Opponents to animal agriculture have been lobbying for taxes on meat to curb consumption for several years, an idea revived in a United Nations global environment report released last week.
In this opinion piece provided by cattle producer group Cattle Producers Australia, southern Australian grassfed producer and ag scientist Chris Main argues why the proposal would be counter-productive, not only for food production but also for the environment.
The recent Global Environment Outlook produced by the United Nations Environment Program states that:-
“Sustainable land management policies are needed to deal with multiple threats and impacts. Promoting practices such as organic farming, agroecology and integrated soil fertility management would sustain crop production systems.”
Unfortunately, the report then goes on to call for a tax on red meat production, thus demonising one of the most effective production systems for large scale sustainable land management outcomes.
The misunderstanding comes about because the UN report seems to lump all cattle production systems together. It talks about the environmental impacts from deforestation, growing grain crops for cattle feed, and methane emissions. All of these are relevant, but not in the way the report believes, thus it is worthwhile exploring the assumptions in more detail.
Is Deforestation needed for red meat production?
No. A lot of cattle are run in areas that have not been cleared. In fact, many farmers find increasing the number of trees in pastures provides better environmental and economic outcomes.
Unfortunately, some livestock are run in areas that have been deforested, however If you wish to reduce the threat of deforestation, don’t buy red meat produced from deforested areas. At the same time, you also need to stop purchasing other products such as soy, corn and wheat that are grown on areas that were recently rainforest or grasslands.
Do all cattle need to be fed grain?
No. The growing of monoculture crops for livestock can be a problem and may need to be curbed. However, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization points out that cattle mainly consume food that is not suitable for humans, indeed the cattle industry as a whole uses 0.6 kg of protein from human edible feed to produce 1 kg of protein in milk and meat.
Of course, grass fed cattle require no feed crops or human edible feed, therefore the ratio is 0 kg human edible feed to 1 kg beef.
If you want to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions from growing crops, don’t buy animal products that require a lot of feed, for example intensive pork or chicken. At the same time, buying vegan foods that come from large monocultures must also be avoided.
Are methane emissions from cattle causing climate change?
No. The report also talks about methane emissions as a reason to avoid red meat. This may seem logical as cattle produce methane from enteric emissions (cow burbs, not farts as some believe) and manure lagoons in intensive systems. However it is important to note that the methane released by cows is but one small part of an ongoing greenhouse gas cycle which has existed for millions of years, whereby atmospheric carbon is sucked out of the atmosphere to grow plants, which are eaten by animals, then released as methane which breaks down back into atmospheric carbon, ready to go again.
For millions of years other ruminants such as bison, buffalo, antelopes, gazelles, giraffes, etc emitted methane in the same way as cattle do, without causing runaway climate change.
But doesn’t methane cause climate change?
Yes it does contribute, but there is a difference between the methane from cattle and methane from, for example, coal seam gas production. The cycling of carbon through cattle does not increase atmospheric carbon levels at all, as the source of the emissions is the same atmospheric carbon it returns to. For this reason, it is inaccurate to treat enteric emissions in the same way as fossil fuel emissions, which convert geologically stable carbon into atmospheric carbon which will stay in the atmosphere for millions of years. Or, for that matter, biologically stable carbon in the form of biomass or soil carbon which is released into the atmosphere when grasslands or forests are cleared to grow crops such as soy, corn and wheat.
Recent research from NASA confirms the insignificance of methane emissions from cattle, with their study showing recent increases in methane levels have come from fossil fuels and wetlands or rice farming. As far as I am aware the UN has not yet called for a tax on rice production.
Do livestock belong on grasslands?
Another issue is what would happen to the huge areas of grassland that are currently grazed by cattle. If cattle were removed and the grass is burnt, rather than eaten by cattle and turned into steak, carbon emissions (and other environmental damage) would be up to 5 times higher.
It is often not realised that grasses, animals and soils evolved together, and while the wild herds of ruminants that used to run in the grasslands have been greatly decreased, cattle can fulfil the same ecological functions while producing healthy, nutrient rich food.
In addition, manure lagoons which release methane are a result of industrialised meat production, not red meat production per se. Methane is emitted from manure when it breaks down under anaerobic conditions, ie without oxygen present such as in manure lagoons at feedlots.
In pasture based systems the manure is deposited directly onto the grass, providing a valuable source of fertiliser and not causing a methane problem as it decomposes under aerobic conditions, ie in the presence of oxygen. Trapping methane from the manure lagoons for energy production is an option, but this is an issue that industrial livestock producers need to deal with and is not a problem with cattle raised on grass.
Can red meat production benefit the environment?
It can. While some livestock production systems can cause environmental problems, there is a growing body of evidence showing how beneficial red meat production can be to the environment, if managed correctly. Recent research by Texas A&M University in the US found that with appropriate regenerative crop and grazing management, ruminants not only reduce overall GHG emissions, but also facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, increase soil carbon sequestration, and reduce environmental damage.
Other research from Michigan State University found that under Adaptive Multi Paddock Grazing (also known as Holistic Planned Grazing), more extensive (grass-based) but intensively managed beef finishing can deliver environmental benefits (such as soil carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services) with less environmental impact than intensive feedlot finishing.
Given the massive area of grasslands around the world that are not suitable for crop growing the potential for carbon sequestration is huge. The potential for grasslands to have such an impact on climate change is slowly being recognised, with recent research indicating that grazing lands generate carbon surpluses that could not only offset rural emissions but could also partially or totally offset the emissions of non-rural sectors.
On top of this research, farmers around the world have been achieving remarkable environmental outcomes as a result of their grazing management, including increasing biodiversity, healthier soils and regeneration of landscapes. There are multiple examples of this around the world where grazing and improving wildlife habitats coexist:
Taxing red meat production may sound like a good idea, however a closer look at the realities of livestock production shows red meat not only isn’t the problem but is also one of the few options we have to deal with many of the environmental issues we currently face, including climate change. It is unfortunate that a body such as the United Nations Environment Program does not take the time to fully understand the implications of their recommendations.