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House of Commons Hansard

Beef Cattle and Sheep (Carbon Footprint)

26 June 2013
Volume 565

    [Annette Brooke in the Chair]

  • It is a great pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this timely debate on the report on the carbon footprint of the cattle and sheep sector by the all-party parliamentary group on beef and lamb.

    I also thank my fellow committee members, especially the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for attending the oral evidence sessions that we held as part of our four-month long inquiry and for their assistance in compiling the report.

    The all-party group wanted to examine the methodologies currently used to calculate the carbon footprint of the sector in the UK and globally and how the data are used to inform the measures being taken to reduce emissions.

    The report, which we launched in Parliament earlier this month, found that more robust scientific data and a standard model to measure carbon sequestration were needed to help the beef and lamb sector meet the twin challenges of sustainable food production and of reducing the environmental impact. It also found that the positive environmental impact of grazing livestock must be taken into account when trying to mitigate the sector’s carbon footprint.

    Our inquiry found that a large number of models are used to assess the carbon footprint. Professor Nigel Scollan of Waitrose told the group at the evidence session that 16 methodologies for measuring the carbon footprint of livestock have been developed since 2007 alone. The PAS 2050 model, which was developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institute, is the standard model used by DEFRA. However, in the evidence session, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which acts as an advisory body to the Government, stated that its accepted method for calculating production emissions is set out by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    There is a clear lack of consensus or consistency, which raises two crucial points. First, there is a lack of consensus on how to measure livestock emissions. Secondly, any debate going on at an international level is not based on comparable data. For example, in England, the footprint of beef cattle, according to the PAS 2050 used by DEFRA was 12.65 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and for sheep it was 11.86 kg.

  • Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research that has been carried out in Northern Ireland? The greenhouse gas implementation partnership seems to agree with him that there is still a body of research yet to be carried out. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast, which is working with DEFRA and the department of agriculture and fisheries for Scotland, says as part of that research that the ongoing challenges of the inclement weather present a problem.

  • Thank you for that. We will keep interventions a little shorter in future.

  • The hon. Lady is right, because climatic conditions will make a difference. The amount of time that an animal takes to finish grazing to become fat also makes a difference, as does the time taken to finish an animal for meat production. All such things have to be taken into consideration. Of course there are a number of ways to measure carbon.

  • In my hon. Friend’s calculations, will he make reference to the transportation of meat once it has been processed through an abattoir? For example, moving beef from South America to Europe using aviation fuel enormously increases the carbon footprint.

  • Indeed. When we import meat from South America, Australia or New Zealand, we should take into account the length of time that it takes to get here, especially if it comes by air. Of course, if it comes by sea, it is argued that the carbon footprint is not as large, but it is there none the less. That is why local home-produced food that travels very little distance to the abattoir and that is grazed nicely on good permanent pasture must be of great benefit to all the United Kingdom.

  • I applaud both the fact that we are having this debate and the work that my hon. Friend and his committee have done. Does he agree that, while this is a legitimate debate for us to have, our fundamental job in the House is to stand up and support our beef and sheep farmers?

  • I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The purpose of this inquiry and report is to look at the benefits of producing grass-fed beef and lamb, to keep sustainable grass pasture and to produce very good meat. We would not necessarily want or be able to plough such land, and a huge amount of carbon is captured within the soil. We took some evidence that showed that over years of permanent pasture the carbon actually increases, so there are many good reasons for producing this high-quality beef and lamb.

    I will, if I may, continue with my contribution. The footprint of sheep, according to the PAS 2050, is 11.86 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight. The comparative figures for Wales were 7.51 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight and 8.6 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogramme of live weight.

    As that has demonstrated, even within a country, there is significant variation in the statistics and no way to determine whether they were driven by different efficiencies or by different ways of producing data. That makes any form of comparative assessment of carbon footprint challenging and poses major difficulties for policy formulation. There is no international consensus on sequestration—the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by pasture land through a process of absorption and deposition in the soil, which acts as a carbon sink. In essence, that is a natural form of carbon capture and storage.

    The importance of including carbon sequestration is highlighted by Mr Bill Grayson, a producer who gave evidence to the inquiry. He ran four models on his farm’s emissions. The PAS 2050 model, which does not include sequestration, concluded that his farm was a net emitter. The other three methods, which include sequestration, put his farm as a net absorber of carbon. Evidently such significant differences make sensible policy development almost impossible.

  • My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I hope that he recognises that we need to view this matter globally. It makes no sense to allow UK farmers to plant trees and remove land from beef production to then allow South American farmers to tear up rain forests to produce beef and to ship it around the world, so that it sits on supermarket shelves next to UK-produced beef.

  • My hon. Friend raises another important issue. I have visited Brazil, where people are ploughing up a lot of the savannah and planting soya bean and sugar beet and driving cattle towards the rain forests and allowing them to partly destroy the rain forests before people cut down the trees. So it is absolutely essential that we produce in this country high-quality beef and lamb, so that we do not need as many imports; that is absolutely clear. I will go on to talk a little more about those examples shortly.

    I want to highlight the methodology used to produce the figures. Achieving consistency in the figures used should be viewed as one of the top priorities for the industry and the Government, who should work in partnership. We urge Ministers and officials at DEFRA to accelerate work at both the EU level and with international bodies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, to seek global consensus in an agreed methodology.

    For example, if we compare the impact of livestock in the UK and in France using nationally-produced data, our producers will be hugely disadvantaged because French data will include sequestration. It is not very often that I ask a Minister to look at a French system, but on this occasion I will. We urge him to look into this issue as a priority and—if we are to see greater co-operation between nations in our effort to respond to environmental and food challenges—to migrate to the model accepted in France. If the Government do not view this as a viable course of action, they need to make a robust case to say why not. The disparity built into the status quo is no longer acceptable in a global debate, because we debate carbon across the whole world and we need to measure it in a similar way.

    The report also highlighted other weaknesses in the current life-cycle analysis in the model that DEFRA uses, in addition to its exclusion of sequestration. It is well documented and understood that grazing livestock plays a major role in the management of our landscape; I think that all hon. Members from all parties in the House would recognise that. That view is supported by the English National Park Authorities Association and Natural England, which rightly point out that the landscape value generated by upland farming has an economic benefit to the area, owing to the tourism and business revenue extracted, and that grassland management is important to maximise upland areas’ efficiency as a carbon sink.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene, and I do so only to ask him to agree that that issue is particularly relevant to Wales. There is almost no cereal growing in Wales that is worth talking about; in Wales, farming is almost wholly livestock farming. Livestock farming in Wales is so important that it completely dominates the agricultural scene there.

