Food Chain: Carbon footprinting can’t be ignored

Reducing carbon emissions goes hand-in-hand with better business efficiency, as well as helping the environment and improving farming’s image, say experts.

The best technical performers often have the lowest carbon footprint, so being “greener” can benefit the bottom line, as well as help satisfy the growing demands of retailers and consumers.

With more government and media attention given to climate change and its causes, retailers have already made commitments to reducing emissions (see below), initially tackling areas where they can make an immediate and relatively easily quantifiable difference. These include reducing the carbon output of stores, cutting transport emissions and using greener packaging materials and methods.

Importantly for farmers, most have also started to monitor carbon emissions of their suppliers and to raise consumer awareness of carbon choices in lifestyles and products.

Growing consumer interest in carbon reduction is illustrated by changes in behaviour that are already being seen, such as more recycling and re-use, using energy saving light bulbs, wasting less food and in some cases buying local products or those with more environmentally-friendly packaging.

Mixed messages

But, shopper attitudes to carbon output from food products are less clear and possibly less well informed, as recent research shows mixed messages.

In an online survey by Nielsen last autumn, only 3% of respondents thought that eating less meat was the biggest contribution society could make to combat global warming. That was despite widely publicised calls from some groups for lower meat consumption in order to reduce the livestock sector’s carbon output.

In contrast. an AHDB/YouGov survey in March this year found that just over 20% of consumers are prepared to reduce meat consumption as a personal contribution to reducing carbon output. The same survey of 2,000 people suggests that 24% would pay more for food to ensure a lower carbon footprint, but when asked the same specifically about meat purchases, fewer than 10% would pay more.

Buying local, fair-trade or welfare-friendly products all appear to have a higher priority with consumers than carbon output at the moment and producers should not feel browbeaten by the demands of supermarkets or customers, AHDB’s Richard Lowe says.

Greenhouse gas emission reduction targets

The Climate Change Act 2008 set legally binding emission reduction targets for the UK. Reductions of 34% must be achieved by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050. A Low Carbon Transition Plan sets out how we will meet our carbon budgets. For example, by 2020, English farming must reduce emissions by the equivalent of 11% of 2007 emissions. 

Producer opportunity

Other research carried out by DairyCo in mid-April shows that more than 40% of adults are concerned about global warming, 21% feel they would change their purchase habits if dairy products had a high environmental impact, and just over 20% believe that dairy farmers could do more to reduce their environmental impact. However, more than 40% are undecided on dairying’s environmental impact.

Amanda Ball of DairyCo sees all of this as an opportunity for producers to get a positive message over to consumers. “It’s a great opportunity to fill that gap and tell them about the changes that farmers and the dairy supply chain have already made and the further improvements that are planned,” says Mrs Ball.

A vast amount of work is already under way to audit carbon emissions on-farm, especially in dairy and livestock production. Much of this is initiated and paid for by retailers and most is being carried out under Carbon Trust accredited schemes, which are seen as the “gold standard”.

Measuring a farm or product’s carbon footprint allows a label to be attached to a product to show its environmental impact in carbon emission terms. Eventually, consumers will be able to compare similar products.

What are supermarkets doing?

As well as meeting carbon reduction targets, supermarkets have to publish annual corporate social responsibility reports and all are keen to demonstrate their carbon credentials.

Tesco has set itself ambitious targets, including becoming a zero-carbon business by 2050, carbon labelling all products (500 by the end of 2010) and achieving a 30% reduction in the carbon impact of the products in its supply chain by 2020. Chief executive Sir Terry Leahy has assured suppliers that Tesco was neither imposing nor seeking to impose this target on them, and that it could only be achieved with suppliers’ cooperation and collaboration.

So far Tesco has carbon labels on 120 products including milk, orange juice and potatoes. Initial customer reaction is encouraging, Tesco says, with more than half saying that wider application of the label could change their purchasing decisions and 68% saying they had an understanding of carbon footprints.

Sainsbury’s does not carbon label food products, as it does not believe such labels will add value for customers or help them make a more informed choice, says Annie Graham, Sainsbury’s head of brand sustainability. “All products would need to be carbon labelled using exactly the same measure… and that simply isn’t feasible at the moment. Labelling carbon also misses out wider environmental issues such as water use and biodiversity.”

However Sainsbury’s has invested tens of millions to help suppliers reduce carbon output, setting up a Dairy Development Group carbon foot-printing model in 2007 and now extending this to beef, pork, lamb, poultry, eggs and cheese.

Carbon Trust

The Carbon Trust is an independent company set up by Government in 2001. One of its responsibilities is to test and accredit systems for carbon foot printing. It also offers unsecured, interest free business loans of £3,000-100,000 to finance and invest in energy saving projects. Loans are government funded and repaid over four years.

Chris Brown, head of ethical and sustainable sourcing at Asda, says its shoppers are interested in, rather than demanding, low carbon food.

Asda’s parent company Walmart recently announced a target to reduce supply chain greenhouse gas emissions by 20m tonnes in the next five years in key categories including dairy and pigmeat.

It also markets low-carbon beef from nine to 11 month-old dairy bulls, but does not use carbon footprint labels. Asda low-carbon eggs have half the carbon footprint of standard free range eggs, achieved using wind and solar power. Since 2008, 100 dairy farmers have been using a carbon management tool supplied by the firm to help them monitor greenhouse gases.

What can producers do?

Producers are encouraged to engage with carbon monitoring and reduction and “roadmaps” for beef, lamb and dairy production have already been drawn up to steer producers in the right direction.

Livestock breeding, feeding and management all offer opportunities to meet CO2 reduction targets. Raising feed efficiency in beef cattle by a daily liveweight gain of 0.32kg with an increase of around 0.05 calves/cow/year by 2020 would achieve 11% emissions reductions, says EBLEX.

A farm carbon audit can be a useful way of identifying efficiency savings and only takes about half a day, says John Allen of Kite Consulting, which has carried out hundreds of farm audits for McDonald’s, Asda, Muller and Robert Wiseman Dairies, as well as pilots for other organisations. Audits calculate carbon output and recommend improvements in production efficiency.

More carbon-efficient dairy production is linked with higher milk yields per cow and farms with lower carbon footprints also have lower production costs, says Mr Allen. The average difference in production costs between the 10 lowest carbon output farms and the 10 highest was more than 2p/litre, with yield being key. Lower replacement rates, calving heifers earlier, feeding more by-products, optimising fertiliser and slurry use and cutting energy consumption are all valid targets.

EBLEX’s Duncan Pullar points out the danger of reducing the UK’s footprint by reducing meat and livestock production, which runs the risk of simply exporting the problem. If UK production cannot meet demand, then imports would be sucked in, he warns.

“We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this. We’re pretty good at turning pasture into meat. We’ve compared UK beef with South American beef up to the point of retail distribution in the UK and we’re more efficient in CO2 equivalent terms – there’s a 20% difference.”

The UK has a head start in milk production too, using half the carbon of the world average, more efficient producers use just one third of the world average, says Mr Allen. He thinks we could see a premium being paid for low carbon milk in five years’ time.


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