Net Positive Beef
There has been much talk recently, in the media, farming circles, the government and with our customers, about ‘net zero’ farming. What does it mean and is it possible?
April 21, 2022

net positive   Beef

There has been much talk recently, in the media, farming circles, the government and with our customers, about 'net zero' farming. What does it mean and is it possible? 

At the Food Hall, we have a window of opportunity in our calendar between the busy Christmas period and spring growth on the farm, calving and Easter sales in the Food Hall. Hence, we tend to complete planning projects in January and February. Not only does this include investment proposals and budgeting for the Food Hall and Cook House but also, for example, we take the time to look at agri-environment schemes on the farms during this 'quieter' period. 

The National Farmers Union has set an ambitious goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. To kickstart our contribution, Oliver wanted to look at the practicalities of capturing more carbon on the farm at Freston and compare carbon sequestration to GHG emissions generated from rearing cattle. 

With this objective in mind, three initiatives have been started:

  • The farm associated with the Food Hall at Freston has been selected to be part of the National Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot. SFI is the local-level scheme within the new ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) from DEFRA; seeking to deliver 'public goods for public money', and to replace the European Common Agricultural Policy (the old subsidies system). 
  • In addition to developing SFI projects at Freston to improve carbon capture, clean water and increase biodiversity, Olive, AJ and Robert are signing up to a regional-level scheme within ELMS, farming in protected landscapes, to create traditional orchards over the wider AONB area. 
  • The third initiative is to look at the carbon-cycle at Freston.  A benchmark project has been completed with Scotland's Rural College using its internationally recognised carbon calculation system for farming, AgreCalc. 

AgreCalc asseses a vast array of variables and parameters within any farming system. That said in the context of the farm at Freston, the model for rearing cattle is relatively simple! Feed, bedding, diesel, etc are brought in. Cattle are tended to a Red Tractor Farm assurance standard; rearing calves predominantly on parkland pasture that is sequestering carbon. There are also lots of hedgerows, farm woodland and wildlife within the associated habitat. The outputs are beef, waste (principally farmward muck and some plastic) and CO2 & methane. Simple! 

Not quite. There is considerable scientific debate around metrics within the calculations, and the global warming potential (GWP) for the lifespan of carbon dioxide versus methane, for example. Accepting that scientific understanding and benefit of different mitigations will evolve, Oliver still feels that it is important to establish a GHG baseline, start to make further progress in supplying beef in an even more sustainable way, and to monitor the trend using a consistent formula.

Local grass-fed beef has about half the carbon-footprint compared to alternatives from overseas¹. Added to this, traditional pastureland has many local biodiversity benefits and is not suitable for other types of food production. However, we can still learn and improve our beef system, and the AgreCalc audit has highlighted several interesting points:

 

  1. Although we buy in some conventional feed and bedding, the system at Freston is more akin to an organic regime due to the minimal artificial inputs we use. Therefore CO2 equivalent produced is comparable to an average UK organic farm.
  2. Methane produced through enteric fermentation (mostly belched when cows are ruminating) is the bigger issue compared to CO2 from petroleum use (fuels and plastic), rotting muck, etc. Again this is because of our low input system, and there are opportunities to further reduce GHG emissions by adjusting feeding patterns and/or finishing cattle quicker.
  3. Ultimately, when the farm woodland and hedges are considered, the net emissions are positive. Nearly 1.5 tonnes of CO2e per year and there are many opportunities to sequester more carbon by planting more hedgerows and woodland.
  4. Conversely, the grass across the farm has pretty much reached its sequestration zenith because it is so old. This is great for biodiversity but if we were taking marginal arable land out of cropping and into grass, for example, we would be capturing even more carbon. A good way for us to further increase sequestration is to plan more in-field trees - silbvopasture.

In its simplest form, the Agrecalc audit is very encouraging. However, it stacks up because we run this farm in an integrated way, as all the habitats are part of a wider connected ecosystem.

As 91% of UK households enjoy red meat² we need to strive towards evermore sustainable ways to produce our beef. As a local independent, the challenge is an opportunity when the supermarkets are principally promoting meat on its price. As our learning continues, we should all probably be eating less, but better, meat. Better quality, higher welfare and better for the environment. 

 

¹ Land use report: policies for a net zero, UK Committee on Climate Change, January 2020

² Kantar Worldpanel, 52 w/e 21 April 19