Our lamb carbon footprint – most of it is down on the farm

Did you know that to produce one kilogram of New Zealand lamb and ship it to the other side of the world produces 19 kilograms of emissions in the form of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases?

That sounds like a lot and it is when you compare it to the carbon footprint of producing and shipping to the other side of the world other New Zealand primary products like milk and kiwifruit – both of which have been calculated in the last year or so. But how does it compare to other producers of lamb around the world?

That’s the crucial question as countries that buy our meat look at putting “food mile” labels on products. While this new study from Agresearch A Greenhouse Gas Footprint Study for Exported New Zealand Lamb (see bottom) doesn’t go into detail comparing us to other lamb producing nations, it sets for the first time a reliable benchmark to allow international comparisons to be made.

The 1.9kg of CO2-equivalent  per 100 grams of lamb quoted in the study has been converted to a per-kilogram number for the table below to more easily compare lamb with other products that have been footprinted. Zespri’s carbon footprint study for kiwifruit is outlined here and Fonterra’s carbon footprint study is explained here.

carbon diagram

The study confirms a couple of interesting things – that the vast majority of emissions related to producing lamb – 80 per cent, are generated on the farm. In contrast  shipping meat all the way to Europe accounts for only five per cent of CO2 equivalents. That suggests that the majority of potential greenhouse gas savings are going to come in the form of more efficient farming techniques that, for instance, reduce the amount of methane that sheep belch into the air. It is for precisely that reason that member countries of the Global Research Alliance are meeting in Wellington from tomorrow through to Friday to set up a framework for research into reducing emissions from agricultural production.

To its credit, the New Zealand lamb industry has been pretty good on the productivity front over the last two decades, managing to do a lot more with less. As the study notes:

“…the sheep industry has already made significant progress in reducing its emissions. Compared to 1990, New Zealand sheep farmers in 2009 produced slightly more lamb meat by weight, but from a 43% smaller national flock. This productivity improvement is estimated to have reduced the GHG footprint by about 22%.

But the pressure is on to make make meat production less of a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and there’s no doubt that as regulation and consumer buying trends shift against inefficient producers, an indistry’s carbon footprint will become a crucial measure. Unfortunately, it is currently very difficult to compare the carbon footprint of various products between countries. As the Agresearch study explains:

This lack of a standardised and consistently applied methodology highlights a major challenge for those retailers and regulators around the world that have a stated interest in applying carbon footprint labels to retailed food products. Such labelling will not provide credible or valid information to direct consumer purchasing decisions until such time as there are tightly defined and globally agreed methodologies for undertaking carbon footprint studies of certain product categories. (Such ‘product category rules’ are under development.) There are, however, published studies that make a narrow comparison between two competing products using a like-for-like methodology4. Such comparative studies have shown that New Zealand lamb performs relatively well.

According to Massey University’s Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, New Zealand lamb production compares favourably to lamb production in Wales: “Professor Gareth Edwards Jones, from Bangor University, has calculated that pre-farm gate, Welsh Lamb uses 39% more carbon per Kg product in production; post-farm gate, the figure is still 22% higher,” she writes in this Science Media Centre expert round-up we assembled on the study.

As the diagram below shows, the decisions you make as to how emissions should be allocated among product streams. For instance, how much emissions should be attributed to lamb meat versus wool, skins, offal, tallow etc. It is a tricky question that is crucial to coming up with a reliable figure for the carbon footprint of lamb.

lamb footprint 3

Eventually – hopefully, we will be able to use lifecycle analysis benchmarking to compare lamb, beef, milk and fruit and vegetable production across a range of countries. That’s where the UK is heading with standards, as is the International Organisation for Standardization which came up with the PAS2050 methodology the Agresearch scientists used.

So 19kg of CO2 equivalents per kg of Kiwi lamb. Studies show that’s a respectable figure but the Agresearch report suggests there is room for considerable improvement. Yet to come is the carbon footprint study for New Zealand beef, which is likely to be highly contentious and very closely scrutinized given the world demand for beef and the larger number of beef producing and exporting countries.

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