CIEL | Net Zero & Livestock: Bridging the Gap July 2023

‘Net Zero & Livestock: Bridging the Gap’ continues a focus by CIEL on supporting the UK livestock sector as it strives to achieve its Net Zero ambitions.

A sobering conclusion by the expert authors of CIEL’s earlier reports exploring ‘Net Zero & Livestock’ was that for the ambitious goal of a 64% reduction in CO2-eq emissions, current technology and practices could only deliver a 24% reduction at high rates of uptake. The remaining “emissions reduction gap” requires new innovations in technology, services and management approaches.

This latest report puts the spotlight on bridging this emissions gap, exploring the existing technology gaps and identifying key areas where innovation can be targeted.

To inform report findings, CIEL has commissioned collective scientific knowledge and insight to highlight potential impact-based innovations in livestock agriculture and aquaculture that can accelerate progress towards widespread emissions reductions.

The report was published in July 2023, and was accompanied by an exclusive CIEL Member only webinar during which a selection of report authors will present their findings and answer questions.

To see the previous reports in this series, please click here.

If you would like to discuss any of the topics and issues relating to Net Zero & Livestock, please indicate this on the contact form and we’ll be in touch to discuss further.

Report now available – Net Zero & Livestock: Bridging the Gap

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    In recent years, CIEL has produced two key reports relating to achieving net zero ambitions for the UK livestock sector. A sobering conclusion from the expert author of these reports was that for the ambitious goal of a 64% reduction in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, current technology and practices could only deliver a 24% reduction* at high rates of uptake. The remaining ‘emissions reduction gap’, requires new innovations in technology, services and management approaches.

    This latest report puts this emissions gap under the spotlight, exploring the existing technology gaps and identifying key areas for innovation. To inform report findings, CIEL has commissioned collective scientific knowledge and insight to highlight potential impact-based innovations in livestock agriculture and aquaculture that could accelerate progress towards widespread emissions reductions. Whilst we recognise that further innovation is required throughout these sectors, this report considers 11 areas of innovation that, if widely adopted, provide a platform for achieving the UK’s wider net zero targets.
    The focus of the report is ultimately asking the question of where to look for new innovations capable of making significant reductions in emissions in this decade of action. The report does not, however, address the issue of what is holding back uptake of existing technologies or services that reduce emissions. Uptake is a separate, yet interconnected issue that requires urgent attention by social scientists, government, regulators and industry if we are to deliver the changes needed by 2050.

    Delivering net zero for the UK is critical in our collective efforts to prevent runaway global warming this century, and there is enormous potential to unlock emissions reductions in agriculture; a sector that contributed 11% of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020. Within agriculture, livestock, particularly ruminants through enteric fermentation, are seen as contributing a high proportion of the sector’s emissions, directly and indirectly. The technological advancement of modern agriculture has accelerated growth of the sector, maximising efficiencies and productivity. However, while this has boosted crop yields and global food production, its wider impact on the environment is proving significant. Perhaps notably, the linear nature of existing practices within the industry and subsequent impacts are being felt throughout the supply chain, fueling interest in a more circular food system for all nutrients.

    We have the tools to manage efficiency; the shift needed is to look at whole-system efficiency ahead of maximising efficiency of individual components of the system. We are all in this together when it comes to the results of an inefficient UK food system, as emissions and other nutrient losses not captured or diverted to reuse will impact the health and sustainability of our whole food system, particularly when that system relies on a nurturing and healthy environment.

    This report is the third in a series directly targeting Net Zero & Livestock, and we have more in development with a targeted focus. As with previous work, we welcome the opportunity to share this insight with the livestock industry, both domestically and globally. CIEL believes that adopting new innovations will help the livestock sector deliver a lower carbon footprint, whilst continuing to be a key part of the food system that delivers highly nutritious food for society in more sustainable ways.

    If you would like to discuss any of the topics and issues relating to Net Zero & Livestock, please contact [email protected].

    The way forward to bridge the emissions gap in the livestock sector and deliver net zero goals by 2050 is through innovation. Impact-based technologies with significant potential to contribute to this target are highlighted in this report. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be considerably reduced through better livestock management. Innovation across health and genetics, nutrition, waste, and land management provide further opportunities for sector-wide emissions reductions and sustainable food systems.

