A global approach will help the livestock industry meet net carbon targets to mitigate climate change, according to speakers at this month’s British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) virtual annual conference, calling for greater collaboration between links in the supply chain, between sectors and internationally.

At a keynote session sponsored by Devenish Nutrition, speakers from the UK, Brazil, Africa and Australia agreed that the major issues restricting the UK’s progress in the move to net zero were neither unique to the UK nor to a specific sector of UK agriculture. These factors included the development of new technologies to reduce carbon footprints; the acceleration of the widescale uptake of current and new technologies to mitigate greenhouse gas production; and the need to communicate more effectively with the wider population.

Consequently, there will be significant benefits from adopting a joined-up approach with increased collaboration both within the UK and globally.

Quoting a recent Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) report, Dr Elizabeth Magowan from Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) stressed the integrated nature of the challenge. She said agriculture currently accounts for 10% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gases with two thirds of this coming from livestock. She anticipated that the proportion attributed to agriculture will increase as other sectors, such as transport, successfully implement mitigation measures and low carbon solutions.

“This means the focus will remain on agriculture, Dr Magowan warned. “Increasing efficiency is a major way for most businesses to work towards net zero and also improve profitability. But it is estimated that a high uptake of current technologies will only achieve a 19% reduction – and history shows a sub-optimal uptake of technologies proven to increase efficiency and profitability while reducing emissions.

“But herein lies a dilemma,” she continued. “Systems with lower emissions are often less well-received by the consumer on welfare grounds. Housed dairy cows have a lower carbon impact per litre than extensively grazed cows. Free range poultry, whether broilers or layers, have a higher CO2 impact than housed birds. We also know that housed animals can be associated with higher ammonia levels.”

Dr Magowan stressed the need to embrace new technologies. These promise to reduce waste through precision farming techniques; to develop new methods of fertiliser formulation to reduce nitrous oxide; and include approaches to increase carbon sequestration. But at the heart of improvement must be a common approach to carbon accounting that include the full implications of on-farm mitigation and carbon offsetting. And then farmers must be brought on board and helped to make the changes.

All countries face similar issues and challenges, stressed Michael Battaglia from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO. Therefore, carbon reduction must be seen as a global approach. “Approaches in one country or region can work effectively in other countries so sharing of experiences is crucial if the global issues are to be addressed.

“Take the development of novel supplements to increase ruminant productivity while cutting methane production. In Australia, common red seaweed (asparagopsis) has been used successfully as a feed additive, reducing enteric methane output in beef units.

“It occurs in many countries and while it has not been grown commercially at scale yet, significant developments and small sale production is either underway or in development in Australia, the EU, Canada, Vietnam, the US and New Zealand. Production platforms include land-based tanks and ponds as well as ocean farming.”

Silvopasture, where trees are planted in grazing areas to increase carbon storage while providing shelter for animals, has been employed successfully in South America, advised Alexandre Berndt of Brazils R&D organisation EMBRAPA. It is another technology that could be implemented as part of the UK’s armoury of mitigation technologies. Whatever technologies are employed, they need to be easily implemented if farmers are to adopt them at a time when margins are being squeezed.

“As we learned from Polly Ericksen of Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), livestock production delivers multiple public goods including improving nutrition and human health,” observed Dr John Gilliland, director of global agriculture and sustainability at Devenish.

“Meeting the 2050 net zero target is going to require the whole industry to work together to drive efficiency and ensure new technologies are used effectively across all sectors, making use of developments from elsewhere in the world.

“At the same time, it will be essential that global teams work together to achieve these targets and communicate with society, so they understand the steps taken by the industry to deliver the food required while protecting the environment,” Dr Gilliland concluded.