Working towards a common goal

The government has made it clear to industry that there needs to be a collaborative approach to combating emissions and tackling climate change. So is progress being made, how achievable are the goals set and what are the drivers behind this change? Our latest Big Debate panel discusses the issues

Richard Lowe: There has been an absolute plethora of reports and press coverage on the subject of meat and climate change, especially since the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow Report came out. So we’ve had four or five years of intense debate on the topic, and it has been top of the agenda for many of us. Andrew, it would be great to have a short summary of where the government stands.

Andrew McWhir: The big one is the challenge of reducing 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Targets have been set for the first three five-year carbon budget periods up to 2022, and these relate to a saving of around 7% of emissions from agriculture in England or a figure of about 3mt of greenhouse gas equivalent emissions. There are two significant dates for the government in 2011: in April or May the government will respond to the Climate Change Committee’s report from December and set the level for the fourth carbon budget; then in the autumn, the government will say how it plans in detail to meet its obligations.
We look forward to seeing Bpex’s roadmap. We have ongoing work with Eblex, particularly following on from part two of their roadmap, and we have our ongoing relationships with Mark [Driscoll] and his colleagues in the environmental community, so there is a lot going on.

Lowe: On a scale of 1-10, how pleased are you with the degree of engagement from the meat and livestock industry in signing up with some common actions?

McWhir: I’m not going to put a figure on it — that would come back to haunt me. But this government is committed to a partnership approach with industry. It wants to see industry taking responsibility and delivering, and it will do whatever it can to support that. We’ve seen significant progress in the willingness of the industry to step forward and say, “We will take on the challenges.” But also, as the minister has made clear, with the opportunity to self-regulate comes the responsibility to make it happen, so the government will be reviewing the action plan in 2012.

Lowe: Tom and Mark, do you think the UK meat livestock industry is doing enough to address the issues?

Tom MacMillan: The issues divide into two. One half is about environmental efficiency and, on that count, there is a huge amount going on. All the roadmaps are very encouraging and it is fantastic to see that kind of initiative and leadership within the sector.
The area that has proved more difficult is the other half. For example, if we follow a route of trying to mitigate climate change and reduce emissions, mainly through efficiency, where are the limits? And also what compromises will we have to make along the way in terms of other things people may care about, be it animal welfare issues, or to do with diversity of plant and animal species. Those sets of issues are difficult, because they inevitably lead down the route of asking bigger social questions about how we consume, and which, on the face of it, appear much more threatening to the industry. That has proved much more difficult, so that’s the bit we have been concentrating on.

Mark Driscoll: If you talk to our colleagues across the globe, they actually look to the industry’s roadmaps as a good example. So in many ways, the UK industry is quite ahead of the game. Like Tom, we look at emissions across the whole value chain — all the way through from gate through to final end consumption. We believe we have to work collaboratively with the industry to reduce emissions; the more that can be done in terms of product efficiencies, better on-farm management and better management of waste, the less that needs to be done in terms of some of the more difficult consumption-based emissions. But we will need to work collaboratively on a constructive debate to discuss some of those consumption emissions.
Certainly, agriculture has a really important part to play; by 2050 we need to reduce emissions by at 
least 70% to meet the targets under the Climate Change Act. There 
is no silver bullet. De-carbonising the economy is going to take us quite a long way there and improved efficiencies in 
agricultural production is another important step. But we are not going to meet those 70% targets unless we also deal with some of the consumption drivers.
Our ‘How Low’ report looks at our consumption-based emissions, but we often forget indirect emissions through things like land-use change. If you look at food across the whole chain, 20% of our total emissions are made up through direct emissions, but another 10% are added — for example, livestock production in Brazil as a driver of land-use change through deforestation.

Lowe: James, can I maybe take a wider view from you? Is there a growing intensity among, say, retailers to do more life-cycle analysis?

