Cattle genetics need to focus on lowering methane emissions in a bid to appeal to consumers and meet demand for ‘greener’ meat it has been claimed.
Better breeding has the power to lower greenhouse gas emissions by improving efficiencies per unit of meat produced, a panel of agricultural scientists said.
The pig and poultry industries have already advanced a long way in this, but there is still room for improvement in the dairy sector (which accounts for 50 per cent of beef produced in the UK) and beef sector.
Prof Eileen Wall, head of research at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), said: “Fifty per cent of [overall livestock] production gains since World War II have come from genetics, but not so much in the beef sector.
“About 70 per cent of emissions reductions could come from efficiency [techniques] we already know about.”
Breeding values for feed efficiencies in dairy and Limousin beef cattle are expected to be made available next year, said Prof Mike Coffey, professor of livestock informatics at SRUC. This would enable farmers to select cows which produced fewer emissions.
Data for dairy cattle is being compiled at Crichton Royal Farm, Dumfries, while beef cattle data is being researched by AHDB and Defra. Scientists were speaking at the Media Science Centre, London, at an event about the environmental impact of meat production.
Prof Wall said: “The question over meat is complicated, because it is part of the overall food and farming system, so there is not a silver bullet to solve this.”
Meat production had both positive and negative impacts, said Prof Geoff Simm, director of Global Academy Agriculture and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh. Though it was still part of the solution, he urged greater understanding of the nuances in the debate.
Prof Simm said: “We are not just trying to optimise emissions, but also biodiversity, welfare and social outcomes.
“Livestock can use products we cannot use directly, such as grasslands and byproducts of plant production, so a vegan diet does not necessarily reduce land use. We need a debate about integrated land policy.”
On meat versus vegan diets, Prof Andrea Wilson, acting head of the Roslin research division of genetics and genomics at The Roslin Institute, said: “We know a lot about one [meat], but not much about the other, so the danger is we jump from one to the other [without properly understanding the consequences].”