Long read: How farming can be net-zero in three decades

Ambitious new targets challenge the farming industry to be net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions within three decades, but what will the poultry sector have to do to get there?

By Michael Barker

Former US president Barack Obama summed it up perfectly at the Glacier conference in Alaska in 2015: “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.” Fast-forward four years, and it is Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who is in the vanguard of the environmental protection movement. The point is simple, and it is that climate change is an issue for everyone, young and old, from the backwaters of Scandinavia to the corridors of global power.

The British government has taken note, and threw down the gauntlet in June after the Committee on Climate Change recommended the nation becomes net-zero in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. That ambition is now coming into law, with the date set at 2045 for Scotland, and a 95% reduction in GHGs in Wales slated for 2050.

To some, the target already seemed optimistic, but the NFU has doubled down by proclaiming that improvements in productivity, carbon capture and renewable energy production could help the farming industry achieve the goal a full decade earlier, by 2040. It’s an ambitious aim, but is it realistic, and what will poultry and egg producers have to do to get there?

Jenny Clark, assurance manager for LEAF, says it is important to be ambitious and encourage real change, but warned that targets must be realistic and achievable for all of the industry in order to avoid a “race to the bottom”. “As an industry, we should be setting targets that encourage continual improvement – a crucial element of the Integrated Farm Management principles that underpin the LEAF Marque environmental system.”

The NFU believes that methane reduction can come from animal dietary changes and better breeding techniques, as well as improving soil health through increased organic matter. It says “farming smarter” will be key.

Glenn Evans, group environmental health and safety manager at Noble Foods, believes that the goal is achievable, but it will require a rapid change in the way business is done. “Companies will need to plan much further into the future in order to achieve the reduction in carbon required, and this will require substantial investment,” he explains. “As an industry, we need to move away from the outdated belief that we should wait for others to implement these measures first. We need to act quickly and lead the charge as the time we have is limited.”

There needs to be government support too, says Evans, in the shape of policy and legislative change backed by a level playing field that allows farm businesses to stay competitive throughout the transition. Renewable energy subsidies must be reintroduced and investment made in renewable infrastructure, he adds, as well as off-farm work such as the pursuit of hydrogen cell technology in the transport and logistics sector.

The government is certainly looking to take an active role in ensuring the farming industry plays its part, and to that end the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs committee announced an enquiry in August into how to get agriculture to net-zero by 2050 while also maintaining food production levels. Strong action may be forthcoming, but committee chair Neil Parish emphasised the enquiry is looking to establish practical ways that agriculture can achieve net-zero emissions, and how farming communities can best be supported to get there. It will be collaborative rather than combative.

Farming’s main adverse environmental impacts come from GHGs in the form of methane from livestock digestion processes and stored animal manure, as well as nitrous oxide from organic and mineral nitrogen fertilisers. There’s a danger, though, that poultry can get bundled up in criticism levelled at the wider agricultural industry, when the truth is that red meat and dairy production are responsible for far higher emissions. According to figures from the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT), a UK-based network set up for farmers to connect with one another and reduce their carbon footprint, poultry and eggs produce around half the GHG emissions per kilo of pork and approximately a fifth compared to a kilo of red meat, due to the methane emitted from ruminant production systems.

The big problem areas for poultry are in feed and manure, and one issue is that using arable land to grow crops to feed pullets and layers is not the most environmentally friendly use of the countryside. Indeed, according to FCCT, almost half of all GHG emissions for both meat and egg production is associated with the growing of feeds for the birds.

Defra has highlighted more efficient use of feed as having high potential to increase productivity and reduce GHG emissions intensity. Innovative solutions have been proposed by industry too, with the new Insect Biomass Conversion Task & Finish Group, for example, lobbying the government to support insect protein as a sustainable alternative source of animal feed.

Analytical approach

In a recent report into EU Agriculture & Climate Change, the European Commission said mitigation and adaptation were key to reducing agricultural emissions today. Experts also believe that understanding, managing and analysing emissions will be central to making real progress.

Dr Sylvia Vetter is a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences, and last year published a paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production focused on the potential to reduce GHG emissions in egg production using a GHG calculator.

