Neil Parish MP leads debate on carbon footprint of the cattle and sheep sector

Neil Parish leads a Parliamentary debate on the methodologies currently used to calculate the carbon footprint of the cattle and sheep sector in the UK and how to help the sector meet the twin challenges of sustainable food production and of reducing the environmental impact.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this timely debate on the report on the carbon footprint of the cattle and sheep sector by the all-party parliamentary group on beef and lamb.I also thank my fellow committee members, especially the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for attending the oral evidence sessions that we held as part of our four-month long inquiry and for their assistance in compiling the report.

The all-party group wanted to examine the methodologies currently used to calculate the carbon footprint of the sector in the UK and globally and how the data are used to inform the measures being taken to reduce emissions.The report, which we launched in Parliament earlier this month, found that more robust scientific data and a standard model to measure carbon sequestration were needed to help the beef and lamb sector meet the twin challenges of sustainable food production and of reducing the environmental impact. It also found that the positive environmental impact of grazing livestock must be taken into account when trying to mitigate the sector’s carbon footprint.

Our inquiry found that a large number of models are used to assess the carbon footprint. Professor Nigel Scollan of Waitrose told the group at the evidence session that 16 methodologies for measuring the carbon footprint of livestock have been developed since 2007 alone. The PAS 2050 model, which was developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institute, is the standard model used by DEFRA. However, in the evidence session, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which acts as an advisory body to the Government, stated that its accepted method for calculating production emissions is set out by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.There is a clear lack of consensus or consistency, which raises two crucial points. First, there is a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions. Secondly, any debate going on at an international level is not based on comparable data. For example, in England, the footprint of beef cattle, according to the PAS 2050 used by DEFRA was 12.65 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and for sheep it was 11.86 kg.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research that has been carried out in Northern Ireland? The greenhouse gas implementation partnership seems to agree with him that there is still a body of research yet to be carried out. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast, which is working with DEFRA and the department of agriculture and fisheries for Scotland, says as part of that research that the ongoing challenges of the inclement weather present a problem.

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Thank you for that. We will keep interventions a little shorter in future.

Neil Parish: The hon. Lady is right, because climatic conditions will make a difference. The amount of time that an animal takes to finish grazing to become fat also makes a difference, as does the time taken to finish an animal for meat production. All such things have to be taken into consideration. Of course there are a number of ways to measure carbon.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): In my hon. Friend’s calculations, will he make reference to the transportation of meat once it has been processed through an abattoir? For example, moving beef from South America to Europe using aviation fuel enormously increases the carbon footprint.

Neil Parish: Indeed. When we import meat from South America, Australia or New Zealand, we should take into account the length of time that it takes to get here, especially if it comes by air. Of course, if it comes by sea, it is argued that the carbon footprint is not as large, but it is there none the less. That is why local home-produced food that travels very little distance to the abattoir and that is grazed nicely on good permanent pasture must be of great benefit to all the United Kingdom.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I applaud both the fact that we are having this debate and the work that my hon. Friend and his committee have done. Does he agree that, while this is a legitimate debate for us to have, our fundamental job in the House is to stand up and support our beef and sheep farmers?

Neil Parish: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The purpose of this inquiry and report is to look at the benefits of producing grass-fed beef and lamb, to keep sustainable grass pasture and to produce very good meat. We would not necessarily want or be able to plough such land, and a huge amount of carbon is captured within the soil. We took some evidence that showed that over years of permanent pasture the carbon actually increases, so there are many good reasons for producing this high-quality beef and lamb.

I will, if I may, continue with my contribution. The footprint of sheep, according to the PAS 2050, is 11.86 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight. The comparative figures for Wales were 7.51 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and 8.6 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight.

