NFU24: Livestock – behind the sustainability buzzword

Environment and climate
Richard Findlay and Sophie Throup

Photograph: NFU Livestock Board chair Richard Findlay and Technical and Sustainability Director (Manufacturing), Morrisons Sophie Throup

British beef often comes in at about half the carbon footprint of the global average, but how can British livestock producers sell their sustainable practices, and what does ‘sustainability’ look like across the red meat sector?

Those were the questions for the panel at an NFU24 livestock session that gave members the chance to meet members of a refreshed board for the next two years.

Outgoing chair Richard Findlay, who will step down after six years, saw sustainability as a vital selling point to differentiate British and imported product, especially in the wake of the early post-Brexit trade deals.

British red meat could not afford to be tarred with the same brush as product from elsewhere, but sustainability must not come at the expense of profitability, he said.

From Defra’s plans for methane-suppressing feed to increasing dairy beef, the figures had to stack up.

“Whilst we’re seeing more beef coming from the dairy sector, these animals must be properly reared, in good health and from the best possible genetics,” he said, adding that business and environmental win-wins were possible through efficiency.

“For me, there must ultimately be profit in what we produce, and that means hitting specification, focusing on age to slaughter, carcass weights and grades, but also managing inputs.”

He said bovine EID, and the Livestock Information Service could help to demonstrate standards, improve traceability and support disease control.

Sustainability on shopper’s radars

Morrisons director Sophie Throup explained that sustainability was on the radar for customers who wanted to be able to rely on retailers to “do their worrying for them”, investors with mandatory commitments on sustainability reporting and the business itself, for whom sustainability could additionally be a “manager of costs and efficiency”.

Morrisons was working to cut its whole supply chain emissions by 30% by 2030, but Sophie said it was working to take farmers on the journey with a variety of support.

New NFU Livestock Board members and regional livestock chairs Andrew Loftus (North), Hugh Broom (East), Oli Lee (Midlands), David Barton (South) and Rob Lewis from Wales dealt capably with questions from negative media coverage and the potential of adding eating quality to grading criteria, to the availability of local slaughter houses and the need to protect tail docking from misguided interventions on welfare grounds.

We’re some of the best when it comes to sustainability, but to be the best we have to measure it and our figures have to be understood across the supply chain.”

NFU Livestock Board Vice chair David Barton

Clear targets on net zero needed

On sustainability, there was consensus on the need to coalesce around specific, science-backed carbon accounting and for a unified framework to the industry’s net zero efforts.

“We’re some of the best when it comes to sustainability, but to be the best we have to measure it and our figures have to be understood across the supply chain,” said David.

Hugh saw RUMA’s work on antimicrobial as a template.

“We need clear targets and as an industry we need to base it on the science. I walk around shows and see lines of cattle claiming they are ‘the sustainable breed’. Well show me the numbers, show me the data. Invest in that. Because we can’t on one hand say, ‘show us the science’ and on the other just carry on breeding them because we like their pretty ears.

“Carry on doing the good work you are doing, get more precise, measure - and tell everyone that you’re doing it.”

Sustainability meant more than just carbon for Oli and David, who called for wider benefits of grazing livestock to be factored in, while Andrew added that measurements must properly account for the relatively short-lived role of methane.

While there was broad support for farm assurance, Andrew said he and many others felt “let down” by Red Tractor’s approach to the Greener Farms Commitment.

“It’s caused so much anger, but we need to find an alternative, because we’ve lost time, and we desperately need something,” he said.

Learnings on bluetongue

With environmental and business sustainability so intrinsically linked, bluetongue was inevitably on the minds of many.

Having seen first-hand the situation in the Netherlands, Richard said: “The only practical way of preventing a large-scale spread next year is through vaccination. We need one to be brought to market as soon as possible and have support from government to ensure a targeted rollout.”

Hugh agreed, but added that farmers should also begin to think about the business impacts of any control zones, something that extended to the whole supply chain, with a need for licensed processors to be put in place to deal with animals.

Oli raised the possibility of abattoir testing to understand any potential spread of the disease faster.

Stay up to date with the latest news on bluetongue.

Meet the speakers from this session

John Royle

Chief Livestock Adviser

John has been chief livestock adviser since November 2014.

