On 16 March 2023, EIT Food hosted an event in Dublin in partnership with ABP and Zoetis to explore how innovation in the livestock sector could help achieve net-zero targets. This event aligned with EIT Food’s mission to achieve a net-zero food system and was supported by ABP and Zoetis’s expertise in the food industry and animal health, respectively.
Globally the livestock industry accounts for 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2023) faces pressure to reduce emissions to meet net-zero targets by 2050. EIT Food’s event brought together representatives from the food industry, government agencies, academia, and start-ups to discuss the challenges and solutions in the industry’s transition to becoming net-zero. Many discussions were specific to the Irish context but these insights in innovation can be applicable globally.
Key takeaways from the event include:
- Smart land use– As livestock efficiently convert grasslands into food, this industry should not be minimised but optimised. Innovations in land sparing (setting aside land for ecological purposes) and circular fertiliser can improve the economic and environmental health of livestock farming.
- Precision farming– It is necessary to raise fewer livestock of higher quality. Innovation could include healthier and more sustainably sourced feed, precision breeding and improved data management.
- Farmer buy-in-The adoption of livestock innovation will only be successful if livestock farmers are encouraged and supported to adopt these technologies. Farmer buy-in can be incentivised through rewards-based policies, education, and farmer empowerment.
- Preventative care-Animal healthcare needs to shift from treatment to prevention. This improves animal outcomes, increases farmer profitability, and stabilises the livestock supply chain.
The relationship between livestock, GHG emissions and land use
Professor Michael Obersteiner, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, delivered a keynote address on the intersection of livestock and our climate.
Obersteiner argued that the most significant GHG emissions in livestock were not direct emissions from the animals themselves but indirect emissions from land use change (Searchinger et al., 2018). It is key to consider the carbon opportunity costs of agricultural land; if land is not used for farming, it could be used for ecological restoration or carbon storage.
- Land sharing promotes low-level livestock intensification spread across all available land.
- Land sparing promotes partitioned use of land where some land is used for high-intensive agriculture and some land is protected.
Obersteiner suggested that land sparing labour will shift from the farm sector to non-farming sectors while technological innovation will shift from non-farming sectors to the farm sector. Using this theory on a global context, the same amount of food produced today could be generated in the future with costs reduced by 40%. However, 80% of grass-based cattle are already cost-optimal and may not benefit from the cost savings of land sparing.
Interestingly, the most considerable impact of land sparing is not financial cost but the reduction of labour. Under land sparing, the global food production workforce would shrink from 1 billion to 20 million. Providing a safety net to workers leaving the agricultural sector can facilitate the transition to a sustainable and resilient food system.
Beef production and achieving net-zero targets
Stephen Connolly, Agricultural Sustainability Manager at ABP, spoke about the changes needed in beef production to achieve net-zero targets.
Key actions to reduce GHG emissions in beef production include reducing the age of slaughter, the age of first calving, improving herd fertility, and reducing fertiliser use. Additionally, national projects can help farmers adopt technology for animal and environmental health. For example, ABP’s Dairy Beef Programme has used precision breeding to lower farms’ carbon footprint by 13% and farmers are expected to have cost savings of EUR 202 per animal.
Other collaborative projects include:
- Teagasc’s Signpost Programme
- Bord Bia’s Origin Green Collaboration
- ABP’s Dairy Beef Programme
- ABP’s Advantage Beef Programme
To bridge the gap between livestock innovation and adoption, Connolly emphasised the importance of farmer buy-in and farmer education. The Beef Benchmark Report is the first tool to provide carcass and GHG data on an individual animal basis. Carcass data includes carcass weight, age at slaughter, and carbon footprint. It is a valuable tool as it measures the performance of the animals slaughtered in a herd against a number of KPIs. Through this, farmers are given the data to make management decisions, such as identifying opportunities to increase revenue or reduce their carbon footprint.
