Current technologies can only deliver 19% of the livestock sector’s carbon reduction target by 2035, claims an independent report. Therefore, significant investment into innovation will be needed to achieve the remaining 81% over the subsequent 15 years to the Committee for Climate Change’s 2050 net zero target – while the NFU intends to reach net zero by 2040.

The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), one of the four Innovate UK agritech centres, commissioned the Net Zero Carbon & UK Livestock Report which will be used to inform the debate about climate change and the role livestock can play to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming.

Dr Elizabeth Magowan from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), coordinated the report which is written by environmental, climate and livestock scientists from eight UK research institutions, with endorsements from a further six.

The report finds that the livestock sector’s emissions can be reduced by a mix of lowering carbon footprints through locally produced feeds and fertilisers, while maximising on-farm carbon capture through soils, hedgerows and woodland. The report sets out eight key areas for action, including the use of novel and alternative feeds; addressing nitrogen fertiliser use; smart technologies and precision systems; and improving efficiency.

While these will need significant investment, this should be shared across the whole food chain, while education will be crucial to cascade research findings and innovation to practical farm level.

“The report represents a widely agreed summary of the current research available on greenhouse gas emissions from the main farmed livestock species in the UK – with interpretation and a number of recommendations from leading livestock, environmental and climate scientists,” says CIEL chief executive Lyndsay Chapman.

“We wanted the report to review current knowledge and identify areas where there are gaps in our ability to measure or achieve the target reductions in emissions set for UK agriculture. We also wanted to provide benchmarks for the carbon footprint of farmed livestock, hotspots where the greatest emissions occur and where there are opportunities to focus future efforts to reduce emissions.”

Professor Bob Rees of Scotland’s Rural College emphasises the need for new innovations to further reduce emissions beyond the levels that currently known mitigation strategies will deliver.

“Livestock farming is an integral part of UK agriculture, our landscape and food systems, but it’s a complex system involving flows of carbon, nitrogen, water and atmospheric gases,” he says. “In order to help balance the reduction in emissions with the production of high-quality nutritious food, a combination of strategies is needed.

“These must consider all dimensions of sustainable agriculture including carbon efficiency, soil health, animal health and welfare, and much more. And for that we need more innovation, collaboration and widespread adoption,” he observes.

“The report should be used by all parties in the wider supply chain and policymakers to inform debate and complement the good work already being carried out elsewhere in the sector,” states Dr Magowan.

“It is a call to action. While the industry is making steps in the right direction, the ambition to achieve the UK’s target is huge and known technologies and practices can only get us part of the way. The report concludes that a combination of greater investment (resources, intellectual capital and financial), improved carbon accounting and education resulting in adoption, are required for the UK livestock industry to achieve its net zero carbon goal within the next 30 years,” she concludes.