CONSUMERS should have full confidence in and be proud of the Australian beef industry. It has built solid environmental credentials and continues to lead many industries in its sustainability push. It has world-leading production and integrity systems, is custodian of more 77% of the total land used for agriculture, plays a vital and sustainable role in feeding Australians and the world, yet frustratingly, we continue to see misconceptions, inaccuracies and criticisms levelled at our industry.
While we have a fantastic story to tell, today’s news media often castigates the beef industry over emissions with simple and powerful messaging, but this is to the detriment of the nation. The Australian red meat and livestock sector has a clear path to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, making our industry a national leader.
Human nature does not lend itself well to looking at long-term solutions opening the door for Hollywood stars, tech moguls and global food companies promoting elevator pitch sound bites that fail to understand the complex system of producing beef that spans physics, chemistry, biology and ecology. Comments like ‘a guilt free steak’ may be catchy and cut through in media, but they are uninformed. Too often are we compared to the electricity or transport sectors, but the fact is domestic transportation in Australia produces 10 times the carbon emissions that domestic beef consumption does, energy production nearly 20 times.
Of course, we all have our part to play, but perspective is essential. When considering the impact of beef, there are some very important things to recognise:
Beef emissions do not come from fossil fuels
Comparing the beef industry to the transport, or the energy sector is flawed. Burning coal and oil releases carbon that has been locked away for millions of years, but this is not the case with the methane released in beef production.
Grassfed beef recycles carbon. It is drawn out of the atmosphere first through soils and pastures, pasture is eaten by cattle and some of this carbon is released again through breathing and burping. It is true that methane retains around 28 times the atmospheric heat of carbon dioxide, but methane emitted by cattle breaks down within 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide emissions from energy and transport sectors burning fossil fuels can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
Stable herd numbers don’t heat the planet
Because our emissions naturally deteriorate in around 12 years, when a cow burps, it’s usually just replacing methane that is breaking down. Greenhouse gasses only have a limited capacity to retain heat – the problem arises when the total volume of greenhouse gas increases. When we cut methane emissions, we go beyond slowing the rate of warming. Put simply, beef emissions don’t always add to the problem, but cutting them can help reverse the problem. By comparison, sectors that burn large volumes of fossil fuel cannot reverse the warming impact they have, they can only slow the rate at which they heat the planet.
Nearly 80% of agricultural land is beef country
Land currently provides the greatest opportunity to offset carbon emissions. This could be through tree planting, soil health or capture and storage. As the custodian of more 77% of the total land used for agricultural production, the beef cattle industry is in a unique position to help address the nation’s climate challenges.
Beef levy-funded technologies, such as the asparagopsis (red seaweed) feed additive, already have the potential to cut methane emissions by up to 96%, while boosting beef production by 20%. Technologies like this, in tandem with our industry’s capacity to capture carbon, means the beef cattle industry is well placed to take advantage of increasing demand for carbon credits as governments around the world demand businesses offset their footprint. Qantas, Telstra, Toyota and others do not have the capacity to do this on their own, they need a partner, and the beef industry is in a position to be that partner.
Independent scientists are keeping track
The red meat and livestock industry has engaged with some the world’s most credible and eminent scientific organisations to track our progress, including NASA, CSIRO and CiboLabs. Their findings are published every year through the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework annual update.
Five quick facts:
- The Australian beef industry has more than halved its GHG emissions since 2005. This reduction in GHG emissions is larger than any other industry in Australia.
- Most of Australia’s land mass cannot support any other food production – only 8% of Australia’s land mass is suitable for cropping. Cattle convert grass and other plants with low nutrient value to humans into high quality protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that we can digest.
- CSIRO analysis shows it is possible for the beef industry to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2030 by increasing productivity, increasing soil carbon and reducing emissions, without reducing herd numbers below current levels.
- Research has demonstrated that raising cattle combined with land management practices increases biodiversity on farms.
- It takes 68% less water to produce a kilogram of beef than it did 30 years ago.
Australian beef is beef you can trust. We are leading the nation and the world in the way we approach sustainability. For generations, we have cared for the environment, but now the value of sustainability is going up, and there are growing financial rewards for environmental stewardship. This road will not only lead to higher profits for producers but will make Australian beef a key player in addressing the nation’s, and the world’s climate challenges.