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Methane emissions, media omissions: time for a global beef approach?

by James Nason, 06 October 2017
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This month’s International Beef Alliance in Paraguay represents a good opportunity for the global beef industry to take a more proactive, collective approach to promoting the benefits of beef production and dispelling some myths

 

Three reports in recent weeks have produced vastly different conclusions about the impact of livestock production on the environment and global food security.

One, by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, concluded that 86 percent of feed consumed by farmed livestock is made of materials not currently eaten by humans, indicating that livestock have a much lower burden on the human food supply chain than is often reported.

Another study published in the Carbon Balance and Management journal last week, estimated that global livestock methane emissions for 2011 were 11 percent higher than guidelines provided by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2006.

A third study, titled “Grazed and Confused”, released by the Oxford University-based Food Climate Research Network this week, looked at existing research to answer the question: Is grass-fed beef good or bad for the climate?

It concluded that, generally speaking, grassfed cattle production generates much more greenhouse gas than it sequesters, and, given that grassfed beef represents a relatively small percentage of the global protein requirement, it is highly-emissions intensive and its place in a sustainable food system is limited.

The authors also emphasise that this does not mean intensive production systems offer a better alternative: “The shift to intensification changes the nature of the problems, and by some measures, makes things worse.”

The contradictory conclusions of the three reports highlight a fundamental problem with all such reports, in that they rely on data that is variable and subject to significant gaps in knowledge, which the reports acknowledge.

Yet, despite the lack of scientific certainty surrounding each conclusion, it is illustrative that the more negative findings have received enthusiastic media coverage, while the more positive UN FAO report appears to have been all but ignored by the popular press.

Is it because the mainstream media does not see the UN FAO as a credible source on this subject?

It’s hard to draw that conclusion. When the same organisation produced the “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report in 2006, which concluded that the livestock sector was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire combined global transport industry, that finding generated thousands of media headlines the world over.

11 years later the same report is still routinely cited in media reports to justify claims of beef’s environmental villainy.

This is despite the Livestock Long Shadow report having been largely discredited in 2010 when one of its authors publicly admitted that the methodology made unfair comparisons between livestock and transport and effectively exaggerated the environmental impact of livestock.

In direct contrast, the two more negative studies of recent weeks have generated an abundance of online headlines, such as “Grass-fed beef is bad for the planet and causes climate change”; “Your grassfed burger is making climate change worse”; Cattle methane emissions higher than previously thought”.

Comments by UN FAO livestock policy officer and lead researcher Dr Anne Mottet following the release of the recent UN FAO study highlighted the mainstream media’s preoccupation with bad news stories when it comes to food production and the environment:

“As a Livestock Policy Officer working for the FAO I have been asked many times by the press to report on the negative environmental impacts of livestock,” Dr Mottet said.

“Doing so, I came to realise that people are continually exposed to incorrect information that is repeated without being challenged, in particular about livestock feed.

“There is currently no official and complete international database on what livestock eat. This study contributes to filling this gap and to provide peer-reviewed evidence to better inform policy makers and the public.”

 

In late 2015 the CSIRO released research showing that the volume of methane emissions attributed to Australian cattle had been significantly over-estimated, because calculations at the time were based on studies done of mainly dairy cattle in the 1960s and 1990s. After analysing data from Meat & Livestock Australia’s methane abatement research programs, the CSIRO concluded that methane emissions from Australian cattle were actually 24 percent lower than previously estimated

One group in “fundamental disagreement” with Grazed and Confused reports is the UK-based organisation Sustainable Food Trust.

It has published a response which can be read in full here, in which it challenges some of the scientific evidence used and the author’s analysis.

Some of its stated concerns with the research included:

  • The report failed to understand the vital necessity to return degraded cropland to grass in order to rebuild carbon and organic matter levels;
  • “The only way to produce human-edible food from grassland is to graze it with livestock. With the increasing global population it would be highly irresponsible to stop producing meat, milk and animal fats from grassland, since this would cause even more rainforest to be destroyed to produce soyabean oil and meal, as well as palm oil”.
  • “Continuous crop production is simply not sustainable, organic matter levels decline, soils lose their structure, crops become increasingly prone to weeds, pests and diseases. Apart from fruit and nut trees, grassland is the only crop which rebuilds soil fertility while producing food for human consumption, albeit indirectly.”

Nor do the reports that purport to analyse all existing research about livestock greenhouse gas emissions appear to consider the promising research being done to reduce cattle methane production.

Research by the CSIRO and James Cook University has found that small doses of seaweed/red algae collected from Queensland’s coastal waters helped to reduce methane production by more than 99 percent in a lab.

Last month Scottish Research that potentially paves the way for breeding of low-emission livestock won an internationally respected research prize. The study identified a genetic link between microbial profiles in a cow’s gut and the amount of methane they produce. They believe the research can be ultimately used to help farmers to breed cattle that generate less methane. The study was awarded PLOS Genetics international research journal’s 2017 annual prize for outstanding research.

In the meantime, the question must be asked, what is the global beef industry doing collectively to promote the positive role animal agriculture plays to the wider community, in the face of ongoing negative headlines?

In Australia Meat & Livestock Australia has established the Target 100 program to demonstrate the responsible approach livestock producers take to animal welfare, environmental outcomes and sustainability. Australia has recently developed its own beef sustainability framework, while many other beef producing countries around the world are involved in the Global Beef Sustainability Roundtable.

How visible are these initiatives outside the industry itself? Has the global industry considered pooling resources to more proactively promote these initiatives to a broader public, whose opinions about meat production have been undoubtedly influenced by countless negative headlines?

