Could your diet save the planet?

It looks delicious, but is a diet free of red meat better for the planet? stu spivack

By now most of us have read articles suggesting we “eat less red meat and save the planet”.

Some may also have heard statements by the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, that people should have “one meat-free day a week if they want to make a personal and effective sacrifice that would help tackle climate change”.

As with most issues associated with climate change, concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are muddied by many strong opinions and few facts. Meanwhile, the average person is just trying to work out the truth and determine what they can realistically do to make a meaningful contribution.

How much does livestock contribute?

In sorting the myths from the truth, it’s worth considering what the livestock sector in Australia contributes to climate change and comparing this with other sectors.

According to the Australian National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the livestock industries contribute around 11% of national greenhouse gas emissions, mainly as methane and, to a lesser extent, nitrous oxide.

How do emissions from agriculture compare to those from other industries? Odd Andersen/AFP

Total livestock emissions have declined by 2.4% since 1990. In comparison, transport emissions in Australia have risen by 34.6% over the same period, and are now around 15% of national emissions.

It is also important to bear in mind what exactly is included in livestock emissions. Some controversy was created by the book Livestock’s Long Shadow, where land clearing and transport emissions were allocated to livestock’s greenhouse gas footprint.

In Australia net emissions from land clearing, nominally associated with agriculture, were estimated to be around 7% of national emissions in 2009, a decline of 68.6% since 1990.

This “forced” reduction by the livestock sector, made through bans on land clearing, is the only reason Australia was finally able to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

As emissions from stationary energy (coal fired power stations) and transport have increased by more than 30% since 1990, the land-based sector (mainly through livestock farmers) has been critical to Australia meeting its Kyoto commitment of limiting emissions to 108% of 1990 levels.

What’s the alternative?

In this debate, it is important to compare apples with apples. Thus in order to make an equitable comparison, when attributing land clearing to livestock, we also need to weigh up the alternatives.

For the energy and transport sectors, alternatives are emerging. We are now able to make choices to reduce our footprint, through:

  • buying green power
  • buying lower emissions cars
  • taking public transport or cycling to work.

In comparison, there are no alternatives to food. But some foods clearly “produce” more emissions than others, with grain crops producing less than 1% of the emissions of red meat per kilogram of product.

In terms of both energy and emissions, it is more efficient to grow crops to feed humans directly than to feed crops to livestock that will in turn be consumed by humans.

We have a responsibility to take our agriculture emissions research to the rest of the world. AFP/Steffi Loos

We can’t live on grass alone

Of course, humans cannot live on grass and ruminant livestock remain the most efficient means of converting grasslands into food for human consumption. It must also be remembered that most of the land devoted to livestock is not viable for crop production.

Continual cropping, especially in monoculture, can also lead to reductions in soil carbon, with rotations into perennial pasture one of the only ways to restore soil carbon in the longer term.

Likewise, many cropping systems have stubble and residues which can be utilised by incorporating livestock in a mixed farming system. This provides these systems with improvements in biodiversity, resource efficiency and resilience to climate challenges.

What will our dietary choices mean on a global scale?

Given the large amount of emissions produced by livestock, reducing personal red meat consumption will reduce an individual’s greenhouse gas footprint. This is an entirely valid and personal choice. However, we need to be realistic about how much difference these choices may make to global livestock emissions.

In reality, the proportion of the world’s population that has the privilege of choosing a vegetarian lifestyle is limited to a minority of the developed world – a demographic that is predicted to grow by less than 7% by 2050.

The majority of the world’s population (and consequent food demand) will be in the developing world, which is predicted to grow by 54% by 2050.

According to the United Nations, by 2050 Africa will be the largest population centre, while India and China will see the largest increases in population. In each of these regions, cultural factors come into play and bear consideration.

Cultural practices ensure cow populations are unlikely to shrink in future. Prakash Mathema/AFP

In Africa, cattle are a symbol of wealth (in essence, the banking system), while also being used for transport, energy and religious ceremonies. Allocation of livestock emissions to the human food chain alone is therefore clearly not correct and is unlikely to drive practice-change into the future.

In India, cattle are considered sacred and thus a reduction in livestock numbers is not likely to happen readily.

In China, red meat consumption is a luxury for the wealthy only, with most of the population consuming either a non-meat diet or white-meat products such as fish, poultry and pigs.

In South America, cultural norms dictate that red-meat consumption is high and this tradition is highly unlikely to change in the short-term.

Realistically, this then leaves a privileged few in the world who have the choice of reducing their red-meat consumption. Coincidently, people in this minority are having fewer children, meaning that the “privileged few” will become an even smaller percentage of global population.

As a result, changes to meat consumption here will have little bearing on global emissions.

An opportunity for Australia to lead the way

Like everything else in the greenhouse gas emissions debate, the answers rest in adequately funded research. In this case, research will deliver solutions to reducing methane emissions from livestock.

This will enable greater efficiency in food production and allow us to export this technology to developing countries so they, in turn, can reduce their greenhouse gas footprint.

Beef cattle at DPI Hamilton, fitted with collars for measuring methane. John Graham

Australia has a moral responsibility to contribute these mitigation technologies to the developing world, to assist them in feeding themselves more efficiently while, at the same time, keeping emissions at an acceptable level.

The task is onerous – we need to feed a growing world population, with fewer emissions than before, and without clearing any more land to do so. One answer is cropping; another is livestock production in areas of the world that are not suitable for cropping.

Fortunately, technologies are emerging that can significantly reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock production.

Either way, it’s clear that livestock products will continue to make their contribution to a growing world food production target into the future.