In this article, I comment on various aspects of a mainstream media article that I was involved in during 2011. It concerned the “Climate Agenda” project, run by The Sunday Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia.
For around a month, readers’ questions on climate change were voted on by others, with each of the top ten subsequently being the subject of a major article by a Sunday Age journalist. I am pleased to report that my question on the impact of animal agriculture finished second, and the relevant article by Michael Bachelard was published on 25 September, 2011.
My question (as summarised in the article)
“When are we going to hear more about the great elephant in the room – animal agriculture? The CSIRO and the University of Sydney have jointly reported that it is responsible for more that 30 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meaningful action in [reducing emissions] cannot be achieved without a general move towards a plant-based diet.”
The industry’s comment
Article Extract: “Why wouldn’t anyone living in this great country desire a balanced diet that includes red meat? That anyone could presume to tell someone else what to eat in a country where food is so bountiful and healthy is outrageous.” Glen Feist, marketing general manager, Meat & Livestock Australia (referred to in the article as “the Meat and Livestock Association”).
So red meat’s healthy?
Apart from the increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other concerns as referred to in my recent blog post, I suppose there’s nothing to worry about.
The horrendous cruelty and environmental impacts could also possibly be considered.
Article Extract: “The 30 per cent referred to by Mahony comes from a CSIRO report that used information from the 1990s. But in the past two decades deforestation for agriculture has been outlawed, halving emissions. The clearing that takes place in Australia now is, by and large, cutting back the regrowth from land already cleared.”
Broad-scale land clearing in Queensland, where most Australian clearing has occurred in recent times, did not cease until the end of 2006. Consequently, Bachelard’s statement “in the past two decades deforestation for agriculture has been outlawed” is largely incorrect.
In the 20 years to 2008, around 78,000 square kilometres were cleared in that state for livestock. That’s equivalent to a 33 kilometre wide strip of land between Melbourne and Cairns. Any desire for increased meat production may create pressure on legislators to allow more of the same. It is not hard to imagine the current Liberal National Party government in Queensland, led by Campbell Newman, being sympathetic to any suggestions for a return to mass clearing. Significant levels of livestock-related clearing are continuing anyway, due to various exemptions.
Also, the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s land use change estimate includes emissions from all forest lands cleared during the year of reporting, as well as ongoing emissions from the loss of biomass and soil carbon on lands cleared over the previous twenty years. As a result, recent clearing is very relevant. It’s also worth noting that a key factor omitted from official reporting is the ongoing loss of carbon sequestration caused by the loss of trees.
What about regrowth?
The previous extract mentioned regrowth. As mentioned in my recent article “Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue“, “Forests are robust and will often regrow if given the opportunity. With sound management, it would be possible to remove livestock from huge tracts of land, and rely on significantly more efficient plant sources of nutrition.”
Around 40% of the 78,000 square kilometres of clearing that occurred between 1988 and 2008 was of regrowth. It is critical that we allow the forests and other wooded vegetation to return if we are to have any chance of overcoming climate change, so the clearing of regrowth is of vital importance.
Some missing links: nitrous oxide and deforestation for feed crops
Article Extract: “But people in these [developing] countries are not likely to aspire to the same red meat habit as in the Western world because they prefer the white meats, pork and chicken, which produce barely measurable methane emissions.”
We must not assume that pigs and chickens are benign in terms of environmental impacts. Like all livestock, they represent an inherently inefficient way to produce food, requiring massive amounts of grain and other inputs at the expense of natural ecosystems
Pigs and chickens might not produce much methane, but their excrement releases nitrous oxide (around 300 times more potent that carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and their related feed crop production is responsible for massive amounts of land clearing in the Amazon and elsewhere. The gross and inherent inefficiency of livestock as a food source (including the more than 500 million pigs in China) means that far more land is cleared for food production than if our nutrients were derived directly from plants.
The article referred to nitrous oxide and land clearing in the context of ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats, but not in relation to pigs and chickens.
Failing to recognise the true impact of methane
Article Extract: “But by simply existing, sheep, cattle, goats and buffalo pump out large volumes of methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced during digestion – what the scientists call ‘enteric fermentation’ – and is 21 times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It stays for less time in the atmosphere (about 12 years compared with carbon dioxide, a proportion of which can last thousands of years) but while methane is there, it traps more heat.”
While Bachelard acknowledges the relatively short-term nature of methane’s existence in the atmosphere by mentioning that it breaks down within around 12 years, he assigns a “global warming potential” figure to it of 21. That figure is based on a 100-year time horizon. If we are to consider methane’s shorter-term impacts, then it is more accurate to say that it is between 72 and 105 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period.
The government’s response: More research
Article Extract: “Climate Change Minister Greg Combet denied that the government was ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’, but pointed to the $429 million it was putting towards research to reduce methane and other emissions, and incentives for farmers themselves to reduce their stock emissions with better animal husbandry.”
Okay, let’s form some committees while we’re at it, to review the research.
We are facing a climate emergency, with time for meaningful action quickly running out. Action on animal agriculture offers one of the quickest ways to help prevent us reaching critical tipping points that will almost certainly lead to catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
The Opposition’s response
Article Extract: “Opposition spokesman Greg Hunt said it was likely that agriculture would ‘attract a significant proportion of emissions reduction’ money under the Coalition’s direct action policy. ‘The answer is incentives for cleaner production, not killing off the national cattle herd,’ he said.”
Who said anything about “killing off the national cattle herd”? To suggest that such an approach had been proposed or implied in my question is a ridiculous notion that typifies much of the tripe that constitutes political debate in Australia. If appropriate policies were established, such as accounting for the true environmental cost in the price of the product, then demand would fall and fewer animals would be bred for food.
The Greens’ response
Article Extract: “And Greens deputy leader Christine Milne said her party wanted to see agriculture included in carbon accounting once farm emissions could be accurately counted.”
Is Christine Milne serious about climate change, or is she concerned about appeasing industry lobby groups and voters? It is clear that “farm emissions” have a massive impact. If she likes, we can be conservative in our estimates. It would be better to understate livestock’s impact than to ignore it altogether or to misallocate its emissions.
Banning the barbecue
Article Extract: “Our politicians recognise the problem, but do not agree with the vegetarian lobby’s prescription. . . . Quite apart from the economic value of animal agriculture – $18 billion a year, including $15 billion in exports – governments are unpopular enough without invading the plates and palates of their constituents and trying to ban the barbecue.”
I have mentioned the need to account for the true environmental costs of a product within its price, which would reduce demand. I had not suggested in my “Climate Agenda” question that barbecues be banned. Besides, a barbecue can be used for delicious and nutritious plant-based food, with minimal environmental impact.
In terms of that issue and “invading the plates and palates” of electoral constituents, shouldn’t politicians be willing to consider the critical environmental circumstances that we are in, and seek to convince people of the need for meaningful action? The word “courage” is sadly lacking in the descriptions that we might apply to most politicians.
The dire circumstances that we now face in relation to climate change are yet to be recognised in a meaningful way. Media articles such as the one referred to here spend too much time seeking “balance”, while catastrophe looms.
In the article, I used a war analogy. I’ll conclude by using one again.
If it were clear that an enemy nation planned an extensive aerial bombing campaign over our home country in the near future, would we debate each other (for as long as we were able) over the notion of whether or not the bombs were real or fake, so as to decide whether or not to act against the threat? For some people, the threat of climate change may not seem as tangible as an enemy bombing campaign, but in many respects the consequences may be far more severe and long-lasting.
Aerial view of Amazon deforestation in Brazil © Phototreat | iStockphoto.com