Note from author
For more up to date material in relation to “Cowspiracy”, please see my article “An industry shooting itself in the foot“, which consolidates and expands on material from this article and the article “More on Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry“.
Article: “Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry”
“Cowspiracy” is a documentary film focussing on the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. I am yet to see it, but organisations within the Australian red meat industry have posted comments about it on their Target 100 website.
In this post, I provide a preliminary response to the red meat industry’s claims. Those claims focus on the supposed difference between Australian and US meat production, and do not appear to require me to have seen the film in order to comment.
In 2012, I commented on claims made by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) on two websites that no longer exist. The web addresses currently link to the Target 100 website. My comments from that time can be seen in my article, “Comments on Meat & Livestock Australia’s ‘Myth Busters’ and Other Claims“.
MLA’s partners on the Target 100 website are: Australian Lot Feeders Association; Sheep Meat Council of Australia; Cattle Council of Australia; and Australian Meat Industry Council.
Why is Australian beef different?
Meat Industry Claim: Cowspiracy focuses on the amount of land cleared in the Amazon to produce grain for cattle. Australian farmers do not buy grain from the Amazon.
My response: As I have reported elsewhere, animal agriculture has been by far the major cause of land clearing in Australia. The gross and inherent inefficiency of animals as a food source causes us to use far more land than would otherwise be required.
Australia’s Chief Scientist has reported: “Based on data from typical perennial grasslands and mature forests in Australia, forests are typically more than 10 times as effective as grasslands at storing carbon on a hectare per hectare basis.”
The emissions performance of pasture degraded by livestock grazing would be far worse than indicated by that statement.
Meat Industry Claim: In Australia, most cattle graze on grass. Even “grain fed” cattle spend most of their lives grazing grass. At any one time, only around 2% of Australia’s cattle population is in feedlots.
Between regions, the emissions intensity of beef and other products can vary significantly, with factors such as feed digestibility, herd management practices, reproduction performance, and land clearing playing a part. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), based on the factors they allowed for, Oceania’s performance (including Australia) is only marginally better than North America’s (including USA). Allowing for other factors, it may be far worse. I refer to some of them here in relation to Australia only.
Meat Industry Claim: In Australia, grain fed to livestock is either ‘feed grain’ quality, or grown solely for livestock consumption. Cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat.
My response: The resources (including land) used to grow grain for cattle have many possible alternative uses, including grain production for humans or regeneration of natural habitat, helping to draw down existing atmospheric carbon as a critical climate change mitigation measure.
Meat Industry Claim: Australia’s livestock industry produces approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this is methane produced by the natural digestion process of cattle and sheep. Find out what the Australian industry is doing to research emissions reduction here.
My response: As I reported in my article “Omissions of Emissions: a Critical Climate Change Issue“, the figure of 10% is based solely on enteric fermentation in the digestive systems of ruminant animals (producing methane), and manure management (producing methane and nitrous oxide). Livestock-related land clearing and other factors are not allowed for. Based on 2008 numbers, I calculated a figure of 29.6% after allowing for a 20-year “global warming potential” (GWP) for methane and livestock-related land clearing and savanna burning.
In its recently released land use report, environmental group Beyond Zero Emissions arrived at a figure of 26% for 2010 after allowing for those factors. Additionally, taking into account emissions such as carbon monoxide and tropospheric ozone, they have estimated that emissions from Australian beef and sheep meat production represent around 49% of total national emissions. (Initial comments from BZE land use researcher, Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop, in relation to the Target 100 article can be seen here.)
Meat Industry Claim: Using arid land for grazing cattle may actually be positive in Australia. See conservationist Dr Barry Trail [sic] TEDxSydney talk about this here.
My response: If Barry Traill’s approach is based on that of Allan Savory, then there is cause for concern. I need to review Traill’s approach further. I have commented on Savory’s methods in my article “Livestock and Climate: Why Allan Savory is not a saviour” and in an article about the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, “Do the math: there are too many cows“.
[Update 11th August, 2015: Please see item #1 of my 21st February, 2015 article “An industry shooting itself in the foot” for detailed comments on Dr Traill’s TEDx presentation.]
Meat Industry Claim: The Australian cattle and sheep industry invests around $13 million annually in research, development and extension programs to improve environmental performance. Find out more here.
My response: The emissions intensity figures of livestock and plant foods represent different paradigms. Research on animal-based foods is really only tweaking around the edges of the problem.
Meat Industry Claim: Australian production efficiencies have delivered a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef produced since 1990 (Calculated using 2010 beef production data from MLA and from the 2009 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory).
My response: Refer to the previous response.
Meat Industry Claim: Life Cycle Assessment on Australian beef and lamb production systems showed that Australia has one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat-producing country. The research was undertaken by the University of New South Wales in 2009.
The relevant paper notes that it was funded by MLA.
A key omission seems to be any reference to land clearing. The figures also exclude (unlike some life cycle assessments) emissions “associated with transport after the meat processing plant and other processing, retailing, or consumption activities”. The system boundary “encompasses all on-site and upstream processes at the farm, feedlot, and whole processing plant, including transport between these sites”.
Even with the shortcomings referred to above, the researchers reported emissions intensity figures (CF per kg of carcass) of 9.9 for grain-finished beef and 12.0 for grass-finished. If it is assumed that 72% of the carcass is usable, then the figures would become 13.75 for grain-finished beef and 16.7 for grass-finished beef.
Those results are still very poor compared to grains, vegetables and other products, and similar to aluminium which has at times consumed 16% of Australia’s (mainly coal-fired) electricity in the production process. They would be far worse if other factors referred to in this article, such as a 20-year GWP for methane, were factored in.
