Beef industry campaign claims cattle carbon emissions can be reduced

In a new campaign, the meat industry is claiming it can significantly reduce methane emissions from cows and be part of the solution to climate change, not the cause.  

That could be a good line for the industry and the federal government to run ahead of the Glasgow climate summit, but a leading greenhouse researcher says a net reduction in methane would not be enough to bring the temperature down, just limit the damage.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) argues methane from cattle is just part of the natural cycle and not nearly as bad as carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

It says in its latest marketing campaign that the cattle industry can reduce emissions by using innovative technologies.

Professor Richard Eckard* from Melbourne University, who leads a research centre focused on greenhouse gas, agrees the cattle industry could play a critical role in addressing global warming because, unlike coal, the industry’s emissions break down quickly.

“Methane is a short-lived gas … so a change in methane today will reduce the temperature in 12 years’ time. It’s kind of a get out of jail card,” he says.

But on the industry’s claim that cattle could actually help cool the planet, Professor Eckard is less confident.

“It wouldn’t bring the temperature down; it would stop contributing more to the heating.” 

Why are cattle emissions such a big problem?

The recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warning is the latest catalyst for urgent action to reduce emissions. 

According to the national greenhouse gas inventory, agriculture contributes 14 per cent of Australia’s total emissions, livestock about 11 per cent and methane specifically from livestock about 9.6 per cent.

Fossil fuels contribute over 50 per cent.

Just as the IPCC released its report the meat industry launched its own campaign arguing that the livestock sector could actually help cool the planet. 

So is that true?

What is MLA claiming?

The campaign by MLA includes a short animation that differentiates cattle from coal, arguing that methane emissions are just a part of the natural cycle.

The voiceover in the animation says, “Because of this cycling of carbon, if cattle numbers stay the same, eventually the methane produced by cattle will not contribute additional global warming”.

The narration continues, “However, CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels is CO2 that is new to the atmosphere. It does not stem from the natural carbon cycle, it builds on what’s already there, day after day, year after year.

“What’s really exciting is, if we reduce methane emissions from cows using innovative technologies and grazing practices such as improving their diet, the red meat and livestock industry can be part of the climate solution,”.

The message is that the cattle industry can actually play a part in reducing the temperature of the planet.

What is the research backing up the claim?

Jason Strong from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) confirmed the campaign’s message was that cattle could actually help to cool the planet.

“The methane produced by cattle only has a 10-year cycle, so if we reduce the amount of methane produced by the animals and we find ways to capture the methane that is produced then, absolutely, [we can be] contributing to cooling the planet,” Mr Strong says.

“Agriculture has already done much of the heavy lifting on limiting carbon pollution with net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from red meat production less than half what they were in 2005, representing by far the greatest reduction by any sector of Australia’s economy.”

MLA points to research in the US on emissions which states by “continuously improving production efficiency and management practices, animal agriculture can be a short-term solution to fight climate warming which the global community can leverage while developing long-term solutions for fossil fuel carbon emissions”.

Research has been done in Australia on the options for reducing emissions in the cattle industry, and recent breakthroughs in Australia and the Netherlands using seaweed and other food additives could reduce emissions from cattle by as much as 90 per cent. 

Mr Strong says it’s great news for consumers.  

“This means that in the coming years, consumers will continue to enjoy Australian red meat knowing that it’s good for them and good for the environment.”

Researcher upbeat about reducing cattle emissions

Professor Eckard developed the first greenhouse gas accounting tools and advises the Australian, New Zealand and UK governments on climate change and agricultural policy.

He says while the cattle industry’s emissions break down quickly, emissions from coal take hundreds of years to break down meaning any changes in the sector will take a long time to have an impact on global temperatures.

And he is very upbeat about the industry’s potential to reduce actually reduce emissions overall. 

“We’ve taken a quantum leap with two new supplements or additives on the market, the seaweed and 3NOP from DSM Nutrition.

“Those two have put us into the 70-80 per cent category and it’s given us real hope that we can address this problem to a greater quantum than we ever thought we could.”

Doubt about cooling the planet

He says there is the potential for cattle to stop contributing to the planet’s warming.

“If the technologies reduce the methane in the national herd by more than about 12 per cent per decade, then there would definitely be a net reduction in methane in the atmosphere.”

That would mean less heating due to the livestock industries, according to Professor Eckard.

“We can’t imply cooling as all methane heats and we are not saying methane would be zero, just less than before,” he says.

Assuming the cattle industry in Australia could reduce emissions significantly could that have an impact on global warming?

Not on our own, according to Professor Ekhard, but if all countries worked together it could.

“There’s significant research going on in the European Union, in Canada and the US now, in Brazil and New Zealand [so] if we address this to the global livestock industries then we can make a difference.”

Environment group backs livestock sector

The Climate Council is backing the livestock industry’s push to clean up its image.

The group’s lead researcher Tim Baxter has been watching and reporting on the issue for a decade.

He says there is the potential for this campaign to look like  “greenwashing”, but he thinks the industry is serious about addressing emissions.

“These sorts of initiatives indicate a level of seriousness and we require all shoulders to the wheel, including livestock sector,” Mr Baxter says.

“Every fraction of a degree of warming avoided matters … so the efforts of farmers to prevent further harm is extremely worthwhile.”

He thinks much more work needs to be done to move the sector towards zero emissions, including using food additives, limiting land clearing and improving soil carbon levels. But, he says the main game when it comes to reducing Australia’s emissions is not the livestock sector but coal and gas. 

“The biggest part of the problem that is climate change is burning coal, oil and gas, but there is real room for land sector, ag sector and meat to have a big impact on where we land to undo some of the past harm.”

Market forces also driving change

There are other compelling reasons why the beef industry is pushing hard to address concerns about emissions. 

The EU has signalled it will set up a carbon levy on polluting industries and the US is preparing to do the same. 

Multinational corporations involved in the food chain are also imposing their own standards around sustainability and emissions that suppliers need to meet.

According to Professor Eckard all those things are putting pressure on the Australian livestock sector. 

“All agribusiness supply chain companies are setting greenhouse carbon neutral targets, [so] what governments decide as targets becomes irrelevant. 

“Farmers know they have to be down this track in order have the social licence to operate and that’s what’s going to drive the change.”

The question is, will the meat industries’ efforts to reduce emissions and campaigns like this one appease policymakers, corporates and consumers?

Cattle producers moving to reduce emissions

Some cattle producers are already doing their bit to store more carbon in the soil.

Stuart Austin and Trisha Cowley operate the Wilmot Cattle Company in north-west New South Wales. 

They have changed their grazing management to sequester more carbon and they claim they have become “massively carbon positive”.

“We’re sequestering an enormous amount more than we’re emitting every year all while producing the most nutrient dense beef that a person could eat,” Mr Austin says.

He says he is restoring the health of his soil and the health of this landscape.

“Our ecological health is improving on this farm, and we’ve got all the data to demonstrate that that’s the case.”

Wilmot has also sold carbon credits to Microsoft, which allows the computer giant to continue to produce emissions and claim to be carbon neutral. 

As Professor Ekard points out in an article in The Conversation, “Wilmot will now never be carbon neutral as this offset has left their farm, left their industry and left Australia“.

* Some of Professor Eckard’s projects are funded by MLA and Dairy Australia, including a project he leads on extreme climate events and another on Trees on Farm as well as methane in collaboration with ILRI in Nairobi. He says his work in the methane area was not funded by MLA. He says he analyses all the emissions evidence and provides the collective analysis to the livestock industries. 

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