Cattle could play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring biodiversity in Britain, according to a new study.
Beef production globally has an outsize role as a “climate villain”, with livestock accounting for around 14 per cent of overall emissions.
But grazing beef herds in the UK can help to displace GHG emissions from synthetic fertiliser as well as contribute to soil carbon sequestration, thanks to the extent of British grasslands, the study from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commissions says.
It calls for an agroecology system, which for cattle would mean lower numbers in herds, and cows grazing largely outside on grasslands, and encouraged to roam widely, enabling them to fertilise large areas.
That is likely to entail a switch to hardier native breeds that are better suited to the climate.
Agroecology is broadly defined as a system that attempts to balance food, cultural and environmental demands.
The report says such a system, which would also see grain-fed pork and poultry production drop and 7.5 per cent of current agricultural land given over to forestry and other uses, could reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by at least 38 per cent by 2050.
Farming in the UK contributes around 10 per cent of the country’s total emissions, which the Government has committed to reducing to net zero by 2050.
The majority of agriculture emissions comes from methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilisers.
But emissions are not the only concern; Britain also faces a biodiversity crisis linked to agriculture. Farmland birds have declined 57 per cent since the 1970s, and the widespread loss of pollinators.
The FFCC says livestock grazing has a role to play in helping solve both problems by displacing the need for synthetic fertilisers, increasing soil’s biodiversity and its carbon sequestration potential, and boosting wildlife habitats.
“It’s really clear that ruminant livestock is an essential part of a flourishing ecosystem, particularly in grasslands, like ours,” said Sue Pritchard, the chief executive of the FFCC.
It comes amid debate over the role of agriculture in tackling climate change and as farming subsidies are reformed in the wake of Brexit.
The Government wants to see the intensification of agriculture in some areas, and the abandonment of other agricultural areas to rewilding or tree planting.
Advocates of regenerative farming argue that a ‘land sharing’ model in which farming, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are managed holistically would have the greatest environmental benefits.
Farming groups warn that cutting meat production in this country would simply offshore the problem by increasing the number of imports, potentially with a higher carbon footprint.
But other experts argue that a shift to plant-based diets would have the most dramatic reduction on greenhouse gas emissions.
The FFCC study uses modelling developed on a Europe-wide scale by French think tank IDDRI, which Ms Pritchard said could be applied elsewhere.
“We can feed the global population, healthy, nutritious food, whilst mitigating the climate and nature crises and having a fair, food and farming system for farmers and growers and for citizens alike,” Ms Pritchard said.
The model does acknowledge the need for diets to shift, but unlike other studies calls for a much smaller shift in beef consumption of 25 per cent, compared to cutting pork, chicken, milk and eggs by 50 per cent.
Pork and chicken in particular rely on the production of cereal-based animal feed that is an inefficient use of land that could produce human plant food and on grain imports that have been linked to deforestation.
With beef production dipping just 3 per cent below current levels, the report says the excess could be exported.
It also calls for a seven-fold increase in farmed area of legumes and pulses, which can help to fix nitrogen in the soil, a reduction of food waste by 10 per cent.