Animal health and the impact on GHGs
Charles Chavasse, Area Veterinary Manager at Zoetis, discussed how preventative animal care will benefit environmental health.
Rather than focusing animal health on treatment, there must be a shift towards preventing and controlling disease. Even if the best livestock are breeding, an animal’s health in its first two months can negatively impact milk yield. By ensuring animals are healthy, farms can operate with fewer cows, require fewer replacements, and emit less GHGs for the same production.
Livestock systems can also benefit from better data management. With improved records, farmers will know which animals are the best to keep and to breed from. It is vital to automate data to increase the ease of use and, thus, the adoption of data technology on farms. Data records will enable farmers to evidence that they are addressing GHG emissions on-farm. Other changes that can bolster the livestock system include improvements in animal feed, animal housing, grass parasite controls, and the use of vaccines.
Reducing GHG emissions in beef production
Paul Crosson, Beef Enterprise Leader at Teagasc, outlined the technologies within Teagasc’s Animal & Grassland Research and Innovation Centre.
While investing in livestock innovation is one starting point for reducing GHGs, it is equally essential to disseminate information about this technology to the 100 000 of farmers in Ireland. Livestock innovation resources include:
- Teagasc’s Roadmap for Reducing GHGs
- Teagasc’s Sustainability Digital Platform
Teagasc has calculated the environmental cost of changes in the livestock sector to reduce GHGs through its Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) model. This model allows researchers to identify the cost-negative opportunities that can lower emissions and save farmers money. For example, modeling shows that though grain-fed cattle had the lowest GHG emissions when looking at emissions per cow, pasture-grazed cattle had the lowest GHG emissions when looking at emissions per net human edible food produced.
The current research areas of Teagasc on reducing GHG emissions also highlighted breeding more efficient cattle, breeding low emitters, studying the rumen microbiome, and feed additives that can reduce methane emissions from beef cattle.
Livestock fertiliser and sustainable food systems
Dr Katie McDermott, Sustainable Livestock Production lecturer at the University of Leeds, discussed the role of slurry and manure in reducing GHG emissions.
While slurry and manure are valuable sources of nutrients, these compounds also contribute to livestock GHG emissions. It is thus necessary to consider how to innovate slurry and manure storage, treatment, and application within the livestock sector. To decarbonise agriculture, one solution is to promote the use of organic fertiliser from livestock over the use of manufactured fertilisers. However, McDermott pointed out that organic manure contains more than just nutrients.
McDermott is currently investigating the benefits and risks of adopting a circular economy within sanitary agriculture. The main challenge is the unknown use and impact of antibiotics and antimicrobial agents on farms, which could contribute to the global challenge of antimicrobial resistance. Key to this research question is investigating how the antimicrobial communities in the soil change when applied with slurry or manure. Overall, taking action to mitigate AMR can reduce GHG emissions in agriculture while making the circular sanitation system safer.
Start-ups creating livestock innovation
At this event, three start-ups pitched their innovations and how they could be applied to achieve net-zero targets in the livestock industry:
Malachy Hughes pitched Biome Connect, which focuses on the applications of circular farming systems. Biome Connect uses the Bokashi System, which is the most efficient way of breaking down organic matter and the fastest way of increasing organic matter when spreading manure. This system also reduces the loss of manure to the atmosphere, preventing economic loss and environmental harm.
Microbion was presented by Antonio Del Casale, who spoke on the start-up’s ability to innovate in agrifood microbiology across the entire farm-to-fork supply chain. Microbion provides R&D to understand, exploit, and sustainably manage microbial systems. Their applications include circular seeds by fermentation, new probiotics for methane emissions, and phages for sustainable biocontrol of pathogens.
Jose Chitty pitched Smartbell, a livestock health and monitoring start-up. This company’s ear tag sensor helps improve weight gain, lower mortality, and improve future milk production. Smartbell has already helped farmers improve productivity and reduce carbon emissions by 14%.
Source: European Institute of Innovation & Technology | News (https://bit.ly/448MGyB)