I’ve written about the Australian red meat industry’s response to the documentary film Cowspiracy in two previous posts. This post consolidates the key points and provides some new perspectives.
Who’s representing the industry?
The industry’s arguments appear on its Target 100 website, which has been established by five organisations: Meat & Livestock Australia; Australian Lot Feeders Association; Australian Meat Industry Council; Sheep Meat Council of Australia; and Cattle Council of Australia. 
Based on that level of representation, it seems that the industry is keen to defend itself against the movie’s claims.
Seventeen arguments become twelve
In its website posts of October and November, 2014, the industry put forward seventeen arguments to support its position. Some of those arguments, relating to research activities and methane, were effectively repeated many times. By my reckoning, the result is that only twelve distinct arguments were presented. I’ll consider them all in this post, with some repetition from my previous posts. [Footnote 1].
The industry has shot itself in the foot
With four of the twelve arguments, the industry has figuratively shot itself in the foot.
Shot in the foot #1: Dr Barry Traill
At the time of writing, the industry is claiming on its website that the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts‘ Outback Australia program, Dr Barry Traill (mis-spelt “Trail” on the website), argues that using arid land for cattle grazing may be positive in Australia. The evidence they cite is Dr Traill’s TEDx presentation of May, 2014, “Populate wilderness or perish“.
A key point of the presentation was that we need more people in the Outback than at present, in order to appropriately manage issues such as fire regimes and feral animals. [Footnote 2]
Dr Traill’s comment on the cattle industry occupied just 5 seconds of that 10 minute 48 second presentation. He said (at 9:05), “Many cattle station owners are doing a great job of managing their part of the outback”.
But do the words “doing a great job” mean livestock grazing? He may have meant that many pastoralists are reducing livestock numbers and diversifying into other activities with clear environmental benefits.
Dr Traill co-authored Pew’s October, 2014 publication, “The Modern Outback: Nature, people, and the future of remote Australia“.  The authors have commented extensively on the destructive environmental impacts of grazing. Problems include tree clearing, introduction of invasive pasture grasses, degradation of land and natural water sources, and manipulation of fire regimes (p. 167-171).
The authors highlighted the fact that the environment improves when pastoralists move away from intense grazing activity. In one example, the pastoralists “are closely monitoring the gradual regrowth of grazing-sensitive plants.” They “host Outback farm stays and tours to diversify their income and raise awareness about the importance of giving pastoral land time to recover from over a century of intense grazing.” (p. 170)
In his TEDx presentation and elsewhere, Dr Traill has emphasised the fact that the number of Aboriginals in remote Outback areas has reduced as people have moved into more central settlements and towns. As a result of this trend, some native animal species have either disappeared or greatly declined. 
In the report mentioned above, he and his co-authors highlight the need for people to help manage the environment, but their position should not be interpreted as one that promotes the idea of more pastoralists grazing livestock. The report highlights that extensive benefits have been derived through the introduction of indigenous ranger groups and the declaration of indigenous protected areas (IPAs) across huge regions. There are now 67 IPAs covering more than 540,000 square kilometres, which is more than twice the size of the state of Victoria. There are also more than 750 indigenous rangers managing and safeguarding the land.
Pastoral leases for cattle, sheep and goats cover around 40 percent of the Outback, which in turn occupies 73 percent of the 7.7 million square kilometre continent. Between 60 and 70 percent of the continent as a whole is managed through such leases. The Pew Charitable Trust is campaigning for state governments to permit (unlike at present) non-grazing related activities on pastoral land. An example is Western Australia, where the relevant leases (occupying 30 percent of the state’s massive land area) will expire in June 2015. The organisation “recommends making a diversity of options available for pastoral lease lands and ensuring good governance with a focus on sustainable management, population support and economic viability”. 
The organisation certainly does not appear to be supporting grazing activity in terms of environmental performance.
Shot in the foot #2: Biodiversity and other environmental impacts
The industry says that greenhouse gas emissions are just one aspect of environmental management. It says that while there is enormous focus on how to reduce methane emissions “this needs to be done with consideration for impacts on other important environmental factors such as biodiversity”.
I couldn’t agree more!
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.” 
Although the industry is supporting research in relation to issues such as water, soil and ground cover, and biodiversity, much of the research can only assist in finding incremental improvements relative to the benefits that could be derived from a general move away from animal agriculture.
Shot in the foot #3: Grass-fed versus grain-fed animals
The industry seems keen to point out that the extent to which cattle are grain-fed in Australia is lower than in the US.
They don’t seem to recognise that while cows are fed on grass, they produce far more methane than when they are fed on grain.
Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has estimated that cows fed on grass produce 4 times as much methane as those fed on grain. 
In November, 2013, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) reported that the global average emissions intensity (kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of end product) was 81 percent higher in beef derived from animals on “grazing” (or “grass-based”) feeding systems than in those on “mixed” systems.  (Cows are not fed grain exclusively. They have not evolved to consume it, and if it is used at all, they are generally only “finished” on it for up to 120 days prior to slaughter.)
