘carbon lens’ but to reflect the holistic nature of livestock systems and the benefits, risks and trade-offs that should not be ignored.
We do not, however, support the suggestion that domestically produced by- or co- product feeds that humans either cannot eat e.g. wheat straw or will not eat e.g. bakery waste, should be increased in intensive ruminant livestock diets where possible and economically viable. We recognise the potential benefits of releasing land for other crops, primarily for direct human consumption, however food by- or co-products can (and should) be used to feed monogastric animals such as pigs and poultry rather than ruminants who have evolved to eat pasture. Furthermore, the nutritional quality of meat finished on grains and concentrate feeds is reduced compared to 100% pasture finished meat (Butler et al., 2021; Davis et al., 2022). This is important when considering livestock holistically and the role they play in contributing to healthy diets that could mitigate the impacts of our current human health crisis. Instead we would encourage greater utilisation of pasture as an appropriate food source for ruminants.
EIT suggest that low profit margins within the ruminant sector means farmers need to derive economic benefits within a reasonable time frame from low carbon farming, together with and an understanding of the cost effectiveness of different solutions. This is already something that Pasture for Life (PFL) farms are delivering on. Recent research (Norton et al., 2022) found that for suckler cows – PFL farms in the middle third had a higher number of cows on average than the Farm Business Survey (FBS) benchmark. The overall average gross margin per cow for the PFL farms was considerably higher than for FBS benchmark farms. On average, the performance of the bottom 33% of PFL was comparable to the average across the FBS sample. In terms of output, the PFL farms outperformed the FBS benchmarks except when comparing the lowest performing PFL farms with the top FBS farms. The same research found for sheep, that in terms of gross margin per ewe, the average PFL farm outperformed the lowland and organic FBS averages and the top third of PFL producers were ahead of the top lowland FBS producers (both conventional and organic). The same study also provides objective evidence to support the fact that longevity of PFL membership is associated with higher levels of species richness in grassland swards as well as higher levels of participation in agri- environment schemes and many of those farms who had been members for longest tended to have higher levels of soil carbon, all of which have significant implications for profitability.
4. Expanding the network of demonstrator farms to underpin research, facilitate knowledge and accelerate transition to Net Zero.
Peer to peer knowledge exchange opportunities should absolutely sit at the heart of the agricultural sector and its journey towards a sustainable and resilient future. We are pleased that EIT recognise this and agree that technology has a role to play in supporting farmer decision making. However, investment in demonstration farms where the primary purpose is to demonstrate new technology is moving away from participatory, farmer-led knowledge sharing and social learning networks and shifts the balance of power to top-down transfer rather than exchange. Instead, investment should be balanced to ensure social capital and adaptive capacity are built within and across the sector.
5. Promote land management strategies for Net Zero.
We are fully supportive of EIT’s analysis that whilst achieving Net Zero is a key objective of the livestock sector, the implementation and uptake of low carbon practices needs to be seen within the wider context of sustainability and resilience. We agree that one solution would be transitioning to agroecological or regenerative agriculture, and would argue this is the only route to a truly sustainable and resilient future. Recognising the importance of systems that enrich soils, increase biodiversity, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystem services is at the heart of our work, and our members and certified producers are demonstrating the viability of such approaches.
The recommendations around manure management encapsulated here could make more of careful storage, particularly that which allows the timing of application to coincide with plant growth and avoid manure and slurry being regarded as waste. There are additional benefits relating to phosphorus management that are relevant here, offering other opportunities to reduce reliance on bought in inputs, for which temporal and spatial challenges are currently significant barriers (Bateman et al., 2011).
We are very supportive of the recommendations to reduce the use of imported feedstocks and optimise grazing opportunities integrated into arable systems, multi species swards and grazing management to increase grass productivity which generally increases carbon formation in the roots.
6. Ensuring a more holistic response by improving the understanding of the complexity of carbon sequestration.
We are wholly supportive of this recommendation, with one caveat, that where methods of rewarding and incentivising farmers, such as branding of low carbon meat and dairy products, so that consumers know what they are buying, are implemented that they take a holistic view and don’t just reflect carbon efficiency. In order to be holistic, these would need to reflect a range of metrics, such as found in the Global Farm Metric.
Overall, this report from EIT reflects much of our own thinking, and we are keen to contribute to their future work to ensure pastoral and pastured ruminant systems are more fully represented, particularly as the interests of those systems sit predominantly with the farmer or grazier with reduced risks of co-option or greenwashing.
Nikki Yoxall – Head of Research, Pasture for Life. With thanks to Dr Gillian Butler and Dr Pen Rashbass.
Bateman, Anna, et al. “Closing the phosphorus loop in England: the spatio-temporal balance of phosphorus capture from manure versus crop demand for fertiliser.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 55.12 (2011): 1146-1153.
Butler, G., Ali, A.M., Oladokun, S., Wang, J., Davis, H., 2021. “Forage-fed cattle point the way forward for beef?” Future Foods.” 3, 100012. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fufo.2021.100012
Butt, Bilal. “Coping with uncertainty and variability: The influence of protected areas on pastoral herding strategies in East Africa.” Human Ecology 39 (2011): 289-307.
Davis, H., Magistrali, A., Butler, G., Stergiadis, S., 2022. “Nutritional Benefits from Fatty Acids in Organic and Grass-Fed Beef.” Foods 11, 646. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11050646
Li, Yong, et al. “Impact of grazing on shaping abundance and composition of active methanotrophs and methane oxidation activity in a grassland soil.” Biology and Fertility of Soils 56 (2020): 799-810.
Norton, Lisa, et al. “Learning from innovative practitioners: Evidence for the sustainability and resilience of pasture fed livestock systems.” Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 6 (2022): 629.
Täumer, Jana, et al. “Divergent drivers of the microbial methane sink in temperate forest and grassland soils.” Global Change Biology 27.4 (2021): 929-940.
Van Zanten, Hannah HE, et al. “Defining a land boundary for sustainable livestock consumption.” Global change biology 24.9 (2018): 4185-4194.