BlogNewsA wolf in lamb’s clothing?

A wolf in lamb’s clothing?

Why does lamb take more energy to produce than other meats and what can this tell us about energy use in the UK food chain.

Ever wondered which meat you choose for your Sunday roast takes the most energy to get from ‘farm to fork’. Food Energy Researchers at the Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains (CSEF) have been examining the journey of different types of meat through the food chain and have concluded that overall lamb is the most energy intensive of the products they examined (the study also included beef, pork and broiler chicken.

So why does lamb use the most energy? There are two major factors. Firstly, the amount of energy used is calculated across the different stages (primary production, processing, transport, storage and cooking) required to bring the meat to the table. Secondly, the amount of meat per head of animal is taken into consideration. Lamb has high energy requirements for farm operations and also general heating needs (especially during housed periods of weaning and lambing), and relative to other meats, lamb has a high space requirement per head whilst at the same producing less meat per head of animal.

Although overall there is not a great deal of difference between the energy used by the different types of meat, the serious aims of the study are to show where the ‘hotspots’ are in the use of energy across the food chain. They can then advise where energy use can be reduced to help meet the UK’s targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK the food chain was responsible for 18% of total energy use and 32% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, with the agricultural sector accounting for approximately 50% of these emissions. The researchers found that farming is the most energy demanding stage across the whole food chain, typically accounting for approximately 35-50% of the life-cycle energy demand. Different energy uses for different meats were found - beef (16.6MJ/kg), Lamb (25.3 MJ/kg), pigs (24.7 MJ/kg) and chickens (19.1 MJ/kg) - which depend on various factors including whether the animals are kept indoors - where more energy is needed for heating and lighting etc. of buildings - transport distances, processing stages, etc.

The research led to a number of recommendations being made, such as the use of more energy efficient lighting, better maintained fans, better insulation of water heaters, improved temperature control in buildings and so on. The team also proposed the use of localised combined heat and power (CHP) systems on farms to reduce the drain on the national grid and the use of anaerobic digesters (which turn waste materials into fuel) to power these systems.

Dr Lesh Gowrunseeker of Brunel University said: "The study found that primary production is a major contributor to the overall energy demand of a meat product, and suggested various technological improvements to reduce this energy. However, we also realise that energy bills typically represent a relatively small proportion of total farm costs, especially when considering the purchase of animal feedstocks, maintenance and farm management operations. Hence in order to enable plausible adoption of such technologies to reduce energy costs, farmers may require additional financial incentives to invest in new technologies. Examples may be enhancing the Feed-in Tariff and Renewable heat Incentive from the UK Government to implement on-site energy generation technologies such as Anaerobic digesters in combination with combined heat and power (CHP) to utilise farm wastes as a means to generate biogas, heat and power and attempt to achieve energy self-sufficiency.”

We can see from these recommendations the value of analysing the whole lifecycle of products from farm to fork in finding ways to reduce energy. The CSEF team look across the whole food chain process including processing, transportation, retail, consumer use and waste to find ways to reduce energy demand across the whole process. The Centre works with industry and government partners to make recommendations on how to put their research findings into practices.

The Centre for Sustainable Energy in Food Chains is a collaboration between Brunel, Birmingham and Manchester Universities and is funded by the Research Councils UK Energy Programme with industrial partner support.

Project: A review of the energy consumption in the UK fresh meat chain, form farm to fork.

Contact: Dr Baboo (Lesh) Gowreesunker (Brunel University),

James O’Toole, End Use Energy Demand Centre Coordinator +44 (0)20 7679 9040

Photo Credit: Public Domain,


A wolf in lamb’s clothing?