John is responsible for representing the interests of beef and sheep members on a wide range of policy issues. The livestock team manage the national livestock board and uplands forum.

Sophie Throup

Technical and Sustainability Director (Manufacturing), Morrisons

Sophie joined Morrisons in November 2017, following 10 years in the veterinary sector running research and training programmes.

She heads Agriculture and Sustainable Sourcing policy and programmes for Morrisons and is the Technical and Sustainability Director for the manufacturing business.

Richard Findlay

NFU Livestock Board chair (2018-2024)

Richard farms a mixed beef and sheep holding in Westerdale in the North York Moors National Park.

He has 2000 acres of moorland in a HLS agreement and the farm is stocked with mainly Easycare ewes as well as pedigree flocks of Beltex and Suffolks.

He is director of the “7 Hill Farmers Ltd” producer group and has been NFU Livestock Board chair since March 2018.

Andrew Loftus

NFU Livestock Board North chair

Andrew manages more than 1000 acres of owned and rented land in North Yorkshire and Lancashire. Mostly grassland, he produces beef, lamb and various forms of ‘environmental additionality’.

Formerly Agriculture Manager for Morrisons PLC, Andrew sits on the National Livestock Board of the NFU, the Yorkshire Committee of the CLA and chairs the Beef & Lamb Net Zero Roadmap Group (supported by AHDB).

Oli Lee

NFU Livestock Board vice chair and Midlands chair

Oli is a first generation beef and sheep farmer in Leicestershire. He and his wife are partners in her family’s business consisting of a flock of 550 Lleyn breeding ewes, 300 running ewe lambs, and a small Beef Shorthorn suckler herd.

The business has a growing local market for home-produced beef and lamb that is dry-aged and butchered on the farm. The business operates on a forage based grazing system and is part of the SFI Pilot scheme. Oli previously ran the neighbouring organic beef, sheep and arable estate and has worked at the Meat and Livestock Commission and as a farm business consultant.

He is aware that farming may change significantly over the next few years but is very optimistic that positive opportunities will arise for the sector.

David Barton

NFU Livestock Board chair

David was born and raised on his family farm in the Cotswolds where he farms a beef suckler herd.

David is in Countryside Stewardship grassland options, such as GS4 herbal leys, which he uses to rear and finish predominately grass-fed beef.

Cereals grown on the farm are also used to feed his stock, allowing David to use the two businesses to support each other and provide sustainable produce. He also has a very small flock of pedigree poll Dorset sheep.

He has also previously stood as the NFU South West Livestock Board chair and has worked with AHDB as a strategic farm to improve profitability and efficiency.

Robert Lewis

NFU Livestock Board, NFU Cymru

This is Rob’s second term as NFU Cymru Livestock chair.

Robert farms three farms as one unit, where the land rises from 750 feet to more than 1650 feet on common grazing and overlooks the gateway to the Elan Valley.

The enterprise consists of 1000 head of sheep, including 450 traditional Welsh Mountain ewes; the business produces its own replacements, only buying in tups. The cattle enterprise consists of 60 Limousin and British Blue suckler cows which to go a Limousin bull. Calves are finished on farm.

Robert is a lamb buying agent for Pilgrim Foods. He has also judged livestock at many shows including the Royal Welsh Agricultural Winter Fair. He also recently purchased the Triangle Inn in Cwmdeuddwr.

The pub aims to showcase the beef and lamb from Rob’s farm, telling the powerful story of local provenance and a short supply chain. Last year, Rob was appointed as a Fellow for the Royal Agricultural Society.

Hugh Broom

NFU Livestock Board East chair

Hugh Broom rears Angus X beef cattle in Surrey. The farm has recently entered SFI and hosts a battery storage enterprise.

He has worked off the farm as a journalist most recently presenting the Farmers Weekly Podcast up until December 2023.

NFU members, join our Environment and climate community to comment

Ask us a question about this page

Once you have submitted your query someone from NFU CallFirst will contact you. If needed, your query will then be passed to the appropriate NFU policy team.

You have 0 characters remaining.

By completing the form with your details on this page, you are agreeing to have this information sent to the NFU for the purposes of contacting you regarding your enquiry. Please take time to read the NFU’s Privacy Policy if you require further information.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.