Beef farm­ers bris­tle but meth­ane’s hard to ig­nore

Green prac­tices are pay­ing off for pi­o­neers


When high-fly­ing global en­tre­pre­neur Richard Bran­son an­nounced in 2014 he was giv­ing up beef for the good of the planet, Aus­tralian Farm In­sti­tute di­rec­tor Mick Keogh couldn’t re­sist hav­ing a dig at his in­tegrity and men­tal com­pe­tence.

“Is Mr Bran­son a knave or a fool?” asked Keogh, now deputy com­mis­sioner of the Aus­tralian Com­pe­ti­tion & Con­sumer Com­mis­sion, won­der­ing whether the Vir­gin Air­lines founder was per­haps de­lib­er­ately de­flect­ing pub­lic at­ten­tion away from his own com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties by de­mon­is­ing meat and cat­tle pro­duc­tion.

“If Mr Bran­son is truly con­cerned about this is­sue and not just seek­ing pub­lic­ity, he should look at his own busi­ness first rather than point­ing a fin­ger at beef,” Keogh said.

Bran­son said he had been forced into veg­e­tar­i­an­ism by his con­cern that meat con­sump­tion — and so live­stock farm­ing — was caus­ing global warm­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, Ama­zo­nian jun­gle de­for­esta­tion and wa­ter wastage. He also said keep­ing cat­tle in barns and in­ten­sive sys­tems such as feed­lots where they are fed grain were waste­ful and wors­en­ing global warm­ing.

Keogh pointed out that green­house gas emis­sions from global live­stock pro­duc­tion con­tribute be­tween 5 per cent and 10 per cent of to­tal hu­man-re­lated car­bon emis­sions, which are lead­ing to harm­ful global warm­ing and cli­mate change.

In con­trast, the lat­est re­port from the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change found the trans­port sec­tor world­wide — planes, cars and trucks com­bined — con­trib­utes a mas­sive 22 per cent of car­bon diox­ide emis­sions (sec­ond only to power gen­er­a­tion), a fig­ure grow­ing at the rate of 2.5 per cent a year.

Keogh also noted that a oneway flight be­tween Lon­don and Syd­ney added 3500kg of car­bon diox­ide-equiv­a­lent green­house gases per per­son to the at­mos­phere, while CO2-equiv­a­lent emis­sions as­so­ci­ated with pro­duc­ing a 100g beef ham­burger were 1kg.

“The IPCC it­self has stated that re­duc­ing travel dis­tances, mov­ing to en­ergy-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles and non-fos­sil fu­els and avoid­ing un­nec­es­sary travel are (among) the most promis­ing mit­i­ga­tion strategies to re­duce global green­house gas emis­sions,” said Keogh, query­ing why Bran­son’s evan­ge­lism for re­duc­ing green­house gases did not ex­tend this far.

This week, when the lat­est IPCC re­port came out on how the world could limit dam­ag­ing global tem­per­a­ture in­creases to less than an av­er­age 1.5C — a target that needs to be achieved by 2050 if ir­repara­ble and last­ing cli­mate change is to be pre­vented — aban- don­ing or lim­it­ing meat con­sump­tion was again listed as a top-10 mit­i­ga­tion strat­egy

It is also, wor­ry­ingly for Aus­tralia’s $18.5 bil­lion red meat in­dus­try and 82,500 sheep and cat­tle farm­ers, be­com­ing a re­frain that is ac­cepted with­out ques­tion within the wider com­mu­nity: that eat­ing meat is dam­ag­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

To western Vic­to­ria cat­tle and sheep farmer Mark Woot­ton, it doesn’t have to be this way.

To­gether with his part­ner Eve Kan­tor, Woot­ton farms 3500ha of lush green pas­tures in the western foothills of the Grampians north of Hamil­ton, where they run more than 25,000 merino sheep for their wool and meat lambs, and 800 cat­tle.

The cou­ple, to­gether with Kan­tor’s fam­ily, helped found the Cli­mate In­sti­tute think tank and pol­icy group — cred­ited with en­cour­ag­ing changed busi­ness and com­mu­nity at­ti­tudes towards the ur­gent need to limit green­house gas emis­sions — and they be­lieve cli­mate change re­mains the big­gest threat to their own, and Aus­tralia’s, agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t do some­thing about it,” says Woot­ton. “For us, that meant test­ing the the­ory that Aus­tralian farm­ers can run their prop­er­ties and busi­nesses in a way that is car­bon neu­tral — or even pos­i­tive — in terms of green­house gas emis­sions, but that is still about nor­mal farm­ing prac­tices and highly pro­duc­tive.”

Since 2001, Woot­ton and Kan­tor have set about boost­ing the car­bon stored on their Jig­saw Farms prop­er­ties, while also work­ing with Mel­bourne Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Richard Eckard to mea­sure — and en­deav­our to re­duce — all the car­bon emis­sions as­so­ci­ated with their farm­ing op­er­a­tions to the point where they be­came a zero car­bon busi­ness.

For the cou­ple, that meant plant­ing thou­sands of trees on their farms while also in­vest­ing in so­lar power, to off­set the car­bon emit­ted as meth­ane by their live­stock and their heavy use of pasture fer­tilis­ers and fuel.

Against ex­pec­ta­tions, Woot­ton says live­stock-car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity and re­turns have ac­tu­ally in­creased, while more than 37,000 tonnes of car­bon was se­ques­trated in their grow­ing trees in 14 years, putting the busi­ness well on the way to be­com­ing car­bon-neu­tral.

Such sto­ries are mu­sic to the ears of Richard Nor­ton, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Meat & Live­stock Aus­tralia.

