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The beef industry: The all too convenient climate change scapegoat

Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) chief executive Ian Stevenson shares his thoughts on the climate change scapegoat.

The beef industry has become an all too convenient scapegoat for those within society wanting to place a disproportionate amount of blame for climate change on production agriculture.

And, of course, this narrative is enthusiastically jumped upon by those who espouse a plant-based diet or vegan lifestyle.

Sections of the media also seem to buy into this unbalanced thinking.

Hardly a day goes by when imagery of people eating hamburgers or cattle grazing does not flash up on our television or computer screens, while commentators discuss the impact of climate change and ‘potential’ solutions that individuals can make to play their part.

Climate change scapegoat

Meanwhile, we tend to hear less about more the significant contribution the likes of the transport and energy sectors make to the climate change burden and the need for these sectors to get their respective houses in order.

Agriculture lies fifth in the league table of industries and sectors that account for the UK’s total greenhouse gas emission levels.

Topping the charts is transport, accounting for 27% all emissions, energy supply is second at 21%.

Business and residential follow, making up 17% and 15%, respectively, of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture comes next in the league table, accounting for 10% of all emissions.

However, this reality is very rarely communicated across the media at large, with beef and other ruminant livestock coming in for a more than the disproportionate level of criticism when it comes to apportioning the blame for climate change in the first instance.

The critically important part agriculture plays in delivering food security for the UK as a whole very rarely gets a mention within the climate change debate.

Nor does the role played by beef within a healthy and balanced diet.

An important role 

This was a topic Professor Alice Stanton from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland discussed in depth, courtesy of her presentation at the recent Ulster Farmers’ Union: Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs climate change conference.

She made it perfectly clear that climate cannot be discussed in splendid isolation.

Rather it must be assessed in tandem with the need to develop food production systems that meet the needs of a fast-growing population while also ensuring that all consumers can benefit from a healthy and nutritious diet.

The good news is that beef can play a critically important role when it comes to meeting all these criteria.

I recognise the role that LMC can play in providing balance to these climate change discussions.

Fight against climate change

But this in no way diminishes the responsibility that will be placed on the farming and food sectors as they actively contribute to the fight against climate change.

Farmers are up for the challenge that lies ahead. The need for fundamental change that needs to take place within the agri-food sectors is already obvious.

But, here again, plenty of good news abounds.

Courtesy of the existing science that is already available to us, we know many of the measures that can be taken to improve efficiency levels across all our farms.

And by taking a data-driven and productivity-focused approach, many farmers will be able to significantly reduce their farm’s carbon footprints within a relatively short period.

Cannot shoulder all this responsibility themselves

Making fundamental shifts happen will require significant investment across the industry. And farmers cannot be expected to shoulder all this responsibility by themselves. The government will have to step in and provide adequate support measures.

But farmers must be given realistic climate change targets to aim for in the first place.

It is not physically possible to achieve a net-zero carbon scenario within Northern Ireland with livestock-based agricultural systems, which are so important to the region’s economy, society and health and wellbeing of the nation.

‘Flawed’ climate change bill

This is why the climate change bill Green Party leader Clare Bailey introduced is so fundamentally flawed.

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has recognised that reducing its carbon emissions by 82% over the next three decades is an achievable target for farming and food in Northern Ireland.

This figure is based on science.

Moreover, it is the target referenced within the DAERA climate change bill. This is making its way through the various Stormont procedural processes.

It is universally recognised that the 82% emissions reduction target will be a steep enough hill for farming and food to climb.

Ready, willing, and able to adapt

But it is considered to be attainable. Farmers are ready, willing and able to adapt their businesses accordingly.

In contrast, the fundamental climate change target within the Clare Bailey bill is not based on science.

Moreover, its implementation would lead to the absolute decimation of our farming and food sectors.

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