  • My hon. Friend refers to the amount of permanent pasture in Wales. Much of the land may well be too steep to be ploughed, and from an environmental point of view, we would not want to plough it. I do not wish to over-labour this point, but if we are not going to graze livestock on that pasture, what are we actually going to do to manage that land successfully? So livestock farming is not only important from an aesthetic point of view; it produces great meat and it does a great service for the landscape. So I very much agree with him. Parts of the west country and the north of England likewise have much permanent pasture.

  • May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to something that he might find interesting, which is the reintroduction of the little-known Welsh White beef cattle up on the Plynlimon hills with the Wildlife Trusts? The reason that those cattle have been reintroduced in those areas, which are vital for holding carbon emissions in peat bogs, is that they trample the right sort of way—better than sheep—in that environment and they eat the right sort of vegetation to keep the biodiversity right as well. So the Welsh White cattle are doing a good job up there.

  • The shadow Minister raises an interesting issue about not only carbon sequestration but the management of grassland, but not only Welsh White cattle are important in that regard; there is an argument that sheep do not do the same job on certain pasture land as suckler cows and beef cattle do. That is perhaps the subject for a debate for another time, but it is relevant to the fact that, if we are to have good-quality grassland, we need the right type of stock to graze it.

    The inquiry found that no current methodology exists to include this factor in an assessment of carbon footprint, despite the fact the loss of hedgerows and pasture land, for example, would evidently impact on the amount of carbon removed from the air. Of course, more carbon would also be emitted if that pasture land were to be destroyed.

    Grazing livestock, particularly on uplands, makes a valuable contribution to biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems. For example, hedgerows provide wonderful habitats for many species that are vital for the diversity of fauna and flora. As numerous witnesses pointed out, it is important to bear that in mind when considering the overall environmental impact of agriculture. Quantifying the carbon value of biodiversity is incredibly difficult and is not something that life-cycle analysis takes into account. The evidence suggests that it will be a major challenge to find an agreed way of quantifying this benefit in the short or medium term. This exposes the weaknesses of simply looking at carbon footprint as a measure of environmental impact, and we urge the Minister to consider this point.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Like me, he was a farmer before first entering the House and as farmers we are used to getting the blame for a lot of things. There are certainly environmental consequences to certain farming practices, but does he share my disbelief that farmers are in the dock for—of all things—causing climate change and being responsible for it, given that we all know that the real problems with carbon come from the transport sector, energy generation and general industrialisation rather than from farming?

  • My hon. Friend and I should probably both declare an interest; I should certainly do so as I am a farmer, and proud to be so. He is absolutely right, because what we have with methane gas from ruminants in particular is a very natural gas. It may come out perhaps too much for people’s liking, but it is very much there. We are taking lower-quality proteins—I had better be careful what I say—and developing them into high-quality meat. Therefore, the animal is doing a great deal of good, and I want to balance the amount of methane gas that the animals might produce compared with the amount of carbon that is kept in the land. I repeat the fact that if we do not keep that land as permanent pasture and plough it up, we will release an awful lot of carbon.

    Farmers feel that the real basis of livestock farming is almost under threat. The whole idea of this report is perhaps to try to flag up in advance where the world might go to in a few years’ time, and that scenario is what I am particularly keen to avoid. People need to know the benefits of livestock farming.

    I will move on to the next paragraph of the report. Food security is one of the most pressing issues for Governments across the world. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9 billion, and food production will need to increase to meet growing demand. However, that has to be achieved using the existing agricultural land, while making more efficient use of water and mitigating the existing and future impact of farming on the environment.

    The challenge is no less great on the home front, with the UK population set to increase by 10 million in the next quarter of a century alone and after the percentage of agricultural land in the UK fell from 39% in 1989 to some 25% in 2009. This means maximising the value of available land, by getting the best possible outcomes in terms of food production. British agricultural land comprises many different land types, and not all are suitable for the production of arable crops. This point was eloquently made by the food climate research network in its evidence to the all-party group:

    “Not all land can support crop production and the question then arises—what should be done with this poorer quality, more marginal land? Traditionally the answer has been to graze ruminants which then provide us with meat, milk and other outputs. This represents a form of resource efficiency—the land is being used to produce food that would otherwise need to be produced elsewhere”

    That is particularly important.

    Almost 65% of UK farmland is only suitable for growing grass where sheep and cattle are grazed. We should be utilising this marginal land, which cannot be used for arable crops but can grow good grass and provide good biodiversity and environmental benefits. Beef cattle and sheep play a vital role in food production, because of their ability to turn non-human food into edible proteins and nutrients. Limiting the role of British livestock will reduce the efficiency with which we use our land for food production and will therefore reduce our ability to be self-sufficient.

    These points are often neglected, or at least not adequately considered, by those who advocate meat-free diets. If, for argument’s sake, we were all to switch to a diet free of meat, much of our agricultural land would be unfarmed and we would see a considerable drop in the efficiency of our land to food conversion, in addition to the negative impacts on biodiversity, as outlined above.

    When the developing world is eating more meat, and choosing to do so, there is a greater need to produce meat across the world. Therefore, Britain should do its fair share of meat production, and grazing both sheep and cattle on grassland is essential, in my view. Grazing cattle and sheep are often given disproportionate blame for carbon emissions from agriculture, and there is not enough recognition among some conservation groups of the role that livestock farming, particularly of grass-fed beef and lamb, plays in storing carbon, protecting biodiversity and utilising marginal land that cannot be used for arable crops.

    I thank you for listening to this debate, Mrs Brooke, and open it to colleagues to join in.

  • I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this matter to the Westminster Hall Chamber. Those hon. Members who represent agricultural areas will be aware of the importance of the carbon footprint in relation to beef cattle and sheep. I declare an interest as a farmer, although not a working farmer, and as someone who has lived in the countryside for some 40 years. The land that we have is rented out by adjacent farmers, who look after it well. I have spoken to the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland, which has given us a bit of a steer—if I may make a pun—and it has, along with the all-party group’s recommendations, given us some indication of where we want to go.

