“The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further"
The National Trust manages more than a quarter of a million hectares of land across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Around 160,000 hectares – 80% of the farmed area – is grazed by cattle and sheep. This land produces beef, lamb, milk and wool; supplying meat and dairy products that feature in National Trust restaurants and tearooms.
Traditional British beef production on the National Trust’s farmland maintains a range of landscape, economic and biodiversity benefits. However to address general concerns linking beef production with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, the Trust commissioned a study of the carbon footprint of beef production of its own farms. An investigation of ten typical tenanted beef farms was carried out by Best Foot Forward and farm business consultants Laurence Gould Partnership
Best Foot Forward was asked to examine not only the emissions from beef production but also the potential climate benefit of grass-based systems storing (or ‘sequestering’) carbon in soils. The science around this process is still uncertain and much debated – however it is potentially an important strategy for reducing greenhouse gases.
Previous beef carbon footprint studies have found that intensive grain-fed livestock can have lower emissions per kg of food than those raised on grasslands. This is because cereals are easier to digest and so result in lower methane emissions from cattle. However, these analyses have tended to ignore the potential of grasslands to store carbon in soils, reducing the overall carbon footprint.
The project results suggested the net carbon footprint of beef was reduced by as much as 94% by carbon storage in the soil. This means that grass-fed beef is potentially a more sustainable system. However more field trials are needed to confirm this – particularly whether this carbon storage can build up indefinitely, or if it reaches a saturation point.
Rob Macklin, National Agriculture and Food Adviser at the National Trust said:
“The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population. Grasslands support a range of ecosystems services including water resources, biodiversity and carbon capture and storage.”
The study also compared grass-fed Brazilian beef with UK grass-fed beef. Brazilian beef relies heavily on production from the Cerrado savannah region, and clearance of this area released huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. UK beef is much better for the environment once land use change and land management issues are taken into account.
The Best Foot Forward analysis was part of a wider research project by The National Trust which also examined the health benefits of beef and lamb fed exclusively on grass.
As a result of this work, the National Trust has been able to clarify its approach towards the grasslands it manages. It will continue to support less intensive, optimal beef production on grassland as being better for both people and the environment. It will encourage its tenant farmers that using grassland to produce food is a good way of managing carbon and protecting ecosystems, animal welfare and human health – and it will press for market mechanisms which support farmers in doing this.
Photography by Chris Lacey and NTPL.
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