As that has demonstrated, even within a country, there is significant variation in the statistics and no way to determine whether they were driven by different efficiencies or by different ways of producing data. That makes any form of comparative assessment of carbon footprint challenging and poses major difficulties for policy formulation. There is no international consensus on sequestration—the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by pasture land through a process of absorption and deposition in the soil, which acts as a carbon sink. In essence, that is a natural form of carbon capture and storage.The importance of including carbon sequestration is highlighted by Mr Bill Grayson, a producer who gave evidence to the inquiry. He ran four models on his farm’s emissions. The PAS 2050 model, which does not include sequestration, concluded that his farm was a net emitter. The other three methods, which include sequestration, put his farm as a net absorber of carbon. Evidently such significant differences make sensible policy development almost impossible.

Mr Spencer: My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I hope that he recognises that we need to view this matter globally. It makes no sense to allow UK farmers to plant trees and remove land from beef production to then allow South American farmers to tear up rain forests to produce beef and to ship it around the world, so that it sits on supermarket shelves next to UK-produced beef.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises another important issue. I have visited Brazil, where people are ploughing up a lot of the savannah and planting soya bean and sugar beet and driving cattle towards the rain forests and allowing them to partly destroy the rain forests before people cut down the trees. So it is absolutely essential that we produce in this country high-quality beef and lamb, so that we do not need as many imports; that is absolutely clear. I will go on to talk a little more about those examples shortly.

I want to highlight the methodology used to produce the figures. Achieving consistency in the figures used should be viewed as one of the top priorities for the industry and the Government, who should work in partnership. We urge Ministers and officials at DEFRA to accelerate work at both the EU level and with international bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, to seek global consensus in an agreed methodology.

For example, if we compare the impact of livestock in the UK and in France using nationally-produced data, our producers will be hugely disadvantaged because French data will include sequestration. It is not very often that I ask a Minister to look at a French system, but on this occasion I will. We urge him to look into this issue as a priority and—if we are to see greater co-operation between nations in our effort to respond to environmental and food challenges—to migrate to the model accepted in France. If the Government do not view this as a viable course of action, they need to make a robust case to say why not. The disparity built into the status quo is no longer acceptable in a global debate, because we debate carbon across the whole world and we need to measure it in a similar way.The report also highlighted other weaknesses in the current life-cycle analysis in the model that DEFRA uses, in addition to its exclusion of sequestration. It is well documented and understood that grazing livestock plays a major role in the management of our landscape; I think that all hon. Members from all parties in the House would recognise that. That view is supported by the English National Park Authorities Association and Natural England, which rightly point out that the landscape value generated by upland farming has an economic benefit to the area, owing to the tourism and business revenue extracted, and that grassland management is important to maximise upland areas’ efficiency as a carbon sink.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene, and I do so only to ask him to agree that that issue is particularly relevant to Wales. There is almost no cereal growing in Wales that is worth talking about; in Wales, farming is almost wholly livestock farming. Livestock farming in Wales is so important that it completely dominates the agricultural scene there.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend refers to the amount of permanent pasture in Wales. Much of the land may well be too steep to be ploughed, and from an environmental point of view, we would not want to plough it. I do not wish to over-labour this point, but if we are not going to graze livestock on that pasture, what are we actually going to do to manage that land successfully? So livestock farming is not only important from an aesthetic point of view; it produces great meat and it does a great service for the landscape. So I very much agree with him. Parts of the west country and the north of England likewise have much permanent pasture.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to something that he might find interesting, which is the reintroduction of the little-known Welsh White beef cattle up on the Plynlimon hills with the Wildlife Trusts? The reason that those cattle have been reintroduced in those areas, which are vital for holding carbon emissions in peat bogs, is that they trample the right sort of way—better than sheep—in that environment and they eat the right sort of vegetation to keep the biodiversity right as well. So the Welsh White cattle are doing a good job up there.

Neil Parish: The shadow Minister raises an interesting issue about not only carbon sequestration but the management of grassland, but not only Welsh White cattle are important in that regard; there is an argument that sheep do not do the same job on certain pasture land as suckler cows and beef cattle do. That is perhaps the subject for a debate for another time, but it is relevant to the fact that, if we are to have good-quality grassland, we need the right type of stock to graze it.