    I am sure that I am not the only person here who watches adverts for cars with a low carbon footprint, who has read reports by environmentalists regarding our footprint as a country and has even been made aware of issues by children and grandchildren, coming home and telling us what they were taught in school. They tell us things we do not know and seem to have great knowledge and expertise.

    It is incumbent on us all to be aware of the world that we live in and to do our best to leave a planet behind which our great-grandchildren can enjoy. One aspect of this is being told that we need to cut down our carbon emissions, otherwise global warming will wreak havoc on our country and our world. One of the main greenhouse gases is methane—we are aware of that—which is produced in large quantities by cattle. Agriculture is responsible for 22% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, but that must be set against the fact that it has moulded landscapes, encourages biodiversity and brings money into the local economy by providing employment. I want to give a farmer’s perspective on the issue, and a Northern Ireland perspective as well.

    Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for 3.5% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is responsible for 7% of the UK’s methane and nitrous oxide, because Northern Ireland relies a lot more on agriculture than other parts of the UK. Therefore the carbon footprint is of greater importance for Northern Ireland than for other regions of the UK.

  • Regarding the importance for Northern Ireland, does my hon. Friend agree that on this issue, like a number of others, it is important that the Minister, DEFRA and the responsible Departments in Westminster liaise closely with the regions—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland —to ensure that best practice is adopted by all those concerned, throughout the UK, in trying to tackle a serious problem?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for a good intervention. I am confident that the Minister will give us some indication of that—I have no doubt that that will happen—but the regions my hon. Friend mentioned must work together with DEFRA.

    As I have often said in this Chamber, agriculture in Northern Ireland is under pressure because it is being strangled by EU regulations. Young farmers go to college and learn new ways, then they come home and cannot afford to implement changes that would be beneficial, due to red tape and regulations. However, that is a debate for another day. European legislation dictates carbon emission reductions, but the support offered is sparse. For example, in some countries carbon sequestration is included, but in our current model it is not included, so our farmers would be at a disadvantage in a global market if a tax were to be imposed.

    In the grassland used to graze cattle and sheep, carbon is stored in the soil, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, therefore less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere if we farm along those lines. That information could have major repercussions and calls into question our understanding of the carbon footprint of livestock. Although that might be a little bit technical and hard to understand, perhaps, for those who do not have knowledge about the land, it is a serious issue.

    It is difficult effectively to evaluate the carbon footprint of raising livestock, because many different variables affect the amount of methane produced, such as the feed system it is raised on, pasture type, rearing time and genetic make-up. People may believe that a meat-free diet is the future because crops have a lower carbon footprint, however far from the truth that may be, but some issues are raised by such a way of life. When land is ploughed, carbon is released that would otherwise have stayed trapped in the carbon sink and that in turn makes it difficult to compare the benefits of growing crops. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, 65% of UK farmland is suitable only for growing grass and would not be a viable option for growing crops. Some land would have to be in pasture all the time, because it cannot be used otherwise.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this welcome debate. Is the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) aware of the impact of the cost of fertiliser on crop production and the impact of that on the debate on greenhouse gases?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am aware of that. Certainly, the Ulster Farmers Union and the farmers on the land in the Ards peninsula and mid-Down are all aware of the costs of the fertilisers and their impact on the land and the waters round about Strangford lough and the Irish sea.

    If we ceased to graze cattle on these pasture lands, they could not be used to produce more food and the productivity of our land to food conversion would stop. Biodiversity would also be negatively affected. Land used for grazing livestock provides habitats for animals, which creates biodiversity. Biodiversity has a positive impact on the environment, but that is another factor that is not included when calculating carbon footprints. Many factors that need to be considered when calculating carbon footprints are not considered, and that could negatively affect our farming industry here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

    Calculating the exact amount by which biodiversity benefits the environment is also difficult. To combat our greenhouse gases, we need more investment in research into farming practices. For example, how big a role does carbon sequestration actually play? We also need to educate our producers to better understand the various issues so that they are able to run their businesses more efficiently.

    There is a lot of work to be done. The competitive farming systems team spends a third of its money on sustainable and competitive farming systems, yet most small farmers cannot think of that amount of their income leaving in that way. In Northern Ireland, we have many small farmers. The average size of a farm in Northern Ireland is between 65 and 70 acres, but there are many hobby farmers and part-time farmers. The impact on such farmers is greater, and the impact on us in Northern Ireland is greater still.

    Sustainability is crucial. Raising livestock sustainably is not solely the responsibility of producers; retailers also play a pivotal and vital role, which I hope the Minister takes on board. Retailers must enable consumers to make informed decisions about the products they buy so that they can take into account animal welfare, nutritional value and environmental impact before purchasing the product. There has been much talk in the press over the past week or two about the green, amber and red system that tells consumers about a product’s fat content, nutritional value and so on. That, too, will have an impact on farmers, through the retailers.

    Retailers can make deals to source meat only from farms with lower emissions, which are better for the environment and are more cost-efficient, but they must stop squeezing the farmer with lower prices while maintaining or increasing prices in their shops, thereby putting pressure on farmers while increasing their own profit margins. Let us be realistic about achievable goals, rather than squeezing the farmer every time we try to achieve specific targets. That is a different story for a different day, but it comes off the back of this debate.

    The question that we need to answer is simple: how will we produce enough food to feed a worldwide population of 9 billion by 2050? The answer lies with finding more efficient ways to raise livestock that do not compromise the needs of future generations. Enforcing a vegetarian diet would be unsustainable because the fertilisers used to increase yields, particularly nitrates, pollute water supplies and lead to other consequences. We are endangering the already fragile fishing ecosystems, and the carbon footprint of cattle and sheep is too high. Those issues must be fully considered.

    Although I fully understand the need to reduce the carbon footprint, it cannot be done at the expense of farming in the United Kingdom and, more specifically, Northern Ireland. In any consideration of the topic, the farmers’ views and opinions must be paramount. No system will work without their co-operation. Any enforcement of new regulations must be informed and subsidised and cannot be allowed to affect the cattle or the land. The Ulster Farmers Union recently highlighted an interesting figure:

    “A recent European Joint Research Centre (JRC) study, highlighted that Brazilian beef has the largest carbon footprint of imported animal products, and with this in mind it is clear that it would be extremely difficult for the EU to achieve its CO2 emission reduction objectives.”

