Experts Respond: Major study on lamb’s carbon footprint

The first major study to look at the carbon footprint of lamb shows that each 100 gram portion of New Zealand lamb exported to Europe creates 1.9kg of CO2 equivalents and that 80 per cent of that footprint is generated on the farm.

lambThe study by Agresearch scientists suggests the large on-farm component is “broadly consistent with other international studies of products derived from farmed, ruminant livestock”. Productivity gains in New Zealand’s farming sector mean more lamb meat is produced today than in 1990 but with a 43 per cent smaller national flock.This has led to an estimated 22 per cent reduction in lamb’s carbon footprint over that time period, the researchers say.

The aim of the study was to create a carbon footprint benchmark for New Zealand lamb and identify areas that can be targeted to further reduce emissions resulting from the production and transportation of lamb.

The SMC rounded up reaction from experts on the study, which registered journalists can download from the SMC Resource Library. The report is embargoed until 2pm, Tuesday 6 April.

The study was funded by the Meat Industry Association, Ballance Agri-Nutrients and Landcorp, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s greenhouse gas footprinting strategy, with key information support provided by Meat & Wool New Zealand.

Dr Stewart Ledgard, Principal Scientist at Agresearch, lead author of the report, comments:

“This represents the first detailed study of the carbon footprint of a New Zealand meat product that covers the whole life cycle from extraction of raw materials to farm production, processing, transportation, consumption and waste stages to the UK as one of our most distant markets. It was carried out using a Life Cycle Assessment approach to meet the recent UK PAS2050 methodology, which is being used in the UK for carbon labelling. No other published studies with sheep have covered the whole life cycle. However, the estimates of the carbon footprint for the farm stage of our study are within the range of estimates in other reports, albeit that different methods were applied across the different studies thereby making direct comparison difficult. Of the total carbon footprint of 1.9 kg CO2-equivalent/kg meat, 80% was from the farm stage, with 3% from processing, 5% from transportation and 12% from the retail and consumer stages.

“In keeping with the PAS2050 methodology, the consumer travel from the butcher or supermarket stage was omitted. However, if it had been included it would have added another 7% to the total footprint, and would have been greater than that for all other transportation stages including shipping from NZ to UK.

“The study showed that the farm stage was a significant part of the total carbon footprint and most of that was from natural processes associated with sheep utilising pasture as a feed source e.g. 57% of the total footprint was from methane produced during digestion of pasture. Our analyses showed that this component of the carbon footprint has decreased by over 20% during the last 15 years as farmers have made large gains in efficiency of converting pasture to meat. There is a major research effort in NZ into options to reduce this further. We used case study farms to look at current options for further reduction and it indicated the potential for a reduction of up to 12% through practices such as increased lambing percentage and faster lamb growth rates based on achievable stretch targets. In contrast, it showed little opportunity for reduction through decreasing the use of fossil fuels on-farm since this is very small compared to that for other intensive agricultural systems.”

Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Director of Massey Agriculture at Massey University, comments:

“The Ledgard report has set a benchmark for the world in being the first comprehensive full life cycle analysis of the carbon footprint of lamb production. Other lamb-producing countries will now be attempting to prove that their emissions are lower, so the onus on New Zealand producers will be to reduce emissions in future. The report shows where these reductions could be gained, and also highlights the difficulties ahead. The major emissions are from eructation, and as Dr Harry Clark, Director of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, has said on numerous occasions, reducing GHG emissions from ruminant animals is a huge challenge as it requires changing the natural biology and behaviour of animals.

“Rumen research is continuing, and the announcement that low-methane sheep have been identified provides the basis for flock selection.

“In the meantime, farmers can assist in keeping the carbon footprint low by managing pastures to maintain clover content, hence minimising the need for carbon-expensive urea, and marketers can assist by promoting New Zealand lamb as produced efficiently. Professor Gareth Edwards Jones, from Bangor University, has calculated that pre-farm gate, Welsh Lamb uses 39% more carbon per Kg product in production; post-farm gate, the figure is still 22% higher.

“For the Ledgard team, the next step might be to repeat the exercise for lamb from other countries… except that comparisons merely invite an attempt to ‘prove wrong’.