James Cadman: Many of our clients, not just retailers, are considering the impact of both their own operations and the whole value chain right back to source. For some products it is very complex, but the benefit, as they see it, is they not only have an idea of where they can reduce carbon emissions, but whether it is a key driver financially too. They can understand where they are getting their product from and what provenance it has in terms of a whole range of sustainable, ethical, environmental issues. Many of our clients come to us on carbon, but, along that journey, get information on a whole range of other topics. On top of that they know what the carbon impact of a product is and, importantly, which parts of the supply chain create most of that carbon. It’s a very useful body of information that can help them develop their supply chains, but also inform their consumers and their suppliers about working collaboratively on how to improve the situation.
Lowe: Can I play Devil’s advocate? There have been public statements by a certain retailer that, by a certain date, we will have got carbon footprint quantification on X number of products and those time scales have slipped or things have obviously not happened. Is that because it has slipped down the corporate agenda, or is it because getting into this very young science is a lot more complicated than people thought it was going to be?

Cadman: The quick answer is the second one. A lot of work is still being done to drive forward, gaining some understanding of carbon impacts. Now whether people put a label on the product or just publish them on their website is really not the issue — it is more the understanding of the process in the supply chain. There is still a keenness to do this from many retailers, especially the ones we work with, but what has been realised over the past few years, is the amount of information we require to get something reliable and robust is pretty intense. It takes a lot of time and effort and, with the current economic climate, there are many other things that have a higher priority.

Lowe: And do you think they’ll ever nail that? Reading Eblex’s roadmap 2, the difference in carbon emissions equivalent per kilo of beef was 900%, out of 50 farms. With the best will in the world, how is that ever going to be resolved?

Cadman: I can understand that. There are probably two strategies. To have an average is very useful, so people can get an idea of where the main impacts lie. If you then want to go along and help your suppliers, or work with them to reduce where they are now and get it to something a bit lower, you need to get a bit more site-specific. You can go into as much detail as you want. But if you take it to the next stage and get a bit better, you reduce that variance, that range.

Lowe: Stephen, what’s your members’ perspective on this whole issue? Do they see it as a livestock issue rather than a meat processing issue? Or is it a case of, “Hey, we need to know more about this because our retail members are starting to ask us to take more interest”.

Stephen Rossides: It is both. The forward-looking ones have recognised they are part of a food chain, and while the processing sector is not a huge emitter of greenhouse gases, they are part of the sector. If the livestock industry is under pressure from environmental groups, that is in their interests. They will respond to their customers, but it varies; some of them are more forward-looking than others, and do understand this is a very real issue. The debate is becoming more balanced. The issues are much more complicated than those people talked about three years ago, when they said, “All livestock production is bad”. My industry tends to look at the production elements and it seems to be a no-brainer that achieving production efficiency is sound from both an environmental and a business point of view, so there is a clear match there.
We are all challenged by the consumption side of things — it is a part of the equation — but my industry instinctively feels defensive and challenged by the “Eat less meat, save the world” approach. It is an issue we need to look at, but 
we need to do so not just in UK national terms, but in a European and global sense as well, otherwise you just feel the effort is just being made here.
So the industry feels under threat — there are competition issues, not just within the UK but across Europe, and they feel threatened by those. But they do need to respond, on both sides, from the primary production side and the retailers.

Driscoll: That’s partly the advantage of taking a consumption-based approach, because the last thing we want to deal with is offshore emissions in other parts of the world. We do need to look at this issue globally, but the UK can show leadership in terms of the industry and there is a lot of good stuff going on.
Organisations like WWF do say that, in the developed world, we have to look at diets and modifying meat consumption. But in other parts of the world, people haven’t got access to adequate nutrition, and livestock will play a role there. That’s why a global perspective is important.

Lowe:  Mick and Chris, do those sorts of spreads exist in the pig industry and, just looking at the crude meat averages, it’s clear the poultry and pig meat industries have a lower GHG emission cost than red meat, so do you think there is an opportunity for the pig industry to promote itself as a low-carbon meat?