    It is all very well to point the finger at our local farmers and to tell them what they should do, but other producers across the world are riding roughshod over the emissions objectives.

    Any importation of animals with a high carbon footprint defeats the purpose of any targets set, and the local agriculture industry must be allowed to produce, sell and achieve reasonable aims. I urge great caution when considering the enforcement of a further burden on our agriculture sector. As one farmer said to me, and this is important,

    “there are only so many targets we can reach before we realise that we haven’t had time to actually produce anything at all—just time spent filling in forms and working at machinery.”

    Let us farm and help those who farm to do their best.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) not only on securing the debate but on all his work to drive forward the all-party group’s report.

    The impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is complex and highly contested. The report does an admirable job of highlighting some of the difficulties associated with carbon footprint modelling, particularly on measuring the impact of carbon sequestration, but that is only one aspect of a much bigger picture.

    We need greater recognition of the urgent need to address climate change, and we cannot escape the reality that cattle and sheep produce a lot of methane, but it has become increasingly evident that that is not a zero-sum game; there is an increasing body of evidence showing the significant environmental benefits associated with livestock farming. When we look at both sides of the carbon balance sheet, we see that, overall, methane emissions from ruminants are only one part of the footprint of agricultural production and that cattle and sheep farming, which have been central to our culture for millennia, play a positive role not only in enabling sustainable land use but in maintaining our carbon sinks, protecting biodiversity and creating livelihoods in rural communities.

    Those issues are extremely pressing in Scotland, because livestock farming accounts for a high proportion of land use—significantly higher than in other countries of the UK. More than 82% of our agricultural land is grassland, some 70% of which is rough grazing. Those are huge carbon sinks—the Scottish Agricultural College estimates that they represent 80% of the UK’s carbon stocks—so the extent to which carbon sequestration takes place on grassland is very important. We do not yet have enough consistent evidence to reach definitive conclusions, but we know that changing the use of that land could have very adverse consequences, not just for greenhouse gas emissions but for biodiversity and the livelihoods of our farmers and rural communities.

    In the past, I have heard simplistic arguments for switching from livestock to arable production, which is a total non-starter in most of Scotland. Some 85% of Scottish land is less-favoured area, and much of it, especially on higher ground, is not suitable for crops. Our climate, combined with marginal land quality, makes arable farming an unviable proposition in many parts of the country. As much of that land is a carbon sink, bringing grasslands and rough grazing into cultivation would, frankly, be destructive and irresponsible in climate and environmental terms; it would increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.

    By contrast, a great deal can be done to maximise the sustainability of livestock farming without compromising livelihoods. Research by Scotland’s Rural College as part of the “Farming for a Better Climate” initiative shows there are lots of simple, practical steps that farmers can take to minimise and mitigate the impact of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions, from how they manage grazing land to how they use fertilisers and manage waste and slurry; there is also the kind of energy, bedding materials and feed that they use, and even the breeds of sheep and cattle that they rear. Let us not forget that that account cannot end at the front gate—the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who is no longer in his place, made a point about transport costs—it is also about other aspects of the supply chain, such as packaging and processing costs, all of which potentially have an environmental impact that can be reduced to bring better produce to consumers.

    I represent a constituency famous for producing some of the finest beef anywhere in the world. Indeed, Buchan was known as the stockyard of Britain in the days when we still had trains. We are proud of the beef and lamb that we produce in the north-east, but livestock numbers have fallen across Scotland in recent years. As several colleagues from Northern Ireland have said, this has not been an easy time for livestock farmers, who face a range of challenges that are outwith the scope of today’s debate.

    When people stop farming, the land stops being stewarded and communities start to diminish. Before we make rash policy decisions, it is important that we have a much better understanding of the role of carbon sequestration. We do not have enough of an evidence base yet, but policy should be based on knowing what we are dealing with and how we can best use our land sustainably. We should recognise that livestock farming is one of the most sustainable ways to manage, maintain and steward grassland and land that is not suitable for cultivation.

    I hope the Minister will take on board the all-party group’s concerns about the methodologies used by DEFRA to measure the climate impact of beef and lamb production. I also hope he will recognise the contribution that cattle and sheep farming make to sustainable land management, food security, biodiversity and the well-being of our rural communities.

  • It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—I very much enjoyed her speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on calling the debate.

    I should mention that I keep Hereford cattle, which are the finest, tastiest, most adaptable and most popular breed in the world—no need for any of these Welsh Whites.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I would be delighted to give way after challenging the hon. Gentleman.

  • Welsh Whites are a very small breed, with little panda eyes that look up at you. It would be very difficult to eat them, because they are gorgeous little creatures.

  • It is difficult to justify having these wonderful animals if they have no purpose. One key point is that if we did not have a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, largely from meat, it would be hard to justify having these wonderful breeds, from many different parts of the United Kingdom, which would be a great loss.

    There are two primary causes of climate change: one is chopping down trees in our rain forests to plant soya beans, and we are doing what we can to mitigate the impact of that industry; the other is emissions from the front and the back of the cow, which release methane into the atmosphere. While the emissions from our cattle are regrettable, we have taken steps to control the phenomenon, and we are currently taking further action.

    A report called “The English Beef and Sheep Production Roadmap—Phase 1”, from 2009, states:

    “Steady improvements in beef and sheep production efficiency have taken place over the past decade, with 5% fewer prime animals required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998.”

    Emission levels from British cattle have therefore been reduced due to lower cattle numbers.

    Regardless of where the emissions come from, however, the inquiry undertaken by the all-party group has clearly highlighted the fact that there are specific issues surrounding the way in which we in England measure carbon emissions from grazing livestock on our farms. In some cases, we go so far as to disadvantage our farmers, our industry and even our country, in terms of its ability to meet the agricultural industry’s global targets. It is outrageous that there is no international consensus on sequestration, and I am sure the Minister will want to see one. Having a consensus is absolutely fundamental; indeed, there is an old saying: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” We have to move forward on that.

    Britain excludes sequestration from its assessments, whereas France and Wales, which is next to my constituency, include sequestration. That means that when we make comparisons between the three countries and measure how close each is to reaching its targets, we in England find ourselves at a disadvantage. While the inquiry by the all-party group, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, has told us many things we already knew, it has also revealed sequestration to be the primary issue of contention.