    Health and Genetics
    Innovations focusing on improving animal health by boosting immunity through vaccination against endemic disease or prophylactic health products (PHPs) can increase productivity while reducing resource use, cost and, ultimately, GHG emissions. PHPs and rapid on-farm diagnostics can improve feed efficiency in aquaculture systems while conferring environmental benefits besides emission reductions through improved water quality, lower ammonia (NH3) emissions and reduced water usage. Challenges such as lack of accurate, standardised disease and performance data and health metrics in carbon calculators can be overcome through a measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) process.Genetic improvement can contribute to reducing emissions through general gains in efficiency for all livestock and aquaculture systems. For ruminants, genetics can specifically focus on lowering methane (CH4) emissions from enteric fermentation, but consideration must be given to how this impacts on productivity, as well as efficiency.

    To deliver innovations in this area requires further research and funding targeted at increasing the collection of CH4 emission performance data (phenotypes), use of restricted selection indices, and development of genetic tools to manage the rumen microbiome.

    Methane emissions from the ruminant microbiome can also be targeted using CH4 inhibitors or CH4 vaccines. Currently several CH4 suppressing products are at various stages of market readiness, with potential emissions reductions of 12% – 37%. Although the UK Government is anticipating entry of safe and high efficacy products to the UK market from 2025, no CH4 inhibitor is currently available in a form that ensures consistent supply of effective and safe dosage to grazing animals. On the other hand, CH4 vaccines remain at early development stages but have shown promising results in New Zealand. Best case scenario models have estimated that annual CH4 emissions of UK livestock could be reduced by 30% (6.8 MtCO2-eq).

    Nutrition, through both enteric fermentation and feed production, is the dominant source of emissions for livestock and aquaculture. It is critically important for production and health but can also help mitigate GHG emissions associated with feed production, including costs due to recent land use change. Replacing soya or fishmeal with low carbon, less resource-intensive novel protein feeds can significantly reduce emissions. Further research is needed to assess production impacts at scale. Legislation in this area that is fit-for-purpose needs to align with, and facilitate, feed innovations, right through to implementation if we are to address the urgent need for improvements in this major area to deliver 2050 net zero targets.

    Improving manure management using innovative processing methods such as plasma treatment of slurry can bring about significant emissions reduction, e.g., NH3 and CH4 emissions from pig slurry storage can largely be eliminated, but there is a need for innovation to provide green energy to drive on-farm plasma units to minimise the carbon footprint. Other manure additives and novel data approaches underpinning best management practices can further contribute to mitigating emissions. The focus must be placed on nutrient circularity, so a systems approach is needed to exploit potential synergies and balance trade-offs while closing the nutrient loop.

    Manure management can further mitigate emissions by returning carbon to the soil. Innovative approaches to optimise soil carbon sequestration include multispecies swards and forage crops, new technologies for measuring and monitoring soil carbon, and increased focus on subsoil for long-term, more stable carbon storage. As a soil amendment, biochar has been shown to boost soil carbon while improving soil quality. Despite extensive research on biochar, there are still key knowledge gaps on its long-term stability in soil.

    Good nutrient management balances inputs and outputs while reducing losses and optimising circularity. Complexities of farming systems, practices and conditions make this difficult to standardise methods for supporting farmers. To this end, data at farm level is needed and, consequently, technological innovations and improved data capture systems are required if we are to improve nutrient management using a precision agriculture approach.

    Accelerating InnovationTo meet UK net zero emissions targets in livestock production in the required timescale, innovative technologies already in early stages of development are urgently needed. Obstacles must be removed, and a systematic approach implemented to create an enabling environment that will accelerate innovation.

    CIEL proposes a four-point plan to help accelerate innovation and maximise uptake:

    1. Farmer engagement and capacity building
    2. Enabling regulation and policy
    3. Effective financial flows
    4. Supply chain and cross-sector collaboration

    Collectively, the areas highlighted in this report are where a major proportion of resources should be focused to deliver the emission reductions needed from the livestock sector. We expect these reductions will come from lower emission feed production systems, increased feed efficiency, improved animal health and greater nutrient circularity.

