Note from author: My article “An industry shooting itself in the foot“ consolidates and expands on material from this article and the article “Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry“. For now, here’s “More on Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry”:
In my post Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry, I responded to some comments from the industry on the documentary film, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The industry has since commented further, and I respond to the latest comments below.
Meat Industry Claim: The industry says it invests in research to understand how it can continue to reduce emissions associated with beef production. It says, “If people would like to understand the research underway please visit our emissions page.”
My response: The first problem with the industry’s claim is that its emissions page indicates that “methane is 21-25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a thermal warming gas”. Those figures are out of date.
Another concern is that the figure is based on a 100-year time horizon. By using that period, traditional reporting methods have understated methane’s shorter-term climate change impacts. It’s the shorter term impacts that are now critical as we try to avoid climate change tipping points with potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences.
The reason the shorter term impacts are understated when they are based on a 100-year time horizon is that methane breaks down in the atmosphere much faster than carbon dioxide, and is almost non-existent for much of that period.
The IPCC says that, over a 20-year time horizon, methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It has stated:
“There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. . . . The choice of time horizon is a value judgement since it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.” 
NASA’s estimate of methane’s potency over a 20-year time horizon is even higher than the IPCC’s, at 105 times that of carbon dioxide. 
Figure 1: Breakdown of Methane (CH4) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) 
Methane’s relatively rapid breakdown means that efforts to reduce relevant emissions represent a key climate change mitigation measure. The danger of continuing to mask its true impact by adopting only a 100 year time horizon is that a critical measure can be overlooked or ignored.
Meat Industry Claim: “That said, emissions are one aspect of environmental management and while enormous focus is placed on how to reduce methane production this needs to be done with consideration for impacts on other important environmental factors such as biodiversity.”
My response: Indeed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has stated, that livestock production “is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” 
The FAO has reduced its estimate of livestock’s share of greenhouse gas emissions since that time from 18 to 14.5 percent, but it continues to highlight its serious impacts. (In any event, both emissions figures are conservative for reasons referred to elsewhere in this article.)
Meat Industry Claim: “It is incorrect to suggest there is little room for improvement in reducing emissions associated with beef production. Recent research by CSIRO, State Departments and Universities through the National Livestock Methane Program has demonstrated a number of ways to reduce methane emissions. These include genetic selection for lower emitting bulls and sires, forages selected for lower methane emissions, novel supplements that can be used for lot feeding and investigating of rumen microbes that may be able to be manipulated to reduce emissions.”
My response: As stated in my previous post on this subject, 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.
In my article “The 3 percent diet“, using FAO data as the basis for further calculations, I showed that the global average greenhouse gas emissions intensity of beef from grass-fed cows is 291 kg (kilograms) of emissions per kg of end product. That’s based on the 20-year global warming potential for methane, and relates to the end product, rather than the carcass.
Even if we were to assume that factors such as feed digestibility, management practices, reproduction performance and land use meant that the emissions intensity of Australian grass-fed beef was half the global average, it would still be more than forty times higher than most plant-based alternatives (145 kg versus approximately 3.5 kg). (Please also see the the postscripts below.)
Figure 2: Emissions intensity of various foods with GWP 20 for methane (kg CO2-e/kg of product)
Regardless of the emissions intensity of the product, if we are to have any chance of reducing the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to the critical 350 ppm (parts per million) target suggested by leading climate scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues, we must massively reforest.  The only way to reforest to the degree required is to reduce the extent of animal agriculture.
We must also reduce emissions of non-CO2 warming agents. Livestock is a critical factor in that regard.
Meat Industry Claim: “The Australian industry accepts its role, along with other agricultural industries including sugar and horticulture to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. A grazing best management practices (BMP) program which is backed by the Queensland Government, Agforce and catchment management authorities from reef catchments works with landholders on improving environmental performance, with one benefit being a reduction of run-off onto the reef.”
My response: The 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement of the Queensland government’s Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Secretariat reported that research on pollutants has focussed on suspended solids (sediment), nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides. 
The statement confirmed that grazing areas in the catchment were responsible for the following pollutant loads to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon:
- 75 percent of suspended solids
- 54 percent of phosphorous
- 40 percent of nitrogen
Sugarcane’s main impact, in the form of nitrogen and pesticides, was high relative to the land area involved. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has stated, “Grazing of cattle for beef production is the largest single land use on the catchment with cropping, mainly of sugarcane, and urban/residential development considerably less in areal extent.” 