    England has one of the most efficient livestock production systems in the world, in the form of our rain-fed pastures. Yet, grazing cattle and sheep comes in for undue negative criticism, with the focus fixed firmly on emissions from animals. Those animals actually have a positive part to play in landscape management and the utilisation of land that cannot, as many colleagues have said, be used for arable crops. Many fellow Members would support us in the view that our sheep and cattle contribute meaningfully to our environment, and the all-party group report rightly acknowledges that. One of the contentions revealed by the report is that if we, like France and Wales, took such issues into account, our carbon footprint could be significantly lower, and our farmers would be at less of a disadvantage.

    The report suggests we need more robust scientific evidence and data to move the debate forward constructively. National Farmers Union climate change adviser Dr Ceris Jones acknowledged that the report highlights the exclusion of sequestration from the majority of our calculations of greenhouse gases. As the report recalls, “a number of witnesses” supported the idea that pasture land had the ability

    “to sequester carbon from the atmosphere”.

    It goes on to point to research being done in France by Professor Jean François Soussana on carbon sequestration, which may point to why several countries now include carbon sequestration in their calculations.

    In my constituency, farming is a major employer and a huge part of the local economy. I therefore find very troubling anything that hampers my constituents or that might prevent their businesses from growing or from being as successful as they could be.

    Carbon sequestration is set to be a significant issue for the industry, particularly because of the different attitudes towards it in different countries. As I explained, those differences could have a significant negative impact on our industry. If we could offset the methane emissions from grazing livestock, as happens in France and Wales, that could have a positive implication for our understanding of our livestock’s carbon footprint. Additionally, as the report explains, that

    “would render the current PAS 2050 model incorrect and would mean we should move to a model closer to that used in France.”

    Before such a drastic move is contemplated, and with the science unresolved, further investigation should, of course, be our first course of action. Dr Luke Spadavecchia, of DEFRA, has explained to the all-party group the complexity of the sequestration calculation. Even if the science on sequestration was unanimous, however, the inquiry would still have raised several valid and vital points on, for example, sustainability and the role our cattle and sheep play in feeding the world’s growing population.

    Ultimately, there is still much debate to have on this matter. I hope the inquiry and our subsequent debate will enable us to find common ground so that we can move forward and give our farmers the best opportunity to succeed.

  • It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

    It is probably masochism that brings me here to debate with a room full of farmers. People are well aware of where I come from on this issue, but I hope to convince them that I am speaking not from an emotive perspective, but on the basis of a significant number of reports from eminent experts in the field, which have convinced me of the environmental danger posed by the livestock sector.

    In 2009, I introduced a debate in Parliament on the environmental impact of the livestock sector—as I recall, it was just me and the then Labour Minister, who was not particularly impressed. [Interruption.] Actually, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) may have been there.

    It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) is not here, because he introduced the Sustainable Livestock Bill in Parliament a few years ago as a private Member’s Bill.

  • When the hon. Lady refers to the dangers of livestock production, is she differentiating between grass-fed livestock on permanent pasture, which is good for the landscape and biodiversity, and other forms of livestock? It is an interesting point, and I would like her to clarify it.

  • I will get on to that in a moment. It was one of the first points I was going to make.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South is by no means a vegetarian—he enjoys eating meat—but he made a persuasive case at that time for looking at the environmental impact of the livestock sector. It is a shame that he could not be here, because he perhaps has more credibility on these matters than I do in the eyes of the farmers present.

    However, let me turn to my first point and respond to the intervention from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). The problem with today’s debate is that it has, for understandable reasons, focused very much on farming in the UK. I understand that Members are keen to support the industry and the farmers in their constituencies, but that has led to a bit of a distortion, with a focus on grazing and grass-fed livestock, although I entirely agree that their environmental impact is less serious.

    I had an interesting meeting with the Campaign to Protect Rural England on Friday and was told how in some areas of Wales the land previously used for sheep grazing was being used to grow blueberries, or given over to forestry, which were both more profitable. I accept that the areas at the top of the hill would not be suitable for that, but the CPRE made the case for alternative uses. Given the price of blueberries in the supermarket, perhaps people would gain from venturing into growing them.

  • The hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have focused on local farming, but I think every one mentioned farming elsewhere in the world, where the impact and the carbon footprint are greater. Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that if livestock farming plays a role—and we believe it may—other countries need to do their part? Does she feel that that is something she should focus on?

  • I entirely support the move, if people are going to eat meat, towards locally-sourced, sustainable, grass-fed cattle. That is far more environmentally friendly, in view of issues such as food miles; and, in the case of organic meat, issues of pesticides and fertilisers are also addressed. I support that. It is not the ideal solution, but it is a lot better.

    I had a piece published on the topic in the New Statesman last week; 97% of the world’s soya crop goes to farmed animals. As to the question of how to feed the world without a partly meat-based diet, it is estimated that we could eliminate most of the worst of world hunger with about 40 million tonnes of food, but at the moment nearly 20 times that—760 million tonnes—is fed to animals each year. My article was to an extent a criticism of the Enough Food IF campaign, which is about feeding the world and lobbying the G8 to address global hunger. The campaign criticises the fact that 100 million tonnes of crops go towards biofuels, and says that biofuels are a bad thing; but, as I have said, 760 million tonnes go towards feeding animals and it seems completely silent on that point. That needs to be addressed when we consider the devastation of the rain forest and its environmental impact.

  • The hon. Lady is making an important point about the substitution of animal feed for human food, but she must understand that—even if the crop is wheat or soya beans—not all that food would be suitable for human consumption. Therefore, even in the ideal world that she hopes to live in, what she envisages would not mean we could not have animals.

  • I understand the nuanced argument that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but I still think that there is a compelling case, and I want to deal now with some reports.

    It seemed to me that during the debate there was a herd of elephants in the room, which hon. Members were not mentioning. No reference was made to other very authoritative reports, which have said there is a serious issue to be addressed. In my 2009 debate, I cited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report of 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, which makes compelling reading. It concluded:

    “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

    I will not cite all the figures that I quoted in my debate, because people will be familiar with the fact that it takes 8 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • I do not think I can take any more interventions, because I suspect the winding-up speeches will begin soon, and I have been generous in giving way.

    Raj Patel wrote in “Stuffed and Starved”:

    “The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million”.

