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Illustration: Marc Conaco
Illustration: Marc Conaco

PartnersNovember 24, 2022

Setting a standard: How our beef and lamb footprint measures up against the world

Illustration: Marc Conaco
Illustration: Marc Conaco

New research has found that the carbon footprint of Aotearoa-produced beef and lamb is among the lowest in the world. We took a deeper look at what the report says, and why it matters.

So what is this research?

Commissioned by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the Meat Industry Association, and conducted by AgResearch, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study looked at on-farm emissions – which allowed for direct comparisons with other countries – but also went further, looking at the full “cradle to grave” footprint (ie including on-farm, processing and post-processing emissions). The report’s findings showed that despite the additional emissions involved with exporting product, our total footprint was still lower than the majority of countries – even those who had domestically produced meat.

While the report acknowledges that differences in methodologies make it difficult to accurately compare countries’ footprints across the entire process, particularly notable is the difference in the liveweight footprint of our stock. This metric, used to measure emissions before an animal is processed, shows that New Zealand’s average carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) per kilogram of sheep meat is less than half the international average, and about 30% lower than the international average for beef.

Liveweight emissions for New Zealand sheep and beef track well below international averages. (Illustration: Marc Conaco)

Why should I care?

As Andre Mazzetto, senior scientist for AgResearch, notes, this is an area of increasing importance to consumers: “People are very concerned recently about greenhouse gas emissions from products generally, and especially from food products. They’re making choices based on the level of greenhouse gas emissions.” 

With the concerns around the state of our environment, conscious consumerism is quickly becoming the new norm and people want to know where their food comes from and the impact its production has on the world. With beef and lamb being so core to both our national diet and our national economy, it’s crucial that the sector strives to perform as sustainably as possible.

New Zealand has several greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, including both domestic and international targets up to the year 2050. The government has also partnered with the primary sector and iwi to equip farmers to measure, manage and reduce on-farm agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. This includes collaboration on the detailed development of an appropriate on-farm emissions pricing mechanism, which will come into effect in 2025. He Waka Eke Noa is working towards all farmers and growers knowing their emissions number, including measures to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to climate change in their farm business and environment plans.

That all sounds great, but what actual measures are we talking about here? And why do they matter?

Scientists have struggled over the years to standardise long-lived gases (like carbon dioxide) and short-lived gases (like methane) into a single equivalent measure. One of the most commonly used metrics is GWP100, which considers the global warming potential of a particular gas if measured over 100 years. As the science evolves however, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that this metric overstates the impact of methane when this gas is not increasing, as is the case for sheep and beef cattle in Aotearoa. 

We now know that although it has an initially stronger impact on the environment, methane gas breaks down and is reabsorbed by plants in around 20 years, while carbon dioxide molecules from fossil fuel combustion are part of the long cycle of carbon, heating the atmosphere for thousands of years before coming back full circle. In an LCA, GWP100 tells you what are the emissions of that product if that product didn’t exist. In GWP*, it instead tells you what the warming impact of that product has been over the last 20 years. Both have a valid place, even if GWP100 does overestimate the impact of methane when it’s not going up – and while emissions are important, that warming impact is generally considered to be a far more meaningful metric for our climate targets.

Adapted from Clear Centre at UC Davis. (Illustration: Marc Conaco)

What did the report tell us, besides that we’re doing a pretty great job compared with other nations?

The calculation using GWP* for the period 1998 to 2018 showed that when taking into account sequestration – trees and other vegetation on farms absorbing emissions – New Zealand’s sheepmeat is arguably “climate neutral” and New Zealand beef is also well on the way towards that. This means that over the last 20 years, New Zealand sheepmeat has not added any additional warming, while absolute greenhouse emissions from New Zealand sheep and beef farming have decreased by 30 per cent since 1990.

Although the signs are promising, the report also acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. With Aotearoa sheepmeat producers having reduced their emissions by 32 percent since 1990 and sequestration on sheep and beef farms absorbing a proportion of the remaining emissions, the average carbon footprint of sheepmeat is now -0.34kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) per kilogram of meat. However, as noted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, some account also needs to be given to ongoing warming. It’s also important to note that for this number to remain low in future, it’s dependent on either no increase in sheep numbers, or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per kg of liveweight stock on our farms.

On-farm measurements can only tell us so much about our meat’s emissions footprint – all of the above also factors in. (Illustration: Marc Conaco)

This is good news for my next Sunday roast, but what happens from here?

Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the Meat Industry Association want the sector’s methane targets amended to be similar in effect to the CO2 target – that is, no additional warming by 2050. The two organisations also want the government to start reporting on annual warming and annual emissions for the sector. And while they understandably want to celebrate the world-leading footprint of New Zealand beef and sheepmeat, they’re conscious that the work isn’t yet done. To that end, the report acknowledges the need both for ongoing efficiency gains and for improvements in the science itself – increasing the sophistication of the way we make (and interpret) these measurements, basically.

Despite that need, the parties involved see this report as a watershed moment for the beef and lamb production industry in Aotearoa – the first time that we’ve had a meaningful measure of the actual impact of the sector, rather than one extrapolated from overseas numbers or less-useful metrics. The conclusion of the report puts it in simple terms: “New Zealand farmers, and consumers domestically and internationally, can have confidence that New Zealand red meat is among the most efficient in the world.”

Keep going!