Even a study by The University of New South Wales, funded by Meat & Livestock Australia and referred to on the Target 100 website, reported that grass-fed cows produce more methane than others. 
Perhaps the industry has overlooked the research it has funded, and believes that the natural way is best in all respects, when clearly it is not.
At least they’re not alone. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Bill McKibben of 350.org have made similar claims, with neither citing any evidence for their position.  However, the ACF has subsequently removed its comments from the relevant websites.
Shot in the foot #4: Reduction of 5.3% in beef’s emissions intensity in 20 years (and they think that’s good)
The industry claims that the Australian production efficiencies have resulted in a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef between 1990 and 2010. Why does that represent a shot in the foot? The industry applauds a 5.3% reduction in 20 years, which equals an annual rate of 0.286% from the reducing balance.
At that rate, it would take 243 years to achieve a 50% reduction from the 1990 level.
Here’s how the current global average emissions intensity of grass-fed beef compares with soy beans and legumes [Footnote 3]:
Figure 1: Emissions intensity (kg CO2-e/kg product) with GWP20
If we were to halve the figure for grass-fed beef (perhaps generously assuming Australia’s figure was half the global average), and then halve it again looking ahead 243 years, then the figure for grass-fed beef (72 kg/kg CO2-e) would still be around 20 to 35 times greater than that of legumes and soy beans (using a 20-year timeframe for assessing the global warming potential of relevant greenhouse gases).
In any event, we can’t wait 243 years or more to turn this problem around, particularly when a rapid and dramatic improvement in our food system’s environmental performance could be achieved by simply moving away from animal-based products.
Eight remaining arguments are very weak
I have commented on these arguments elsewhere (see article links below), so will only comment briefly here.
The “Target 100” title refers to one hundred industry initiatives, including research, aimed at improving its environmental performance. However, in terms of global warming, the performance of animal-based and plant-based products are on different paradigms. No amount of research is likely to reduce animal-based emissions to a level that is realistically comparable to that of the plant-based alternatives.
The industry states that it does not buy grain from the Amazon, and that the Australian industry’s emissions from deforestation have reduced dramatically since 2006.
However, we have cleared around 700,000 square kilometres of land in this country for animal agriculture, so we don’t need to look towards South America for staggering levels of environmental destruction.  Also, the legislation banning broadscale land clearing (subject to exemptions) was overturned by the Queensland Liberal National Party government in 2013 in respect of land deemed to be of “high agricultural value”. 
The recently elected Labor government may review that legislation, but the forests will always be at risk of further clearing, depending largely on the inclination of the government of the day. The recent free trade deal with China is likely to increase pressure for further livestock-related land clearing.
In any event, we must live with the legacy of foregone carbon sequestration, which is not accounted for in any official emissions figures.
Alignment with National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures
The industry points out that the figures it uses are aligned with those of the Australian Government’s National Greenhouse Inventory.
That’s true, but as I have stated elsewhere, 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.  Do we want to know what’s really happening so that we can identify necessary mitigation opportunities, or do we want it masked in this way?
Life Cycle Assessment Study
The life cycle assessment study cited and funded by the industry did not appear to include land clearing and certain other factors often included in such studies.  Even without those factors, the results were very poor, with beef’s emissions intensity figures being multiples of plant-based alternatives.
As an alternative, applying a 20-year GWP for relevant gases to the FAO’s average emissions intensity figure for specialised beef in Oceania (which includes Australia) , and adjusting for retail weight, would result in a figure of around 100 kg CO2-e/kg of product. The figure for grass fed beef in isolation would be significantly higher.
Grain grown solely for animals?
The industry claims that cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat, and are therefore not depriving those who are undernourished of food.
The resources (including land) used to grow grain for cattle have many possible alternative uses, including food production for humans or regeneration of natural habitat, helping to draw down existing atmospheric carbon as a critical climate change mitigation measure. Utilising those resources to provide food for livestock in a grossly and inherently inefficient system is unnecessary, unjust, and incredibly damaging to the environment.
Livestock’s Long Shadow discrepancies
The industry has referred to some recognised discrepancies in the methodologies utilised by the FAO in its 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report. Regardless of those concerns, the FAO’s latest estimate of livestock’s contribution to global warming (14.5%) is significant, despite being extremely conservative. Regardless of the percentage arrived at, we are unlikely to overcome climate change without a general transition toward plant-based products. 
Great Barrier Reef
The industry says it accepts its role in seeking to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Yet the 2012-13 report card of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan (released in 2014) indicated that only 30 percent of graziers had adopted improved land management practices since the plan commenced in 2009. 
The 2013 Scientific Consensus Statement highlighted the livestock sector’s major role in destruction from pollution, primarily in relation to suspended solids (sediment), nitrogen and phosphorous.  The release of nitrogen and phosphorous, and the associated nutrient enrichment, contributes significantly to outbreaks of Crown of Thorn starfish, which have had a massive impact on the reef. 