    I also cited figures about the water footprint. It takes 100 times as much water to produce 1 kg of beef as it does to grow 1 kg of vegetables. It takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein. It takes almost 21 square metres of land to produce 1 kg of beef, if we factor in animal feed, compared with 0.3 square metres to produce 1 kg of vegetables; I could go on. That was a 2006 report, but more recently Professor Mark Sutton, the lead author of a UN environment programme study published in February, entitled “Our Nutrient World”, called for people to become what he called demitarians, and eat half as much meat as they do now. He said:

    “Unless action is taken increases in pollution and the per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity”.

    In 2009, a report was produced called “How Low Can We Go?”. It was co-authored by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Food Climate Research Network set up by Dr Tara Garnett, who is now at the university of Oxford. It gave scenarios in which cuts in food system emissions would mean we could reduce the total UK carbon footprint by 20%—that is, make a 70% cut in the UK food carbon footprint, which is currently about 30% of the UK total. It concluded:

    “A reduction in consumption of livestock products could play a significant role in any deep and long-term abatement strategy”

    to cut greenhouse gas emissions

    “from the UK’s food chain.”

    Another relevant paper was called “Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture” and was published in The Lancet in December 2009. It was a collaboration between the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, Canberra, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Food Climate Research Network and the London International Development Centre. I am sure that hon. Members do not need me to tell them that work published in The Lancet is peer-reviewed. I would say that that is a considerably more rigorous process than the all-party group inquiry that we have heard about. The paper concluded:

    “Agricultural food production and agriculturally-related change in land use substantially contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. Four-fifths of agricultural emissions arise from the livestock sector. Although livestock products are a source of some essential nutrients, they provide large amounts of saturated fat, which is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We considered potential strategies for the agricultural sector to meet the target recommended by the UK Committee on Climate Change to reduce UK emissions from the concentrations recorded in 1990 by 80% by 2050, which would require a 50% reduction by 2030. With use of the UK as a case study, we identified that a combination of agricultural technological improvements and a 30% reduction in livestock production would be needed to meet this target”.

    The final report I want to mention is “Setting the Table”, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and published by the Sustainable Development Commission in December 2009. It found that eliminating waste, cutting fatty and sugary foods and reducing meat and dairy consumption would make the biggest contribution towards improving health and reducing the environmental impacts of the food system. The SDC’s research found evidence that consuming only fish from sustainable stocks, eating more seasonal food, cutting out bottled water, shopping on foot, and some other things not directly related to the meat industry would contribute towards a more sustainable diet. However, it concluded that the most significant health and environmental benefits were from reducing meat and dairy, cutting food and drink of low nutritional value and reducing food waste.

    I appreciate the intention of hon. Members who are present today to defend the UK beef and sheep industry; but I do not think it is helpful, in doing that, to ignore much of the other evidence. We cannot look at the issues in isolation. We should begin by acknowledging that there is a problem, and address that. I am slightly concerned that EBLEX, the organisation for the British beef and sheep industry, supports the all-party group, and is thanked in the report. I also note that Weber Shandwick provides the secretariat for the group, and has been thanked for its help in compiling the report. I do not know quite what clients it has that have led to its interest in the issue, but I think vested interests are clearly at work. I was going to say they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes—I have managed to make an entire speech without sheep or cow-related puns until now; I am not sure that the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) will manage that. He already has a twinkle in his eye. I think that there is, to an extent, an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes, and I urge Ministers to consider the issue in the round, rather than looking only at the narrow points made in the report.

  • It is a delight to serve in a debate under your stewardship, Mrs Brooke, and to respond briefly, before the Minister takes the stage. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and other members of the all-party group on beef and lamb for their work on the report. I note for the record my membership of the group, although I can take no credit or praise for this report. I was absent from the proceedings during witness statements and so on. My absence in no way diminishes the report; in fact, it probably strengthens it.

    I will mention the contributions before I make some detailed points. The chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, went in some detail through the report, which I will discuss in a moment. I should make it clear that I used the example of Welsh White cattle for a particular reason. He made the point ably in his contribution that we should consider not only issues such as carbon reduction, emissions and sequestration, but the wider benefits of particular livestock in certain landscapes and environments.

    The reason why I gave the curious example of the fairly rare Welsh White—a small beef animal—is that its footprint is slightly lighter than other cattle but slightly heavier than sheep. It does a perfect job of breaking up the upland peat bogs of the Plynlimon hills, but not breaking up the ground too much. Combined with excellent work done by local farmers and the Wildlife Trusts to re-block some of the drains dug during the second world war to dry out the land so crops could be planted, which never quite worked successfully, the breed is now yielding great dividends. The right creature in the right habitat helps biodiversity as well.

    The hon. Gentleman made the point well in his contribution that there is a wider range of issues, some of which are interlinked. Often, we talk about carbon on this side and biodiversity on the other side. We need to pull the strands together intelligently.

    The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a varied contribution. He always speaks well, and not only about the interests of Northern Ireland and his constituents. He rightly raised food security and food production, as did other Members. We are focusing increasingly on meeting the need for good nutrition and affordable food on the tables of a growing population both within this country and in terms of exports. Export markets are growing for Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and English produce.

    The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) added an extra dimension to the debate when she said that we need to consider both sides of carbon. Again, that came out in the all-party parliamentary group’s report: this is not simply about carbon emissions, but about sequestration within different types of landscape. The point was well made, and I will return to it.

    The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) made a good contribution, although I should pick him up on one point. He referred to Wales, “which is next to my constituency.” It is a little larger than simply being next to his constituency; it is next to a few others as well. I understand that Wales is often used as a unit of international measurement, but I would not want to think that it is only the size of North Herefordshire. It is a little larger.

  • It is definitely still next door to my constituency, though.

  • It is, but it is next door to a lot of others as well. We may be slightly smaller than other countries, but we are a proud nation, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) rightly challenged the farming sector with its responsibilities in terms of climate change and carbon emissions, saying that it could do more. She was eminently reasonable on the contribution that farming could play as part of the wider UK and global drive to tackle global emissions. She also widened the debate to the issue of biofuels versus food, which other hon. Members also raised, and to diet and other reports that challenge or contradict what we are debating. Those reports were useful for this debate and probably deserve separate debates, which I am sure she will seek; it is right to have challenge.