The 2012-13 report card on the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (released in June, 2014) indicated that only 30 percent of graziers had adopted improved land management practices since the plan commenced in 2009. Although it’s pleasing that the figure has increased from the 2011 figure of 11 percent, the figure is still well below a pass mark. It’s also a long way behind horticulture producers at 59 percent and sugarcane growers at 49 percent. 
Meat Industry Claim: “The percentage of emissions attributable to the beef industry in Australia has been challenged with various figures presented. The figures that we use are aligned with the Australian Government National Inventory figures, which are built on internationally agreed standards for calculating emissions. Other calculations are not aligned with current international scientific standards used for emissions reporting.”
My response: I commented on this issue in my February, 2013 article “Omissions of Emissions: A Critical Climate Change Issue“.  I stated that critical under-reporting of livestock’s impact occurs in many “official” figures because relevant factors are omitted entirely, classified under non-livestock headings, or considered but with conservative calculations.
If we want to identify meaningful climate change mitigation opportunities, we must realistically assign emissions to their true source; we are not doing so at present.
One of the items not reported in official greenhouse gas emissions figures, which is relevant to comments that follow on livestock-related land clearing, is the ongoing loss of carbon sequestration caused by the massive amount of such clearing since European settlement.
In any event, even the IPCC excludes critical factors from projections of temperature, sea level rise and the like, so practices such as this in relation to climate change are not new or surprising. All must be challenged if we are to retain a habitable planet. [Footnote]
Meat Industry Claim: “While historically deforestation was a major part of the northern industry’s emission contributions, since 2006 there has been a dramatic reduction in emissions from deforestation. It is incorrect to assume all deforestation occurs for beef production. Emissions related to deforestation has [sic] gone from 140 MT CO2 to 40 MT CO2 between 1990-2014.”
My response: The extent of any sector’s contribution to deforestation will vary over time. For example, extensive clearing occurred for livestock production in Queensland for decades until the then Labor Government banned such clearing (with certain exemptions) with effect from the end of 2006. However, the current Liberal National Party government led by Premier Campbell Newman has recently legislated to again allow significant levels of land clearing. Land that was protected under Labor’s legislation can now be cleared if deemed to be of “high agricultural value”. 
A 2003 paper commissioned by the Australian Greenhouse Office reported that 85.1 percent of Australian deforestation during the reference period occurred for livestock production.  In Queensland alone, from 1988 to 2008, around 78,000 square kilometres of land were cleared for livestock. That’s roughly equivalent to 3.3 x 10 kilometre wide tracts of land cleared between Melbourne and Cairns (distance 2,317 km). 
Figure 3: Depiction of Queensland land area cleared for livestock 1988-2008
With meat exports being a key factor in the new trade agreement between Australia and China, there will be increasing pressure to clear virgin forest and areas of regrowth.
The livestock sector’s greenhouse gas emissions come from factors that are inherent to the industry. As much as the industry and its supporters (including consumers) may like to argue that it can produce sustainably, that will not be possible if we seek to rely on it to adequately feed the world’s current and future human population.
Footnote: Former Australian of the Year and head of the Climate Council, Professor Tim Flannery, has described IPCC reports as “painfully conservative”.  Former senior fossil fuel industry executive and now climate change campaigner, Ian Dunlop, says the IPCC mentions but fails to quantify major risks and related tipping points “caused by non-linear feedback loops, where the climate may flip from one relatively stable state to another far less conducive both to human development and to the economic stability . . .”. 
Postscript 8th December, 2014: The emissions intensity chart has been updated to include “Vegetables – Other” (simply described here as “Vegetables”) at 2.2 kg and“Pulses – Other” at 3.5 kg from the relevant Oxford study (Scarborough et al. as referred to in my linked “3 percent diet” article). They were the highest-rated plant-based foods from that study that I would consider to be part of a staple diet.
Postscript 4th April, 2015: The emissions intensity figure for grass-fed beef attributes all carcass weight emissions to retail cuts of meat. If emissions are also attributed to other products that may be derived from the carcass, utilising fat, bone and the like, then the emissions intensity of the retail cuts will be around 28 percent lower than the figure shown here, namely around 104, rather than 145 kg CO2-e/kg product.
Related articles: “Omissions of Emissions: a Critical Climate Change Issue” and “Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry“
Map: http://www.street-directory.com.au. Used with permission. (Cairns inserted by this author.)
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