Vetter believes collaboration will be a key plank of reducing poultry industry emissions, with farmers holding meetings where they compare and discuss their emissions and sharing best practice as to how to get their figures down. “The poultry and egg industry will always produce GHG emissions because of manure management, feed production and needed energy, but through a change in management this can be reduced,” she tells Poultry Business. “[But] there are limitations in reducing the outputs as appropriate animal farming is to be considered and each poultry system differs in the produced emissions. It will be important to see the agricultural sector as a whole and find ways to balance and sequestrate carbon in areas and through practices that are possible to balance the whole sector.”

The view that farmers need to be closely analysing their progress is echoed by Clark, who stresses that LEAF Marque-certified poultry businesses conduct an audit of their energy use and CO2 emissions. “Monitoring is the first step to management, so based on these emissions they will be looking to reduce their dependency on non-renewable energy sources, optimise energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she adds. “We are also looking to encourage our farmers to optimise the soil and grass quality of outdoor ranges.”

Producers are doing their bit too, and most of the big poultry and egg companies have environmental policies in place. 2 Sisters, for example, says it has an effective Environmental Management System and sets objectives and targets that take in energy and climate change mitigation, pollution prevention as well as waste, water and packaging reduction. Moy Park states it has taken a proactive approach to minimising its environmental impact, and has set corporate targets including a two per cent year-on-year improvement in energy use and one per cent for water, on top of maintaining zero waste to landfill. It points out that it was also the first poultry company to sign up to the Courtauld Commitment II to reduce packaging, household food waste and product and packaging waste in the supply chain.

Noble Foods says that this year it is rolling out its Environmental Sustainability Programme across all its sites, with a focus on energy, biodiversity and waste. Several sites are enrolled in Climate Change Agreements that oblige them to meet energy-reduction targets, while the company is also completing Energy Saving Opportunity Scheme audits this year at its largest energy-using sites. Further renewable initiatives are being spearheaded by the Noble Green Energy team, on top of several waste-reduction and biodiversity projects.

Some producers are taking it even further, with the innovative Kipster farm in the Netherlands employing a combination of techniques to produce carbon-neutral eggs, including using feed from bakery leftovers, reducing fine particle emissions, only using hens laying white eggs and installing renewable energy systems.

At the beginning of the supply chain, breeders are also closely focused on reducing the industry’s impact. Aviagen highlights the fact that the modern broiler is more biologically efficient and requires 215g less feed per kg of live weight – while providing 69g higher total breast meat yield – than previous incarnations. It adds that compared to 2003, 37 per cent less agricultural land is required for the production of broiler feed.

Some laudable initiatives then, but clearly there’s still further to go. The Soil Association believes that better land management must play a key role in achieving the 2040 target, stressing that “deep and radical changes” are needed in the way the land is currently farmed. “Farmers should be seen as part of the solution and must be supported to make the transition to climate-friendly farming systems that take into account a range of factors, not just a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” says Clive Thomas, senior policy and strategy adviser at the organic industry body.

Thomas highlights the recent Ten Years For Agroecology study, released by French think tank IDDRI, which shows that a wholesale transition to agroecological approaches like organic and agroforestry, phasing out pesticides and synthetic fertilisers and redeploying extensive grasslands and landscape infrastructures, could feed a growing European population healthily and reduce agricultural GHG emissions by 40 per cent, while at the same time restoring biodiversity, improving soil health and protecting natural resources.

A multi-faceted approach, with individuals pulling their weight alongside a wider pan-industry collaboration, will be key, backed by new technologies and government support. Everyone will have to play their part, and with public scrutiny of the issue at unprecedented levels, there will be nowhere to hide for those that don’t.

Where organic meets agroforestry

The Lakes Free Range Egg Company has been addressing its environmental footprint by integrating organic egg production with an agroforestry system.

Under the approach, hens ranging on land with 20% tree cover have been found to have increased laying rates and higher shell density, meaning higher output and reduced losses.

The family-owned business says integrating trees in the chicken range has additional co-benefits for wildlife, reducing soil erosion, and can provide an additional crop such as apples.

The Soil Association’s Clive Thomas points out that the organic body’s new standards have recently been updated to require a minimum five per cent tree cover in poultry ranges, highlighting the Lakes Free Range Egg Company as a leading example of a forward-thinking company that has gone above and beyond.

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