    This is more than simply an applied academic argument about how we measure and compare the carbon footprint of livestock. It is about effective measures to improve the performance of different types of farms in different farming sectors, and we can seek that improvement only if we measure the right thing in the right way and make like-for-like comparisons both within the UK and its devolved Administrations and internationally. As hon. Members have said, it is also a matter of food security and providing for the demands of a growing global population, and as I am sure other members of the all-party group are aware, it is a matter of reputational importance to the livestock sector. It recognises the work that the sector can do and its role in reducing carbon emissions, while putting good, wholesome British food on consumers’ plates in all parts of the UK and increasingly in other countries, which demand outstanding produce from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

    The all-party group’s report raises questions about the accuracy and appropriateness of measurement, the lack of consensus on standard methodologies of measurement and the lack of comparability between measurement approaches domestically and internationally, as well as about how carbon sequestration can and should be taken into account with a standard approach. The all-party group has done a great service to the House by raising those issues, so that the Minister can respond to them domestically and internationally. I will turn briefly to some of the specific issues.

    I am grateful for the information provided to all hon. Members by the National Farmers Union and others. One interesting dilemma within the discussions on carbon emissions and sequestration is illustrated in upland hill farming, which is part of my family background. The NFU makes the good point that such farmers could be particularly disadvantaged by how we currently measure, assess and compare carbon impacts. Some of the hill farms are on poor land without any real alternative uses. Such farming is also extensive in nature; it takes far longer to raise lambs to carcase weight. The finishing period is far longer, and generally, the vegetation and forage are of a much lower standard. That has a significant impact. When we look at the farming sector as a whole and say, “You’re not doing well enough,” the question comes back, “What alternatives do you have for that environment?” It is an interesting question. I am glad that I am speaking up for sheep, rather than cattle, after my earlier intervention. As we mentioned, it is also a question of the benefits for landscape management and biodiversity of having the right livestock in the right place.

    On the international comparators raised by the all-party group and others, can the Minister give us an update on what progress has been made towards standardising international measures? What is happening on the common carbon footprinting methodology for the lamb meat sector? What is happening on the slightly earlier-stage beef life-cycle assessment white paper by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef? How are those things progressing? They and similar transnational interventions might provide some solutions to what the all-party group seeks.

    Some issues raised by the NFU include the uncertainty still associated with agricultural emissions—it existed while we were in government, and it is still ambiguous now—the need for good data about the wider aspects of on-farm activity, the choice of unit used to assess on-farm activity and carbon emissions, where the boundary lies and whether farm-specific mitigation measures should be part of the overall measure of a farm’s carbon impact. If a farm takes measures, including on renewable energy and so on, should they be included?

    Finally, the NFU has broadly welcomed the recent call by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board to develop and deliver a computer-based environmental impact calculator for use by UK farms. It sees that as a way to achieve less ambiguity and more confidence. Will the Minister give us an update on that as well?

    I thank the all-party group for its report and for securing the debate this afternoon. The right questions are being asked, and I am sure that the Minister will give us some assurance on them. Much more work needs to be done on measurement and comparability, but while recognising the real issues of food security and affordability, there are also things on which the farming sector—if we can get the measurements right—will want to deliver. Such work will show not only what a good job farmers do, but what more they can do to help us in our drive to tackle carbon emissions and climate change.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and I think that this is the first time I have done so, so it is a particular pleasure. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), not only on securing the debate and his contribution to it, but on the work of the all-party group for beef and lamb, which he chairs, and its report.

    I am going to introduce a few figures, which are important to the debate. It is a fact that man-made greenhouse gas emissions represent a serious threat of climate change. Inescapably, agriculture directly accounts for about 10% to 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. More widely, including other emissions associated with agricultural production, such as land use change, energy for fertiliser production and fuel for transport and refrigeration of products, emissions from global food production are far more significant, perhaps totalling 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the figures are rather different. Agriculture accounts for about 9% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and overall emissions from the agriculture sector have decreased by 20% since 1990, while we expect them to decrease by 12% from 2010 levels by 2025. I hope that that puts the issue into context.

    The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, as well as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), stressed the importance in discussion of such matters of recognising balance—there are downsides, but also upsides. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) mentioned, for example, the value not only of biodiversity but of having a thriving and positive economy in the country. Getting the balance right is important, therefore, and is exemplified in specific cases. The hon. Member for Ogmore told us about his little, sad-looking White cattle in Plynlimon. I seem to remember that Plynlimon is the wettest place in the United Kingdom—it has the highest rainfall—so perhaps that is why the cattle look sad: they are sitting at the source of the great River Severn and feeling sorry for themselves, because it is raining. Nevertheless, he made an important point about needing the right animals in the right places to achieve the right results.

    To return to our carbon footprint in this country, UK beef and lamb producers are among the most efficient globally. In 2010, the EU Joint Research Centre published a report showing that British beef is produced with less than half the emissions per kilogram than beef from Brazil. Those results are supported by research undertaken by Ricardo-AEA and Cranfield university, which reported that beef from Brazil is produced with 33% greater emissions than beef from the UK. The point I am making, because many Members have been concerned about what carbon footprinting is all about, is that it can be a useful tool to help businesses identify inefficiencies and emissions hot spots in order to improve not only environmental performance, but business efficiency and competitiveness.

    I was slightly concerned by the contributions of some Members, who suggested a serious detriment to agricultural producers in this country, which carbon footprinting is not. Carbon footprints are not used in international policy making; they are tools for the benchmarking and marketing of products. In England and Wales, we do not have Government targets for mitigation in the agricultural sector. International emission comparisons are made using greenhouse gas inventories that are compiled under strict guidance issued by the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change. It is important to recognise that carbon footprinting can help the industry to meet not only our societal needs, in dealing with greenhouse gases, but its business needs, in doing the right thing. Carbon footprints are not intended—I can certainly foresee no such intention—to be introduced as targets or as something that individual producers must fulfil.

    Nevertheless, the industry wants to do better. The UK beef and sheep industry, therefore, is seeking further emission reductions through the EBLEX product road maps, recognising that measures to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions generally increase business efficiency and competitiveness. My Department welcomes such developments as part of the wider growth strategy for the sector.

    The APG made some specific points. Its report draws attention to the problems of standardisation for carbon footprinting of the beef and sheep sector. Under the previous Government, DEFRA worked with the British Standards Institute and the Carbon Trust to develop the PAS 2050 standard for carbon footprinting and to encourage best practice. PAS 2050 aims to simplify carbon footprinting so that it can be carried out by a wider range of practitioners, and provides guidance to ensure greater consistency in approach.