Rare among na­tions, in­dus­tries or even agri­cul­tural pro­ducer groups, the MLA am­bi­tiously de­cided more than a decade ago that it would com­mit Aus­tralia’s red meat in­dus­try to be­ing car­bon-neu­tral by 2030: a big ask given the large amounts of meth­ane emit­ted daily by Aus­tralia’s 28 mil­lion cat­tle and 70 mil­lion sheep be­cause of their ru­men di­ges­tive sys­tems.

“No one thought it was fea­si­ble but al­ready we have re­duced to­tal emis­sions by the red meat in­dus­try by 45 per cent be­tween 2005 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to CSIRO, mainly by ge­netic im­prove­ments that mean the an­i­mals we farm to­day grow quicker and are more ef­fi­cient con­vert­ers of grass to meat,” Nor­ton says.

There is no dis­pute in the aca­demic and cli­mate change world that live­stock is one of the big­gest con­trib­u­tors to car­bon gas buildup in the at­mos­phere and to­tal global green­house gas emis­sions, and there­fore a key driver of global warm­ing.

The lat­est re­port by the IPCC at­tributes 14 per cent of all emis­sions to agri­cul­ture. The bulk — con­tribut­ing 10 per cent of harm­ful emis­sions — come from live­stock pro­duc­tion, mostly dairy and beef cat­tle belch­ing and fart­ing meth­ane (a harm­ful green­house gas, like car­bon diox­ide).

While fig­ures vary de­pend­ing on farm­ing sys­tems and feed, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown beef cat­tle emit 50-90kg of meth­ane a year, dairy cows 100-150kg a year and sheep about 8kg.

On the pos­i­tive side, meth­ane is a short-lived pol­lu­tant; it lasts in the at­mos­phere for 12 years af­ter pro­duc­tion while a kilo­gram of CO2 will linger for more than a cen­tury. But the harm­ful ef­fect of 1kg of meth­ane emis­sions on po­ten­tial warm­ing is 36 times worse than CO2 over a 100-year pe­riod.

Eckard, an an­i­mal pro­duc­tion pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Pri­mary In­dus­tries Cli­mate Chal­lenges Cen­tre, says the mag­ni­fied im­pact of meth­ane on short-term global warm­ing is the rea­son the IPCC re­port sug­gests cut­ting meat in­take would be one of the big­gest and best changes in­di­vid­u­als and so­ci­ety can make.

“It’s low-hang­ing fruit — a getout-of-jail card free, if you like, as far as the IPCC re­port goes,” he says. “Live­stock is the big­gest sin­gle eas­i­est way to re­duce meth­ane emis­sions; each kilo­gram of meth­ane pro­duced now has 86 times the im­pact of a kilo­gram of car­bon diox­ide on global warm­ing, so if you im­me­di­ately start to cut meth­ane emis­sions from one ma­jor source, it’s go­ing to have a quicker im­pact on the IPCC aim of lim­it­ing global tem­per­a­ture in­creases to be­low 1.5 de­grees by 2050.”

The big im­pact of an­i­mal farm­ing on the warm­ing at­mos­phere is made worse be­cause, with esti- mates the world’s pop­u­la­tion will grow by nearly three bil­lion by 2050, red meat con­sump­tion and de­mand is set to take off. Global meat pro­duc­tion is pro­jected to dou­ble from 229 mil­lion tonnes in 2000 to 465 mil­lion tonnes in 2050 to meet the new de­mand for red meat, while an­nual milk and dairy out­put is set to climb from 580 mil­lion to 1043 mil­lion tonnes.

The num­ber of cat­tle needed to meet beef and dairy de­mand is ex­pected to bal­loon from the present 1.5 bil­lion to three bil­lion, in­creas­ing calls for red meat con­sump­tion to be slashed to re­duce the pace of cli­mate change.

But Eckard ar­gues that an­i­mal farm­ing is be­ing un­fairly tar­geted.

“If, as an in­di­vid­ual, you want to have an im­pact on cli­mate change, do it in bal­ance; there is no point in stop­ping eat­ing red meat if you still drive a gas-guz­zling 4WD and don’t have so­lar pan­els on your roof, be­cause switch­ing to a hy­brid Prius and so­lar power will have just as big a ben­e­fit for the en­vi­ron­ment and world cli­mate as turn­ing veg­e­tar­ian.”

Re­cent stud­ies by Vir­ginia Tech Univer­sity also ques­tion whether plant-based di­ets equal sus­tain­abil­ity and are the only route to re­duc­ing agri­cul­ture’s heavy global warm­ing foot­print.

As re­searcher Doug Liebe told this week’s BeefEx con­fer­ence in Bris­bane, it is easy for the im­pact of re­mov­ing an­i­mals from the hu­man food chain to be over­sim­pli­fied and twisted.

The Vir­ginia Tech stud­ies show that if all an­i­mals were taken out of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion — with the grain they had been fed di­rected to hu­man con­sump­tion — the US could pro­duce 23 per cent more hu­man food. But the over­all im­pact on green­house gas emis­sions would be sig­nif­i­cantly less — cut­ting US emis­sions by just 2.6 per cent — be­cause an­i­mal-pro­duced fer­tilis­ers used in farm­ing would need to be re­placed by syn­thetic ones.

‘It’s low-hang­ing fruit; a get-out-of­jail card free if you like as far as the IPCC re­port goes’


AARON Mark Woot­ton on his Vic­to­rian sheep and cat­tle farm, which he says is well on its way to be­com­ing car­bon-neu­tral FRANCIS

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