“New Professor of Agribusiness at Massey University, Hamish Gow, believes that in order to gain a high-value future, New Zealand’s marketing must be overt in indicating ‘responsible production’. “Low footprint production is insufficient to create a marketing advantage,” says Professor Gow. “We need a bundle of validated and verified concepts to create high-value opportunities. We also need a brand story that can be presented by manufacturers and retailers. ID preservation and full trace-back to farms is fundamental in this.”

“The Ledgard report gives the data that verify statements on ‘clean and green’; the brand story is the next challenge.”

Dr Peter Amer, from AbacusBio Ltd comments:

“This report signals important further steps in clarifying the greenhouse gas emissions hot spots for a key New Zealand industry. This is valuable in dealing with food miles rhetoric, whereby some have claimed that it is environmentally irresponsible for consumers in the European market to buy New Zealand lamb. With this study showing less than 5% of emissions associated with transport, we potentially have a strong platform to promote our product on the basis of lower baseline emissions and greater ongoing declines in emissions, than products of our competitors.

“With 80% of emissions for lamb traced back to the sheep farm, improvements in emissions and a stronger market point of differences will need to be driven by incentivisation structures at farm level to encourage adoption of new technologies as they come on stream.

“One way to incentivise lower emissions per unit of product without blanket bureaucracy would be to allow farmers to opt-in to a financial rewards scheme at farm business level with proof of lower emissions from their farming system. Well organized and motivated farmers on medium to large sized farms opting in and reducing emissions would be the innovators leading a change in industry farming practices. A healthy tension would arise in that benefits to these farmers would need to offset the bureaucratic costs. This would be an excellent test of on-farm emissions reducing technologies and practices, while at the same time driving efficiency in the development of emissions assessment and auditing practices.”

Mark Aspin, Manager of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium:

“The Consortium acknowledges the analysis of the full carbon footprint for Lamb identifying the on farm component as being the largest contributor. The nature of ruminant digestion and its co – products Nitrous Oxide and Methane, means that they are significant in GHG terms, and is common to all of these LCA types of assessments. The consortium programme of work has since 2002 endeavoured to understand the production of these gases at a fundamental level and use that knowledge to develop lasting effective mitigations for them. Methane is regarded in this context as a waste of energy ( 6-11%) and therefore also presents an opportunity to enhance the productivity of ruminants.

“Currently the consortium has advanced options in the reduction of methane through livestock selection, screening for small molecule inhibitors of the microbes responsible for its production and a methane vaccine concept that could reduce methane from ruminant livestock. With respect to Nitrous Oxide, the application of nitrification inhibitors to soils has been shown to be highly effective in reducing these emissions, they are currently being evaluated across the dairy industry, application to the sheep industry with its variable terrain still presents a challenge. The full programme of work within the PGgRc also includes farm system and forage research as well.

“Alongside the science investment our farmers are increasing there understanding of how non- CO2 GHG gases are produced on farm and this will position us better to apply solutions when they become available. The current estimates for delivering solutions for methane is 7 years, given that they firstly have to be proven to be effective in reducing methane and or Nitrous Oxide in grazing ruminants, be neutral or enhance productivity and lastly be able to be delivered and administered in a cost effective manner. This will all take time. Even though this is a challenging situation as the consortium makes progress we will be striving to reduce this time frame through strongly focused investment. The recent opening of the NZ Agricultural greenhouse gas centre and the Governments Global Research Alliance will also enhance our progress through increased resources and collaboration.”

Jon Hickford, Associate Professor in Animal Breeding and Genetics at Lincoln University:

“The low transport proportion of “cost” would appear to be on the mark, and this will probably get even better with time as the store lamb market diminishes and more farmers finish their lambs to slaughter. Fuel costs then become primarily pasture maintenance (fertiliser/lime application, resowing) feed costs (baleage/sileage/supplementary feed costs), farm bikes/trucks and a one-way ticket to the works. When you ship chilled meat and it tenderises in the three weeks or so it takes to get to market, then even the cost of shipping fuel oil is quite low.

“NZ sheep farmers don’t use a lot of nitrogen-based fertiliser – hence a low GHG footprint – and most lamb production is now coming off uncultivateable hill country – aerial topdressed with lime/sulphur and super-phosphate and rarely so given the low returns they are getting for lamb!

“Reducing the on-farm 80% – not easy – with ruminant animals. Feed improvements will allow small incremental gain as will getting better growth rates to slaughter, but beyond that I am unaware of any major improvements that can be made.”