    We recommend this report to policy and decision makers in government, on-farm, in-farm support and across the food industry to guide efforts in innovation for bridging the gap.

    CIEL’s previous Net Zero & Livestock reports provided benchmarks to guide industry in reducing its emissions and identified crucial intervention areas for farmers to help deliver net zero for the UK. This report serves as a guide to accelerating new innovation and enabling further travel on the pathway to net zero for the livestock sector. Underlining the complexities of the sector and production systems, a toolbox of solutions for farmers and industry to adopt is required to empower transformation across farm systems.

    Health and Genetics
    In this report, we have seen that systems efficiency gains, improved decision making, increased productivity, improved health and reducing both emissions and other nutrient losses are all areas where innovation can be targeted. Such innovations should focus on nutrition, fertility management, animal health, genetic improvement and systems analysis. Trade-offs between efficiencies, well-being and environmental impact need to be realised and a ‘One Health’ approach should be championed by changemakers.

    For nutrition, the twin goals of reducing emissions from ruminant digestion and from production of feed for non-ruminants present a unique challenge. Innovation for CH4 inhibitors and novel vaccines has the potential for widespread impact on scale, but regulatory approval and on-farm trials are proving to be difficult barriers to navigate for innovators.

    Circular approaches to waste management are increasing in urgency and demand for the sector. Manure processing and effective management paves the way for circularity in the livestock sector, with additional waste valorisation achieved through innovations such as plasma treatment of slurry. Global knowledge sharing on nutrient cycling and manure management might be the key to unlocking circularity potential in the sector.

    The crucial role of soil health for climate mitigation also requires significant attention. Technologies to better enhance soil carbon, such as biochar, and the need for precision agriculture therefore present opportunities to align strategies for both carbon dioxide (CO2) removal efforts and the overall productivity of food systems.

    Ultimately, solutions exist for the livestock sector, but as highlighted in the chapter ‘Accelerating Innovation’, the ability to deliver them quickly must be addressed. Akin to global climate policy challenges, we have tools to reach net zero, but we lack systems to guide effective decision making for policymakers and industry alike.

    CIEL, recommends a four-point plan for maximising uptake of innovation:

    1. Farmer engagement and capacity building
    Innovations must deliver on farm. It is vital to understand what works and what doesn’t work for farmers to identify barriers and risks, tailoring solutions to meet the needs of producers and empowering sustainable production. To gain this understanding requires good engagement with farmers, and there are critical roles here for automated data services and real-time insights to avoid burdening farmers with data management and instead focus on information services that empower climate-smart farming. On-farm innovation is already taking place, with many farmers charting their own journey to net zero. There is a need to maximise the role of peer-to-peer learning for farmers to share knowledge, as well as interactive and engaging training for farmers to access knowledge and insights with appropriate support.
    2. Enabling regulation and policy
    Entrepreneurs and innovators take on significant risk when developing a new product or service, with innovation often taking place away from regulatory and policy frameworks, creating a disconnect that often limits market uptake. There is a fine balance to tread between the urgency for market-ready solutions to address the climate and ecological emergency, while also safeguarding the health and well-being of our food systems. Open communication and effective scientific dissemination will be vital for getting technology to market and in the hands of farmers.
    3. Effective financial flows
    Deployment of affordable and accessible capital is needed to encourage innovation. Accelerator programmes, for instance, play a key role in fostering innovation, guiding emerging agri-tech businesses through the start-up process, but there is often a gap to finance for many innovators to scale their solutions after this. Within effective financial flows, we also need to consider grants that don’t just focus on infrastructure and system costs, but also on training to design and run systems optimally, with the primary goal of improving self-sufficiency of farmers and their ability to diversify production.
    4. Supply chain and cross-sector
    In line with UN Sustainable Development Goal 17, ‘Partnership for the Goals’, we must not innovate in isolation; we need to break down siloed thinking. Strengthening knowledge sharing and transfer within the supply chain and across sectors globally provides a platform for collaboration and the opportunity to partner for impact. Data sharing and traceability will be fundamental for enabling productive engagement and openness, further driving our collective vision for net zero.

    CIEL and its membership network are well placed to facilitate the transition to net zero for the wider livestock sector and we will continue collaborating for our shared vision of sustainable food systems.

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