    The report is right to point out, however, areas of uncertainty where flexibility is needed, so PAS 2050 is not prescriptive for individual products, although it includes the potential for industry to develop product guidelines known as “supplementary requirements” to ensure that consistent approaches are used and to improve comparability of results. The dairy sector, for example, has produced such guidance via DairyCo, in partnership with the Carbon Trust. DairyCo has also worked with the International Dairy Federation to promote international standardisation. EBLEX is, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore, discussing international standards for carbon footprinting beef production systems with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative or SAI Platform, a food-industry initiative supporting the development of sustainable agriculture worldwide. Similarly, EBLEX is exploring options to develop international standards for lamb production.

    The APG report also calls for improved accounting of soil carbon sequestration in carbon footprinting. PAS 2050 provides for the optional inclusion of soil carbon sequestration in carbon footprinting, but we might have a misunderstanding about the terminology, which I want to address. There is a distinction between carbon storage and carbon sequestration: carbon storage is carbon that is held by permanent pasture or any other land management system; and carbon sequestration is a process by which carbon is captured in that system.

    Scientific understanding indicates that UK pastures represent a significant store of carbon, but do not tend to sequester additional carbon from the atmosphere. That is where the distinction needs to be drawn. If we change land management, of course we have a change—perhaps a positive one, perhaps a negative one, but one that could be either sequestration or release of carbon—but, in a steady state, we do not have a movement of carbon on that basis. Where management practices are employed to increase soil carbon sequestration, the benefits are often small, uncertain and difficult to measure. Nevertheless, DEFRA has invested £390,000 in a project to improve carbon accounting under agricultural land management, including work to assess the extent to which agricultural land management can enhance carbon sequestration in the UK, the findings of which will support carbon footprinting studies. We expect the results to be published in the spring of 2014.

  • My understanding of what the Minister said is that grassland is better storage than a sequestration process. However, the business of farming for cattle and sheep means that the carbon is captured by the grass and then moved along the food chain as the cattle eat the grass and become food and manure. That is the sequestration process, and that is why it is important to measure it.

  • There is a constant store in any land management system. Any landscape feature, if it is not changed, will have a constant store, so there is a zero-sum gain. If the land is ploughed up or a different crop is grown, the equation may change and the position will be different. That is the simple point that I am making.

    We want to continue to fund research into improving the sophistication and accuracy of carbon footprinting methods to support the industry and we have engaged actively in the production of internationally agreed standards for carbon footprints. Research under the UK’s agricultural greenhouse gas research and development platform is a £13.5 million initiative which, in response to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is not in his place at the moment, is shared with the devolved Administrations, so it is also relevant to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. Its purpose is to improve the understanding of greenhouse gas emissions from UK agriculture, and it will also provide underpinning evidence to improve the quality of carbon footprints.

    Given the wide variety of production systems and processes in beef and sheep farming, carbon footprinting inevitably becomes part of the marketing mix, but as with other product information, the industry has a responsibility to be transparent about what it has and has not included in the analyses.

  • Will the Minister address the point that was made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about methane emissions? I believe that 37% of methane emissions are attributable to the livestock sector, but the hon. Gentleman argued that because they come from a natural source they may not be as environmentally damaging as emissions from other sources. My understanding is that emissions are emissions and cause the same harm regardless of where they originate.

  • The hon. Lady is of course right. A greenhouse gas is a greenhouse gas and has an effect on climate change. I do not accept entirely the argument about some being natural and others are not. That is transparently the case, but it is not a distinction that should affect our consideration of emissions. Some processes and activities are more avoidable than others, and some have a societal interest. The hon. Lady’s contention is perfectly respectable and she is entirely consistent in what she says about not using pasture land to produce animals as we do at the moment. However, society generally does not agree with that view. Society in this country generally wants to eat meat and wants the most efficient and effective processes, which is why we provide research support to help the industry to make those processes as beneficial and as least harmful as possible, but that does not mean that people do not want to eat meat. In the same way, people want to move around the country despite the fact that doing so has a demonstrable effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

  • I thought I made it clear at the beginning that I was concerned primarily about soya and grain production and its impact, rather than grass-fed animals in this country.

  • I understand. I am not trying to misrepresent the hon. Lady’s point of view. She opened her comments by saying that she was somewhat masochistic in expressing her view in a debate populated largely by people with agricultural interests.

    If we can do anything to mitigate effects on agriculture and any other sphere, we should do so. If we can provide help with research and help the industry to help itself in reducing those effects, all the better. We want to put all those factors into the equation with the other undoubted benefits of extensive pasture and the societal changes in parts of the country where other forms of agriculture would be exceedingly difficult, or in areas where there is huge expertise, for example, in beef production. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) prayed in aid his Hereford cattle, and I thought there might be tension between those with Herefords and those with Aberdeen Angus cattle, but that did not arise. Let us join together in saying that this country is blessed with not only some of the best breeds of livestock, but some of the best livestock husbandry anywhere. I am proud of that, and it makes my job that much easier.

    My final point is about industry development and supplementary requirements, and responds in part to the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton’s all-party group. Getting development of supplementary requirements under PAS 2050 and product rules under the greenhouse gas protocol product standard will help to bring consistency to carbon footprinting in the beef and sheep sector. EBLEX has taken the lead, and is a very effective levy-funded organisation. It is working on a UK-wide basis, which is relevant to some of the arguments about levy funding in the red meat sector, to produce the best possible advice and support for all producers throughout the United Kingdom, and I support it in that.

    My hon. Friend and his all-party group have made some important points about the lack of consistency and the interpretation of the information we have to date. We accept that there is a lack of consistency. We want to improve that and to make the information as useful as possible because that will help the industry to move in the right direction in reducing as far as possible the emissions from agriculture and ensuring that we contribute as much as we can to our overall reduction in greenhouse gas. I hope we all support that. It is a principal feature of Government policy.

  • I thank the Minister for his response. I want to put on the record the benefits of grass-fed beef and sheep production, and the fact that the amount of carbon stored in the soil balances the methane gas that the animals release. That is the particular point that I wanted the report to emphasise.

  • I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend to make that final comment without running foul of the procedural rules. This debate has been extremely useful and interesting. The argument will continue to engage us, but we have made a valuable contribution today.