Mick Sloyan: Pigs have a reasonably low-carbon impact. What is overlooked is that the traditional role of pigs has been recycling food waste products in this country — everything from whey to broken biscuits. We did a bit of work and we reckon one-third by volume of all food fed to pigs in the UK is actually a co-product, Now that is not recognised at the moment in the calculations, because they all say, “Well here is how you feed a pig, here’s the ration, multiply one by the other, and this is the carbon footprint.” But the pig industry finds itself in a situation where its impact, particularly on greenhouse gases, is somewhat lower.
One particularly lazy area of argument is: “Everybody knows we need soya to feed pigs, and soya all comes from Brazil, and the only way of growing soya is by chopping down the rainforests.” But when you actually look at the facts, 10% of our diets is now soya and we have been using agro-proteins as best we can to replace that.
The whole issue of why deforestation occurs, particularly in South America and Brazil, is very complex. It is very difficult to grow soya in deforested areas, but if the Brazilian government had been doing what they said, then they should have stopped all that. One argument I get increasingly concerned about is “You are ploughing up the cerrado, which used to be virgin untouched land”. But at the World Meat Congress in Brazil, the Brazilians turned round, justifiably, and said, “Hang on, didn’t you plough the mid-west in America however many years ago? Now you’re telling us we cannot get at our own natural resources to develop our area?” You might see some effect on biodiversity, not anything like the scale you’ve got in the Amazon, but it kind of becomes an urban myth. So I agree with James that trying to get a methodology on which we can all agree is vital.

Lowe: Chris, John, could you pick up that point about whether there is an opportunity for the pig industry to promote pig meat as being a more ‘carbon friendly’.

John Howard: I would be concerned about that. We have a very complex problem and I am heartened to hear Mark and Tom talk about more engagement with the industry. Like Stephen, I am a bit more relaxed about the way the public debate is being handled. To me the key is that we all have to look at our business and work out what we can do. The scientific community is still at loggerheads with one another. We all quote this magical figure of 18%, which was used in the original FAO report in 2006, but I have seen bodies of evidence to say that’s too high and others that say that’s too low. So we still have a lot of homework to do, and I prefer that we do this rather than leap into making possibly extravagant claims about a limited aspect of what we are doing. I don’t think that’s helpful.
Danish producers have had to grapple with a lot of political pressure. Since 1985, Danish pig farmers have had to have slurry storage tanks with nine-month capacity and the rest of Europe is only just starting to introduce that. So we can all point at various things, but I don’t think this is an area where we need to indulge in point-scoring. We have just got to get on and roll our sleeves up.

Lowe: Do you share that view, Chris? Because one way to make this really impact is to unleash the free market, unleash those forces of competition, so that retailer A says, “My meat’s more climate-friendly that retailer B’s.”

Chris Lamb: To a certain extent I do. We are talking about a highly detailed area — on top of which, it is new science. It is not as if it is something like the laws of physics laws that have been around for God knows how many years. It’s developing all the time. As such, the average consumer doesn’t understand very much of the detail; they get the big messages, but in terms of the detail and understanding, they don’t get it, How much of that can, or should be communicated is almost irrelevant, because, this is an issue that is about a push on consumers, rather than a pull from consumers. At some point in the future, consumers are going to start understanding it, and there will start to be that consumer pull. At the moment, it’s a complex subject, people aren’t understanding it, and messages such as actually pigs and poultry being better than beef and lamb can start to evolve. But for pigs and poultry to go out and try and make a consumer message of “Save the world, eat more pigs and poultry” is not at all relevant.

Ed Bedington: Is there a danger that, if we don’t get to grips with this, and we do start to see the retailers using this as a marketing tool, we are going to muddy the waters even further?

MacMillan: That is quite a risk. It is very hard to communicate accurately along the supply chain what the impact of a specific product is to the consumer at the other end, so if you are looking to retailers to compete like that, then it becomes very difficult.
What that raises is a more general question about how do we, both at the consumption end and the production ends, grapple with the fact that not only is the science still developing, but that it will always be, in some respects, an inaccurate science. Of course, some aspects of uncertainty will be reduced as we invest more in research.

Bedington: Perhaps this is a mindset thing, as in we are looking at this in a fairly ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ negative way. Maybe we need to think about the opportunities some of this presents. We could be talking about an agricultural revolution, or a revolution in the way that we are producing and consuming and manufacturing this food. Maybe those who are smarter, cleverer, those who stay in the forefront of this are the ones who will adapt and survive. Perhaps we need to start thinking of this along those terms.

Richard Lowe: So, to wrap things up, you said about six times today in various contexts that the happy coincidence between business efficiency and environmental efficiency is hugely valuable. It means you can turn a lot of people on to improving their environmental footprint without them realising they are doing so, because you can pull other levers — and the pound note is the best lever most people have got.