Explainer: why the EU is heavily regulating livestock emissions

Eric Barker, 07/10/2022

Ireland has joined the list of countries to introduce controversial agricultural emissions legislation. Photo: Irish Farmers’ Federation

AS THE European Union continues its attempts to lead the world in limiting the impact of climate change, its regulations have really started to hit the local livestock industry.

Countries have passed several new pieces of legislation in recent months, which are set to reduce herd numbers, put producers out of business or encourage consumers to move away from meat. It seems a new story is popping up every week.

While the regulations have been met with some fierce protests, they also have plenty of backing and show a clear intention to influence countries trading with Europe. Some recent examples include:

Aside from New Zealand, which has legislated to make farmers pay for livestock emissions, there are few other countries regulating the industry the way Europe is.

In-order to find out how this latest wave of legislation has developed and why Europe has decided to go down this route, Beef Central spoke to George Lyon, who is a senior consult and agri-food specialist for political public relations firm Hume Brophy.

How has it come about?

The main two pieces of legislation driving the European crackdown on livestock emissions is called the European Green Deal, which includes a section called the ‘farm to fork strategy’, and The Industrial Emissions Directive which now includes cattle.

These deals include plans to drastically reduce fertilisers and improve soil health and implicate cattle in a 55pc reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030. While small farms have mostly escaped the legislation, operations with more than 150 standard cattle units will be implicated by the legislation.

“This is the first-time agriculture has been really forced to look at how it deals with the issue of carbon emissions,” Mr Lyon said.

He said the legislation was hitting countries like Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser extent France, the hardest – those countries are some of the biggest beef producers in the EU and they accounted livestock emissions as a high percentage of their overall emissions.

“Ireland set a 25pc reduction in emissions by 2030 and Scotland has gone even higher with a more than 30pc cut,” he said.

“A lot of the work done by the research institutes suggest that if they run their herds as efficiently as possible, they will be lucky to deliver that reduction – that has then brought in the prospect of reducing cattle numbers into play.”

Courts ruling to enforce tougher legislation

Legislation has also put pressure on producers in The Netherlands, with farmers lighting silage bags on fire and blocking food distribution centres in protest of regulations to reduce nitrogen run-off.

The nitrogen legislation is older than the European Green Deal and included a series of measures to reduce fertilisers and livestock run-off.

After a number of court cases ruled The Netherlands’ government was not doing enough to address the “nitrogen crisis” it announced plans to reduce livestock numbers by 25pc to speed up the reduction of nitrates, with a series of other measures. The difficulty of implementing the regulations forced the agriculture minister to resign last month.

The Netherlands is one of the most intensively farmed parts of Europe, is one of the world’s largest exporters of dairy and a major exporter of beef.

Regulations could impact more than 17,000 farmers

Mr Lyon said the finance ministry had forecast 11,000 farms to close and that 17,600 farmers will need to reduce their livestock numbers.

“This is where all the anger is coming from in The Netherlands because some of its regional communities are quite reliant on agriculture,” he said.

“There are areas where people farming won’t be able to have livestock by 2030.”

Mr Lyon said it was possible for the courts to keep forcing governments to change their plans for meeting certain pieces legislation.

“Any individual citizen can ask for a judicial review of the government’s handling of anything and that is what happened in The Netherlands,” he said.

“There is a possibility of a country like Scotland adopting a legally binging target and a judicial review into their plans to meet the target being ordered. The courts will have to look into it and when these targets are legally binding it is very hard to get out of any court ruling.”

Europe looking to influence the rest of the world

While Europe has been legislating its own industries, it has also been trying to influence the rest of the world with its trade deals. It has been looking at a carbon border adjustment, which taxes imports of emissions intensive products – agricultural imports are not involved.

“I think a lot of farmers would like to see agricultural imports involved in the carbon border tax to level the playing field,” he said.

At a global political level, Mr Lyon said there was an “ideological battle” between the United States and Europe to influence the rest of the world on climate strategies.

“The US is saying they can reduce livestock emissions while producing more food and we’re going to do it through technology and innovation,” he said.

“While Europe is taking the clunky and legislative route, where they are banning certain activities and trying to prevent other countries from doing them.

“Both Europe and the US are seeking other countries to align and make deals with them.”

Russia/Ukraine brings foods security into debate

Mr Lyon said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has started to bring some balance into the argument about emissions reduction and food security.

“With energy, the EU shut down coal-fired and nuclear power stations in-order to be green and started relying on Vladimyr Putin for gas, which now seems like a bad decision,” he said.

“It was a similar situation with fertilizer, which has a lot of people in Europe wondering whether we should cut food production and start relying on imports.”

Mr Lyon said with food security on the minds in Europe, the US idea of using technology to reduce emissions has come back into play.

“One of the problems we have in the EU, is that we do not have access to a lot of the technology other countries use – like genetically modified products,” he said.

“We are seeing farmers now saying ‘if you want us to stop using pesticides and herbicides give us the technology to be able grow crops without them’. The US has big interest in that because its agriculture is based on GM technology.”

Anti-meat sentiment deeply embedded

While the Russia/Ukraine war has brought food security into the debate, the idea that eating meat is bad for the environment is alive and well in Europe – as can be seen by the council in The Netherlands banning meat advertising.

Mr Lyon said he would not be surprised to see other parts of Europe go in the same direction.

“In the European public sector, there seems to be an acceptance that meat is bad for health and the environment,” he said.

“You see it with some schools taking meat off the menu and some locally elected councillors wanting regulations about meat advertising to go further.

“It comes from the top; an example is the English government saying that ‘one of the ways to reduce carbon is to reduce meat consumption by 20pc’ – and it is like that all over Europe.”

  • What does the European situation mean for Australia? Beef Central will unpack that subject with some industry leaders in another story.








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  1. Albrecht Dr. Glatzle, 05/04/2023

    Governments are becoming a threat for farmers and for the well being of the people!
    There is no climate emergency!

  2. Val Dyer, 17/10/2022

    Isn’t it simply a matter that European governments are not willing/or able to continually provide large subsidies to livestock producers to ensure food security for their people?

    Is their focus now on transferring subsidies to renewable energy/or plant based protein?

    Good luck to them as Australian meat products will now be competitive in the European market to supply beef to those who like it.

  3. Paul Simpson, 09/10/2022

    They don’t remember what happened after the second world war.In the near future there will be a lot of hungry people in Europe screaming for other countries to feed them.I say feed the common man give the Bureacrats nothing.

  4. Brad Bellinger, 08/10/2022

    We need to ignore the EU starvation policies even more serious than their flawed energy policy. They are a insignificant market for our Ag. Our future lies in SE Asia.
    China had the sense to ignore Glassgow.
    Its time we had elected representatives that looked after us not follow an EU agenda
    Albanese and Bowen should be taking advice from Prof Ian Plimer not Attenborough, Thunberg or King Charles.

  5. Rory McGuire, 07/10/2022

    As a city type with negligible prior knowledge of the beef industry I think this article correctly sets out several dangers that the industry is going to have to contend with. City people, which means most Australians, have little understanding of how rural affairs, beef for example, operate. For the simple reason we are not exposed to it. What we read/hear about and see in the supermarkets are vegetarian steaks, which we are encouraged to eat because cows produce all that methane. We’re not told how much fossil fuel is used to produce the veges for the “steaks”, and we don’t ask. I think this trend indicates a wider anti-beef sentiment that needs to be combatted because, as far as I can see, rangeland beef raised on perennial pasture might be a rare example of a carbon neutral food, although the methane issue might have to be accurately assessed and possibly resolved.

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