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Environmental sustainability in the UK free-range egg sector

The feed industry has to link responsible sourcing and carbon foot-printing to find a way of proving no land use change to create a level playing field.

With feed materials contributing around 90% of the carbon footprint of feed delivered to the farm, Nick Major, For Farmers corporate affairs director, said the sector faced increasing requests for the carbon footprint of feed.

The feed sector faced increasing requests for the carbon footprint of feed. Photo: Hans Banus
The feed sector faced increasing requests for the carbon footprint of feed. Photo: Hans Banus

Soya from South America currently carries a heavy Land Use Change charge. And while the feed industry is under pressure, Tom Gill, head of Sustainability at Promar International, said the organisation had been working with the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) looking at environmental sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions with a view of moving towards net zero.

Farmers face 3 pressures

Gill said farmers faced 3 pressures: misreporting and consumer concern; environmental expectations around new legislation – the new Environmental Management Scheme is due to come into force in 2024 – and global goals for the agriculture sector to reduce emissions.

Farmers, he acknowledged, often felt they were facing one long shopping list, but in reality needed to balance competing environmental, economic and social priorities.

”...purchased feed amounted to 87% of the carbon footprint...”

Luke Briggs, environmental consultant, told the recent BFREPA annual meeting that past research had shown that purchased feed amounted to 87% of the carbon footprint of 2 free-range egg farms due to the high protein diet of laying hens, followed by manure management (6%), pullets (4.4%) and fuel and electricity (2%). Total emissions per kg of eggs worked out at 3.24kg CO2/kg eggs, based on the Eggbase carbon calculator.

Briggs said cases studied included looking at the benefits of trees on ranges to mitigate ammonia emissions, which are under the spotlight as part of the UK government’s Clean Air Strategy. At present, 88% of ammonia emissions come from agriculture with 15% stemming from the poultry sector.

Importance of trees in ammonia mitigation

The study looked at the 64,000 bird Meadowside Free-Range Eggs enterprise in Powys, Wales, run by Martin and Nikki Lawrence. The couple planted 66,000 trees on 27ha of grazing land in 2019 and with the help of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s tool, modelled the impact of tree shelterbelts on ammonia emissions.

“Trees are so important in ammonia mitigation in that they are ideal vessels for recapturing ammonia whilst providing sheltering and improving ammonia dispersion,” he said. The Lawrence’s believe that within 50 years their 37m trees will recapture 52% of ammonia. Tree planting has multi-functional benefits, including carbon sequestration, better soil health, boosting ranging behaviour of birds, enhanced biodiversity and helping meet water regulations.

Practical actions farmers could take include:
• Have a go using the Eggbase calculator
• Use the same tool each year
• Get advice to interpret results
• Make a plan for the long term
• Seek the best advice and learn from others
• Maximise and improve your environmental assets
• Set targets
• Measure, monitor and mitigate

”...impossible to talk about feed sustainability without mentioning the challenges around imported soya.”

Imported soya

Major said it was impossible to talk about feed sustainability without mentioning the challenges around imported soya. For example, the Environment Bill currently going through parliament has a mandatory requirement around due diligence covering imported soya. However, he said it was likely to be used for the foreseeable future, so it needed to be sourced responsibly and transparently.

For Farmers uses the European FEFAC Soy Sourcing Guidelines, which go well beyond deforestation issues. In the meantime, Major said there were 3 key focus areas for the company in looking at alternatives:
• European-grown protein sources – rapeseed meal, sunflower meal, distillers grains, legumes (peas and beans)
• Precision feeding of amino acids
• Alternative/novel proteins – processed animal protein (PAP), insect protein, micro algae and other single cell protein and plant protein refinery (grass and duck weed).

Algae and single cell-protein was attractive from a carbon capture perspective...

Insect and single cell proteins both had advantages and disadvantages. “When it comes to insect protein, for us in the feed industry, is what are you going to feed the insects on? Their real value would be if they could be fed on food waste. If you could only feed them on feed grain materials you might as well feed it to the pigs and the poultry.”

Algae and single cell-protein was attractive from a carbon capture perspective with the challenge of scaling up, although investments were beginning to come forward.