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Waste not, want not: Reducing livestock's greenhouse gas emissions in the UK

Livestock, domestic animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs, is responsible for 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Because of the scale of its contribution, mitigation of emissions from the livestock sector must be addressed in order to avoid an average global temperature rise of more than 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. 

This paper focuses on GHG emissions from post-farm gate activities, which contribute half of all of the food sector’s GHG emissions in industrialized countries, and in particular on waste and consumption.  It considers the UK as a case study.

To date in the UK there has been much more activity targeted at reducing GHGs from waste disposal than waste prevention or consumption.  Most government-led policy action been on diverting waste from landfill to other more climate-friendly means of disposal like anaerobic digestion, composting or incineration, primarily through implementation of the landfill tax.  Prevention, which is the most effective option for reducing the GHG emissions from food waste, has been heavily reliant on the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a not-for-profit company funded by the four UK governments and the EU.  In terms of consumption, the majority of public campaigns in the UK have focused on health issues, like the NHS’s “eatwell” plate.

Opportunities for further reduction of waste of livestock products include scrapping “best before” labeling of food items, removing current barriers to anaerobic digestion, and the continuation of WRAP funding.  Financial measures could be used to further decrease the amount of waste sent to landfill including “pay as you throw” schemes and reintroduction of the landfill tax escalator.  Reduction in the consumption of livestock products could be achieved in the short term through an increased focus on the NHS’s “eatwell” plate, or increasing the cost of livestock products.  This could be influenced by the government through taxes, for example on animal feed.  Longer term promotion of a sustainable diet can only be achieved once a better understanding of what this looks like, and what drives consumer purchasing and consumption decisions, are achieved.

The lessons learned in the UK are applicable more broadly to other industrialised countries where waste and consumption of meat, dairy and eggs are also high.  The UK experience is also important for developing countries where the greatest expansion in meat consumption and in food waste are expected to be observed over the next half century.

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