Beef 2021

Beef 2021: Clearing the air on cattle emissions

James Nason, 03/05/2021

Key points:

  • Cattle producers are in the cross hairs from various groups, but “need to be proud and speak up”
  • Consumers want to be reassured the meat they eat is produced in a responsible way, but from farmers, ‘not a PR campaign’.
  • Aim of cattle industry should be climate neutrality, not carbon neutrality

IF an omnivore decided to go vegan for one year, the science shows that would reduce that person’s carbon footprint by 0.8 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Is that a lot?

Not when you consider a single flight per passenger from the US to Europe would amount to 1.6 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, US air quality scientist Dr Frank Mitloehner told about 600 Australian cattle industry stakeholders via video address to the CQ University symposium at Beef 2021 on Monday.

“Meaning you would have to go vegan for two years to save enough greenhouse gases to offset one flight that you might make to Europe.”

If the entire US went vegan, that would reduce the carbon footprint of the US by just 2.6 percent.

This science isn’t new, so why isn’t it cutting through?

That was a common theme of most questions Dr Mitloehner received from the floor following his presentation.

Why are scientists, media and recipe websites still drawing on incorrect comparisons of methane from cattle and methane from fossil fuels to demonise beef?

Dr Mitloehner’s response suggested he is just as surprised too.

“When you take fossil fuel out of the ground then you are taking carbon that was in the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago, and you are pulling that out and you are burning it, and that is all new additional carbon.

“So why people don’t see that is beyond me.

“How can you not see that?

“The methane from a cow is not the same as the methane from drilling.”

Asked what can be done get more scientists engaging in the debate and greater adoption of the science, Dr Mitloehner suggested the most important thing was to “show the world that you care.”

“You need to say we care, we care for the climate, we understand our industry has a footprint and we have quantified what that footprint is.

“We are proud of our footprint because compared to any other regions in the world it is much better, but that is not to say that we will stop trying hard.”

Consumers wanted to be reassured that the meat they were eating was produced in a responsible way, but, importantly, not through a PR campaign.

“They need to hear from farmers, they need to hear from your station owners and workers.

“I have been there (to Australia), I was so, so impressed, I love what you do and how you do it and I hope you get the word out.”

Part of the problem he said was many Governments are very happy with the way methane emissions are currently accounted.

Dr Mitloehner said cattle producers are “in the cross hairs of many groups out there”, but they need to be proud, and they need to speak up.

“I don’t want you to feel like you have to fight them,” he said.

“I want you to be proud of what you do and communicate what you do and learn how to communicate what you do in a compassionate way, in a way that really shows you care.”

“People love your product, we need to make sure they understand that it is responsibly raised.”

Dr Mitloehner also reiterated his previously stated view that the Australian cattle industry should be aiming to achieve a goal of climate neutrality, rather than carbon neutrality.

“I think cattle industry can be climate neutral, not carbon neutral,” he said.

Asked by Beef Central after the presentation if he could explain that further, he said most of Australia’s cattle production is on pasture, and hence there is little opportunity to reduce manure or enteric emissions.

“There is no way that we can reduce enteric methane to zero.

“You need to reduce a lot of the methane from enteric sources but there are limits of what can be done, particularly under grazing conditions.

“In my opinion, Australia should focus on reducing what really matters and what is achievable: the impact of beef on ‘warming’ and not ‘carbon’.

“Do a 0.5 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and reach ‘climate neutrality’ by 2035.

“Do more (1%/year) and reach that goal maybe by 2030.

“Agriculture does not need to bring its emissions down to zero like other sectors but it needs to reduce particularly methane to benefit from its unique behaviour in the atmosphere.”


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  1. Neil Isaac, 07/05/2021

    cows and the environment what a load of tosh. it is a fact that termites and other insects that eat organic material give of more methane than cows nothing is ever said because people don’t know and will never know because they don’t want people to know. same could be said about electric cars better for the environment well people need to look at the dirty business of Lithium mining and the destruction of the environment in country’s such as Portugal, Chillie, and around the Congo where forest are being cut down so western country’s can have un practical electric cars. We need to plant more trees. stop making plastic and each country should recycle their own west and not dump it on Asia because they cant deal with it .

  2. Charlie Hawkins, 05/05/2021

    Thanks Dr Mitloehner. It seems a “carbon neutral” beef industry in Australia by 2030 is entirely out of reach with current accounting rules for methane but farmers should be engouraged to measure their emissions and carbon storage in order to monitor their own path to a more productive and profitable farming system more resistant to drought and climate variability. Involvement in carbon farming will deliver this goal.

  3. Alan Lauder, 04/05/2021

    There is one thing that always seems to be overlooked when the claim is made that a plant based diet is better for the climate. The reality is that, “cropping country has less soil carbon than pasture”, so if everybody stops eating beef, then some of the pasture has to be converted to cropping, leading to some soil carbon loss. In other words, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Soil testing at Inglewood (Queensland, Australia) has shown that on average there is 14.6 tonnes more carbon per ha in the soil under pasture than there is in cropping soils. This was supplied to me recently by a CSIRO scientist.

    Our peer reviewed paper published in an International Greenhouse Journal produced the equation that 1 tonne of carbon stored in the landscape will account for 1 kg of ongoing (hundreds of years) cattle methane.

    If you look at the stocking rate at Inglewood and the amount of methane produced yearly by an adult equivalent, it would appear that 63.7% of the ongoing methane is accounted for by the soil carbon change.

    The 63.7% of ongoing methane that has been accounted for by soil carbon loss, through the change to cropping, now has to be put in the context of the reality that, ongoing stable methane emissions from cattle does NOT CHANGE the climate. This is because these ongoing methane emissions are not changing the net balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Put another way, the ongoing methane emissions are not changing radiative forcing.

    When people criticise cattle using incorrect accounting, they are responsible for influencing policy that will lead to the climate system moving towards two degrees faster.

    Reducing cattle methane, which is something we can and should be doing, is actually reversing climate change.

    In terms of stabilising the climate, leaving cattle methane emissions at their current level will basically produce the same outcome as cutting carbon dioxide emissions to zero.

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