Representatives of seven beef cattle producing countries – Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Paraguay – are set to meet in Paraguay for the annual International Beef Alliance Conference this month.

The aim of the annual gathering is to discuss issues of common importance to the global beef cattle sector.

Those seven countries represent a significant share of the global cattle herd, and collectively generate millions of dollars in industry funding for research, development and beef marketing.

The opportunity exists for the representatives at this meeting to discuss the creation of a joint global fund to promote the environmental and human health benefits of beef production.



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Reader's Comments


Comment
  • Paul Franks October 6, 2017

    I struggle to believe the methodology used to calculate emissions would stand up to scrutiny.

    For example do they count the grass used to off set emissions. Grass sequests carbon dioxide and cattle eat it and turn the CO2 into meat. Also from what I understand the methane life cycle is not very well understood. As usual though cattle producers are a soft easy target to vilify. Seldom do we hear about methane emissions from rice paddies. As usual it is a very political topic where hard facts play second fiddle.

  • Brian Wark October 6, 2017

    By sheer coincidence, I just watched (under sufference ) a new movie the History Channel called “2 Degrees, The point Of No Return”. This load of BS confirms that Climate Change and its so called associated causes, is as suspected a pseudoscientific fraud upon the world. Methane emissions – who’s kidding whom,? What our cattle contribute to this farcical nonsense is negligable anyway and wouldn’t change a thing even if they doubled their “dorises”. Carry on cattle- as you were and eat whatever is in front of you to your hearts content.

  • Carlos S. Carmona October 6, 2017

    I think billions of people produce more methane than cows. Specially emissions from vegetarians.

  • Will Robinson October 6, 2017

    One would think that increased growth rates in young would shorten the production cycle, reduce exposure to drought risk and there by cut emissions because the cattle would be emitting for a shorter period of time?

  • Wendy Bowman October 6, 2017

    A great article. Thank you for posing the questions and a positive approach is long overdue.

  • bill nicholas October 6, 2017

    mr gunthorpe do you ever make a positive, helpfull statement about anything

  • Jodie Green October 7, 2017

    The media gives good exposure to striking genuine or promising good progress on beef sustainability, eg the seaweed and the genetics work.

    however, the industry’s ongoing public and behind closed doors support of underlying unpopular and even shoddy practices like uncontrolled broadscale land clearing and inadequate sediment control, even shockingly in the GBR, plus human health issues from overconsumption, tend to keep the genuine question valid in the public’s mind – should I just cut down on beef? Afterall, it’s an easy step to take.

    Until those issues are addressed industry efforts on ‘sustainability’ look like fake-news, unfortunately, or even greenwash, and possibly wont serve it in the long run.

  • Garrey &Karen Sellars October 7, 2017

    I agreewith Paul about methodology Do they take into account carbon footprint to grow crops ie diesel for plowing harvesting and transport ,for alternativ feed to grass

  • Phil Cook October 7, 2017

    A question to Jodie Green. Where have you seen current “uncontrolled broadscale land clearing”? The GPS points will suffice.

  • Chris Gunther October 7, 2017

    The human species has doubled in size in 50 years. No climate control will work without population control. Nobody ever mentions this!

  • Dr. Albrecht Glatzle, Paraguay October 8, 2017

    True! The messages in ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ disseminated in thousands of media reports and corroborated by several subsequent FAO-reports (such as Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock), caused tremendous damage to the reputation of the livestock industry at a global scale. Although it might be a praiseworthy approach by Anne Mottet to try to bring back the FAO to its mandate of promoting global food security and to defend the prominent contribution of animal husbandry to this objective, so far, the big media did not take notice of her “lost voice in the desert”. How could they, as long as the producer orgainzations, such as the International Beef Alliance IBA and the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, keep sticking to the bogus science, the IPCC and the FAO has been promoting as the final and global scientific consensus?
    Hopefully the Paraguayan membership in the IBA can contribute to a revision of its position in this matter, so crucial for the reputation of the worldwide beef industry:
    – World climate is not driven by human GHG emissions! There is a growing divergence between observed and modeled tempertures. So far, IPCC models never have been validated (e.g. Scafetta: Natural climate variability)! Unnoticed by the mainstream, the IPCC is admittedly unable to explain the various prominent warm periods during the Holocene (in spite of preindustrial CO2-levels) with its biased appraisal of the “radiative forcing components”.
    – There is a wealth of literature showing clearly that CO2-emissions are beneficial for nature, agriculture and global food security. It is the most important nutrient for life, – reality ignored by today’s trendy mainstream science.
    – There is no discernible livestock fingerprint, neither in the global geographical methane distribution nor in the historical evolution of the methane concentration in the air, showing clearly that livestock is an insignificant contributor to the global methane budget, – a fact ignored by the IPCC and FAO. Why then should we try to teach our cows to emit less methane?
    – Both, the IPCC and FAO, do systematically overestimate manmade Non-CO2-GHGs from managed ecosystems, as baseline scenarios over time and space (from native and/or pre-climate-change-agro-ecosystems) are explicitly ignored. This represents a severe methodological error which has been inexorably propagated through recent scientific literature.

    When will the worldwide food producing community and their organizations stop accepting timidly the “dictatorship” of political organizations such as the IPCC (falsely built up as the ultimate scientific instances)? When will they stop to sell themselves as the well educated guys who try to save the global climate? When finally will we pick up the above mentioned obvious and irrefutable scientific facts, in order to present proudly our products produced in a sustainable way and so badly needed by humanity?

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