Global warming is often thought as being caused by energy production but the second largest contributor is animal production, with methane produced by cows and sheep a key component. One obvious solution is to reduce meat and milk consumption but this is unlikely to be acceptable to everyone. Moreover, grass-fed animals can provide other benefits than food, such as managing biodiversity. The UK has a good climate for producing grass and many of the upland regions of the UK cannot be used for cultivating anything other than grass. Grazing animals therefore provide the backbone of many rural communities.
A range of different animal breeding technologies (including but not limited to genetic modification) could be used to mitigate the global warming impact of farm livestock, but adoption of these may be limited by willingness of farmers to purchase these replacement breeding animals. The aim of this project is to:
understand how farmers reach decisions on where to source replacement breeding animals;
understand how the whole system of producing replacement breeding animals impacts on the decisions made by farmers;
evaluate what changes could be made to encourage the uptake of animals bred for reduced global warming impact.
Methane emissions from cattle and sheep have gained increasing profile in the context of climate change. As well as reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, a range of different technical solutions have been suggested as providing ways of reducing these emissions. These solutions include breeding techniques such as using genetic selection, changing varieties of grass, use of feed additives, or use of vaccines to change rumen bacterial composition.
Farmers interviewed found it difficult to accept the assertion that methane produced by cattle and sheep is a major contributor to global warming.
• They did not find figures quoted for methane emissions, particularly from grass fed animals, to be credible
• They thought the science behind the sources and sinks of carbon and methane to be in its infancy and therefore calculations were likely to be unreliable at present
• They considered that ruminant livestock have an appropriate place in the world, and have had so throughout history.
• They felt that unfair focus was being placed on ruminant methane emissions and not enough emphasis on transport throughout the food chain and on other human activities that generate greenhouse gases.
• They perceived no economic benefit from reducing methane emissions.
Farmers interviewed respond in broadly four different ways to using potential technologies toreduce methane output.
• Specialist beef farmers (and a lesser extent sheep farmers) who emphasised production efficiency, were already using some technologies (such as breeding values) and were amenable to others (changes in feeding, rumen vaccination etc.) but largely justified on the basis of improved production efficiency rather than methane reduction.
• Organic farmers and conventional farmers selling direct to consumers often perceived a conflict between technological measures to reduce methane emissions and their customers’ requirements for ‘natural’ food. They preferred a whole farm approach to carbon with more emphasis on grassland and soil management, as well as planting trees.
• Farmers relying heavily on environmental payments felt unable to change either feeding regimes or grassland management as these were determined by the requirements of the relevant scheme for managing biodiversity.
• Many farmers felt helpless in the face of the challenge of reducing methane emissions.
This diversity of responses suggests that policy action needs to be sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of farming communities in different contexts.
The Animal Breeding System encompasses and integrates parts of farming communities primarily through breeding society links and levy board actions. This system is very responsive to policy pressure to reduce methane emissions but appears less responsive to different farming contexts. Many farmers do not trust this system to provide benefits for them, in their particular circumstances. The complex, multiple-tiered and poorly co-ordinated meat-value chain further exacerbates this by failing to provide clear market incentives across the range of production systems.
I aim to expand this research to farmer attitudes to nitrous oxide emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) from manure to examine the extent to which perceptions of pollution or other factors predominate in farmer decision-making.