As a comparison, adjusting figures from the FAO for yield and a 20-year GWP, the emissions intensity of specialised beef in Oceania (which includes Australia) would be around 100 kg CO2-e/kg of product, while the figure for grass fed beef would exceed that figure.
What are the other problems with Cowspiracy?
Meat Industry Claim: Cowspiracy bases its arguments on the 2006 FAO Livestocks Long Shadow report, which claimed the sector contributes more greenhouse gas (GHG) than the entire transport sector. This statement has been retracted by the paper authors who have since accepted that the paper used two different methodologies to calculate greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in an unfair comparison to the beef industry. FAO livestock policy officer Pierre Gerber told BBC News he accepted the criticism: “I must say honestly that he [Professor Mitloehner, UC Davis] has a point; we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport”. In Australia, energy generation represents 37 per cent of Australia’s emissions, compared to 10 per cent for livestock.
My response: Note comments above, indicating that the figure of 10 percent for Australia can be considered to be understated or overly conservative in many respects.
In 2013, the FAO revised its figure for livestock from 18 percent to 14.5 percent, and no longer compared it to transport. The former lead environment adviser to the World Bank, the late Robert Goodland, had been extremely critical of the FAO’s association with livestock industry bodies such as the International Meat Secretariat and the International Dairy Federation in reviewing its position. (Goodland was co-author, with Jeff Anhang, of a 2009 Worldwatch Magazine article on livestock’s climate change impacts, which I have referred to elsewhere.)
He was also critical in relation to the the appointment of Frank Mitloehner as chair of the new partnership formed to further assess livestock’s performance. He stated, “In fact, it would be good for the FAO to explain why it decided that the best choice as chair of its new partnership is Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor who has disclosed that his research has been funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He is not a specialist in environmental assessment, while good practice in environmental assessment is to employ independent environmental assessment practitioners.”
Regardless of those concerns, the figure of 14.5% is a significant yet conservative estimate of livestock’s impact. (Please also see “other considerations” below.)
Meat Industry Claim: Cowspiracy deals only with beef production in the United States. The grain-fed system in the US is quite different from the grass and grain-fed industry in Australia, where cattle that are grain fed spend only 10-15 per cent of their lives in feedlots.
My response: Cows have evolved to eat grass, and grain-feeding is generally reserved for the later stages of their lives, as they would not survive for long on grains alone. As indicated above, grass-fed cows generally produce more emissions than grain-fed.
Meat Industry Claim: Cowspiracy alleges that no environmental group is looking at the beef industry due to the political power of the industry. This is the “conspiracy”. In fact, many environment groups focus their activism on the beef industry. The film even shows the logo for WWF, which has a very public program looking at the global beef industry through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
My response: See my comments above about tweaking around the edges. A transformational change of diet is required, rather than a search for “sustainable beef”, which is a term I regard as an oxymoron in the context of our current environmental emergencies, including climate change.
In any event, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has been accused of working with major business organisations that allegedly use the WWF brand to help improve their green credentials, while acting against the interests of the environment.
The red meat industry can argue that aspects of its operations are more environmentally friendly than portrayed in Cowspiracy. However, any improvement will be relatively minor relative to what is required to overcome climate change.
If we are to have any chance of reducing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to the critical 350 ppm target suggested by leading climate scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues, then we must objectively and realistically address the issues of our reliance on fossil fuels, as well as reforestation, soil carbon and non-carbon dioxide warming agents, such as methane, nitrous oxide and black carbon. The essential role of coal, forestry and soil in achieving the target is demonstrated in the image below, from Hansen et al’s “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” paper.
The only way to meaningfully reforest in the context of the climate emergency is to reduce the extent of animal agriculture.
Figure 1: CO2 Emissions and Atmospheric Concentration with Coal Phaseout by 2030
By the time the 350 ppm target could be achieved with action on land clearing and soil carbon (around 2090 based on IPCC’s estimates of oil and gas reserves and assuming an end to non-sequestered coal use by 2030), it would fall short at around 380 ppm if we were to ignore those factors. If we did so, then the target would not be achieved until well beyond 2150.
The role of agriculture, forestry and reductions in non-CO2 greenhouse gases (of which animal agriculture is a critical component) was highlighted in this extract from Hansen et al’s paper:
A reward system for improved agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon could remove the current CO2 overshoot. With simultaneous policies to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases, it appears still feasible to avert catastrophic climate change.
The red meat industry’s attempts to discredit Cowspiracy remind me of the denialist lobby’s attempts to thwart meaninful action on climate change generally. Precious time and energy will be diverted in any debate, when we must act urgently to address the problem.
We need to properly account for the true environmental cost of the industry’s products in the price paid by consumers, thereby creating price signals that will direct those consumers to the most environmentally beneficial products. We must also inform the community of the issues, as efficient markets require well informed participants.
We either want to retain a habitable planet or we do not. The choice is ours.
Please also see: More on Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry
A reference list will be added.
Comments on WWF added on 14th November, 2014. Source: Huismann, W., “Panda Leaks: the dark side of the WWF“, cited in Vidal, J., “WWF International accused of ‘selling its soul’ to corporations”, The Guardian, 4th October, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/04/wwf-international-selling-its-soul-corporations
Comments on the Life Cycle Assessment were amended on 23rd February, 2015, including reference to FAO figures. The FAO reference is Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant supply chains: A global life cycle assessment”, Nov 2013, Fig. 12, p. 30, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm; http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3461e/i3461e.pdf
A related FAO reference (relevant to other comments within this article) is Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities”, Nov 2013, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm; http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e.pdf