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Net Zero & livestock: bridging the data and evidence gap

By Frances Ryan, Researcher (livestock and environment)

We recently worked with the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) to assess strategies that could support the UK’s livestock and aquaculture sector to make investments and identify policy challenges for achieving Net Zero. In the UK, where our team is based, the livestock sector has set ambitious goals for reaching Net Zero: reducing CO2-eq emissions by 64%. The sector will need to adopt a raft of new approaches and invest in new technologies to come close to achieving these reductions. A 2022 CIEL study on Net Zero & Livestock estimated current approaches might only deliver a 23% reduction where uptake is increased. But the sector needs to know which innovations show the most promise for reducing livestock sector emissions and understand the pros and cons of investing in these.

Even in the UK, evidence to inform action on Net Zero is disparate and difficult to assess. Nonetheless, we dug into the scholarly evidence base on actions and innovations such as manure management, novel feeds, genetic improvements, nutrient management, soil carbon sequestration, and anti-methanogen vaccines.

Data and evidence challenges

In the process of this research, we had to navigate many data and evidence challenges, ones we regularly face when compiling livestock data and evidence for low-and middle-income countries.

Net Zero & Livestock: Bridging the Gap
Download the report: Net Zero & Livestock: Bridging the Gap

Closed data: Many of the technological innovations for reducing emissions in the livestock sector, such as novel feeds, are private sector-led. Companies are developing patented products for commercial gain which can mean that there are confidentiality issues. As a result, there is less data and information in the public domain.

No localized data: It’s difficult to assess a technology if it has only been studied in a laboratory or in a very narrow context. Some technologies have not yet been tested in the UK which makes it difficult to assess their potential in the UK (or any other country for that matter). Technological results can also be very dependent on the nuances of specific production systems.

Dispersed or missing data: Two of the solutions we looked at (genetics and nutrient management) have major data gaps. We have suggested prioritizing improvements in data to support decision making. Without the data, the sector cannot implement changes.

For example, there may be big opportunities for improving livestock sector emissions through improved animal genetics, but most of the data is prioritized on one trait (e.g. animal size), which may in fact not be the most important one for reducing emissions. To optimize genetic improvements, there needs to be data showing how various genetic traits influence each other. There also needs to be more data on how the microbiome of the animal’s rumen contributes to emissions and how this is influenced by genetics. Because the work on genetics has focused mainly on ruminants and methane production, there is limited data on poultry or aquaculture genetics. It is not straightforward to compare the mitigation potentials of different livestock, as there are many factors that influence an animal’s emissions. That makes it tricky to link recorded traits with methane production. To make more systematic and balanced assessments, there needs to be an international genomic database compiling all the various data together.

Emerging ideas for ‘closing the loop’

In undertaking this work, we were fascinated to learn about opportunities to ‘close the loop’, meaning emissions and waste from one part of the agricultural system becoming a viable input to another part of the system. For example, we normally think of livestock and aquaculture as two distinct systems but there is potential to harness interactions and close the emissions loop by processing livestock waste into fertilizer or using fish waste as livestock feed. In Norway, farmers are using fish waste to grow forages for livestock, which is something we should pay attention to.

Insights for low-and middle-income countries

All countries need to reduce emissions from livestock, but how they do it will differ based on the context. Low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) have huge opportunities to improve production efficiency, and some of the technologies outlined in the  CIEL report may help inform these discussions. It’s critical that countries share knowledge and resources, and support the testing and adaptation of technologies in different contexts. It is equally important to jointly generate and share data, insights and knowledge to inform local action.

Unexplored questions

This set of studies looked at evidence around the practical aspects of emerging technologies and innovations to help the UK livestock sector decide priorities for investment. But all sectors need to consider the broader economic, environmental and social dimensions of Net Zero strategies, even when there is insufficient data. This includes assessing how interventions may impact on gender and social inclusion. It will be important to undertake some social trade-off analysis in addition to economic analysis, especially if testing high income country technologies in LMICs. We may also find that some of these innovations are technologically possible but not economically feasible due to the required scale.

Finally, it’s important to consider a broad definition of the environment. We’ve looked mainly at emissions, but livestock interacts with a range of dimensions, especially soils, water retention, and flood mitigation.

We hope that CIEL members will appreciate that there is no one-sized fits all approach for achieving Net Zero, and that these briefs will be the start of a practical long-term conversation.

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Vanessa Meadu, Communications and Knowledge Exchange Specialist, SEBI-Livestock
Page created: 26 Jul 2023 Page last reviewed: 21 Jun 2024