The inquiry found that no current methodology exists to include this factor in an assessment of carbon footprint, despite the fact the loss of hedgerows and pasture land, for example, would evidently impact on the amount of carbon removed from the air. Of course, more carbon would also be emitted if that pasture land were to be destroyed.Grazing livestock, particularly on uplands, makes a valuable contribution to biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems. For example, hedgerows provide wonderful habitats for many species that are vital for the diversity of fauna and flora. As numerous witnesses pointed out, it is important to bear that in mind when considering the overall environmental impact of agriculture. Quantifying the carbon value of biodiversity is incredibly difficult and is not something that life-cycle analysis takes into account. The evidence suggests that it will be a major challenge to find an agreed way of quantifying this benefit in the short or medium term. This exposes the weaknesses of simply looking at carbon footprint as a measure of environmental impact, and we urge the Minister to consider this point.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Like me, he was a farmer before first entering the House and as farmers we are used to getting the blame for a lot of things. There are certainly environmental consequences to certain farming practices, but does he share my disbelief that farmers are in the dock for—of all things—causing climate change and being responsible for it, given that we all know that the real problems with carbon come from the transport sector, energy generation and general industrialisation rather than from farming?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend and I should probably both declare an interest; I should certainly do so as I am a farmer, and proud to be so. He is absolutely right, because what we have with methane gas from ruminants in particular is a very natural gas. It may come out perhaps too much for people’s liking, but it is very much there. We are taking lower-quality proteins—I had better be careful what I say—and developing them into high-quality meat. Therefore, the animal is doing a great deal of good, and I want to balance the amount of methane gas that the animals might produce compared with the amount of carbon that is kept in the land. I repeat the fact that if we do not keep that land as permanent pasture and plough it up, we will release an awful lot of carbon.

Farmers feel that the real basis of livestock farming is almost under threat. The whole idea of this report is perhaps to try to flag up in advance where the world might go to in a few years’ time, and that scenario is what I am particularly keen to avoid.

People need to know the benefits of livestock farming.I will move on to the next paragraph of the report. Food security is one of the most pressing issues for Governments across the world. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9 billion, and food production will need to increase to meet growing demand. However, that has to be achieved using the existing agricultural land, while making more efficient use of water and mitigating the existing and future impact of farming on the environment.

The challenge is no less great on the home front, with the UK population set to increase by 10 million in the next quarter of a century alone and after the percentage of agricultural land in the UK fell from 39% in 1989 to some 25% in 2009. This means maximising the value of available land, by getting the best possible outcomes in terms of food production. British agricultural land comprises many different land types, and not all are suitable for the production of arable crops. This point was eloquently made by the food climate research network in its evidence to the all-party group:“Not all land can support crop production and the question then arises—what should be done with this poorer quality, more marginal land? Traditionally the answer has been to graze ruminants which then provide us with meat, milk and other outputs. This represents a form of resource efficiency—the land is being used to produce food that would otherwise need to be produced elsewhere”

That is particularly important.Almost 65% of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass where sheep and cattle are grazed. We should be utilising this marginal land, which cannot be used for arable crops but can grow good grass and provide good biodiversity and environmental benefits. Beef cattle and sheep play a vital role in food production, because of their ability to turn non-human food into edible proteins and nutrients. Limiting the role of British livestock will reduce the efficiency with which we use our land for food production and will therefore reduce our ability to be self-sufficient.

These points are often neglected, or at least not adequately considered, by those who advocate meat-free diets. If, for argument’s sake, we were all to switch to a diet free of meat, much of our agricultural land would be unfarmed and we would see a considerable drop in the efficiency of our land to food conversion, in addition to the negative impacts on biodiversity, as outlined above.

When the developing world is eating more meat, and choosing to do so, there is a greater need to produce meat across the world. Therefore, Britain should do its fair share of meat production, and grazing both sheep and cattle on grassland is essential, in my view. Grazing cattle and sheep are often given disproportionate blame for carbon emissions from agriculture, and there is not enough recognition among some conservation groups of the role that livestock farming, particularly of grass-fed beef and lamb, plays in storing carbon, protecting biodiversity and utilising marginal land that cannot be used for arable crops.

I thank you for listening to this debate, Mrs Brooke, and open it to colleagues to join in.| Hansard