World Wildlife Fund
The industry argues that “Cowspiracy” is incorrect in suggesting that no environmental groups are looking into the beef industry due to its political power. It refers to the World Wildlife Fund’s involvement in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
I argue that 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.
Of interest may be the fact that 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. 
What is methane?
The industry has also created a page headed “What is methane?“, which has (at the time of writing) some serious and not so serious shortcomings. 
Firstly, it says that methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. That figure is out of date. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) used a figure of 25 in 2007 but increased it to 34 (with climate carbon feedbacks) in its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report. 
Secondly, the figure is based on a 100-year time horizon. A 20-year time horizon may be more appropriate when considering methane’s emissions due to the relatively rapid breakdown of the gas in the atmosphere. On that basis, the IPCC reports that methane is 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide (with climate carbon feedbacks).
The IPCC says, “There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. The choice of time horizon is a value judgement because it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.”  (NASA estimates the multiple to be 105 when allowing for direct and indirect radiative effects of aerosol responses.) 
Thirdly, the page refers to the “International” Panel on Climate Change, when the correct term is “Intergovernmental”, as referred to above.
Finally, the industry indicates that methane levels in the atmosphere have remained stable since 2000 “despite significant increases in livestock numbers globally”. If only it were true. This is what’s happened to methane emissions according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: 
Figure 2: Atmospheric Methane Concentrations (NOAA ESRL)
The red meat industry can argue forever about the supposed environmental credentials of its products. However, we face a crisis in the form of climate change and other environmental issues. Those without a vested interest need to face the reality of that crisis, and fight for urgent action.
It is pleasing that the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has recently recommended a reduction in meat consumption for environmental and health reasons.  That development may add to the general awareness that appears to be developing in respect of climate change, including animal agriculture’s adverse impacts.
1. In assessing the industry’s various arguments, I have categorised two concerning grass-fed cows as methane arguments, due to the fact that grass-feeding is a key factor in that regard.
2. Dr Traill has said that there have been two reasons for the decline in native animal species as Aboriginal people left remote areas. The first is fire. “Drier areas were burnt in particular ways by Aboriginal people. The usual pattern was to have smaller spot fires in different seasons to create a patchwork of vegetation of various ages. This mosaic approach provides the right habitat mix for different animals, particularly some mammals.” He points out that without people to manage the burning, most outback fires are larger and fiercer than they were previously. For example, in the western desert country of the Martu people, the average area of a single fire has increased from 64 hectares to 52,000 hectares. The second reason is invasive plant and animal species, including feral cats, rabbits, cane toads, water buffalo, goats, camels, pigs, donkeys, horses, cattle and noxious foreign weeds including various types of pasture grasses. He says: “To stay healthy, even our most remote landscapes need regular care and maintenance.”
3. For grass-fed beef, the FAO has reported a global average emissions intensity figure of 102.2 kg CO2-e/kg of product. The reference period is 2005. 
That figure was based on carcass weight. If we gross it up to allow for the fact that not all the carcass is used as end product for the dinner table, the figure increases to 140.2. That’s based on the US Department of Agriculture’s mid-range yield estimate of 72.8% for beef. 
When we then adjust the figure to allow for a 20-year global warming potential for methane (86 compared to 25) and nitrous oxide (268 compared to 298), it increases to 287. (The figure of 287 is slightly lower than a previous estimate (291) due to the adjustment of nitrous oxide’s GWP.)
The figure of 287 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 lower than shown here, at around 209 kg CO2-e/kg product.
The figures are based on the breakdown by the FAO of the different greenhouse gases contributing to beef’s emissions intensity (CO2 26.9%; CH4 44.0%; N2O 29.1%). As each of those percentages represents the average between grazing and mixed systems, the figures for grass-fed beef may be understated. That’s because methane’s share of emissions in a grazing system would be higher than in a mixed system, and the methane figure is grossed up considerably when adjusting for a 20 year global warming potential. The emissions intensity figures vary significantly by region.
The figures for soy beans and legumes are from a 2014 study by Oxford University researchers (Scarborough, et al.). 
- Additional comments added to Footnote 3 regarding the FAO’s reference period and methane’s share of emissions. (22nd Feb, 2015)
- Figures in item #4 amended to reflect a reduction of 5.3% in emissions intensity over a period of 20 years, rather than 24 years. (Although the industry’s comments were published in 2014, they reflect 2010 production figures.) (22nd Feb, 2015)
- Comments added in relation to the life cycle assessment study. (25th Feb, 2015)
- Comments regarding retail cuts of meat added to Footnote 3 on 4th April, 2015.
Main Image: From Cowspiracy: the sustainability secret, http://www.cowspiracy.com/. Used with permission.
Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry (9th Nov, 2014)
More on Cowspiracy and the Australian red meat industry (6th Dec, 2014)
Livestock and climate: Do percentages matter? (15th Nov, 2014)
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