Climate change

November 18, 2009

Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts

Filed under: Climate Change, Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 3:36 pm

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.


There’s a gross cognitive dissonance when a Government who professes to think that climate change is the defining issue of our generation can’t face down a few blustering cowboys. This is implied in the anouncement that agriculture will be omitted from the CPRS.

Well, that’s not quite true. Doing good things like planting trees will be rewarded by allowing farmers to sell pieces of paper called offsets. Doing bad things … like generating more warming than all our coal fired power stations, like causing 6,000 new bowel cancer cases annually, like giving teenagers athlerosclerotic plaques. These will also be rewarded in the usual way … by the traditional head in sand approach on the emissions and by medical subsidies while continuing to allow Meat and Livestock Australia to mislead the public without being bothered by silly inconveniences like truth in advertising laws. This is analogous to the time honoured principle behind handling the Global Financial Crisis, privatise the profits and nationalise the losses.

Recall that it isn’t very much of agriculture which is the problem, it isn’t the potato growers or the wheat millers, or the fruit and vegetable growers. Their emissions are tiny and we have no low emission alternatives to these foods when it comes to eating. Quantitatively, even the downstream food processors and transporters are relatively low in emissions. For new readers let me just spell it out once more … suppose the emissions generated by making pasta were the equivalent of a car using 5 litres per 100 kilometers. What are the emissions generated by lean beef equivalent to? About 1000 liters per 100 kilometers. Would we allow cars that were so inefficient? Obviously our current Government would, at best, merely ask producers of such cars to join the other pigs at the free CPRS permit trough.

So out of the whole of agriculture, the big emitters are just the sheep and cattle boys and there’s not too many sheep boys left after a couple of decades of culling by market forces and cheaper (and sometimes better) fabrics. Like I said in the beginning its really just a few cowboys calling the shots. The interests of these cowboys so dominates the Australian psyche that Kevin Rudd seriously thought a few BBQs would heal the rift over the bashing of Indian students. Apparently neither he nor anybody in his office seemed to understand that asking Indian students home for slashed and seared roast religious icon between 2 slices of limp white bread substitute wasn’t going to be quite the winner on the sub-continent that it is in Australia.

Leading the charge for the cowboys these days is Australian of the Year in 2007, Tim Flannery. He was recently paid by Meat and Livestock Australia to speak at a meat propaganda forum for young students at Roseworthy agricultural college just out from Adelaide. ABC’s Bush Telegraph last week discussed the forum and featured Flannery not only discussing the sustainability of red meat but prophetically outlining exactly what Government policy should be. And so it came to pass, that before the sun rose and set a few more times, the deal was done and announced. Bush Telegraph did a follow-up program the next day featuring a rerun of Flannery’s statements and a response from philosopher and well known animal rights campaigner, Peter Singer.

Questioned about the livestock methane problem, Flannery was broadly dismissive, playing the but it’s natural card with a typical sloppy, unquantified and totally irrelevant truism:

red meat has been part of our diet for a very long time … there’s always been cows and sheep and other large herbivores on land burping and farting … they’ve been part of the natural system

Bush Telegraph played some choice comments at the end of the program from students who attended the forum and these indicated clearly that this truism had made a great impression. Perhaps BT can reinterview the students in 7 years time and see if the famous Jesuit maxim is true. The Australian version would be give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the red necked bigot.

Flannery’s truism probably conjures up images of huge herds of bison covering North America and massive herds of wildebeest blanketting the African continent. For many, wildlife documentaries have made such visions far more common than those of livestock. But this all too easy vivid image fails to capture the quantitative essence of the way livestock now dominate the planet having all but totally eliminated wildlife. It is precisely Flannery’s brilliant inspirational capacity as a speaker and author which makes his fundamentally woolly headed romanticism particularly dangerous.

Wildlife rates of conception, growth, and the like don’t match what can be achieved by artifical selection, artificial insemination, good fences, irrigated feed production, predator extermination and all the other paraphenalia of modern agriculture. These have produced a totally unnatural and unprecedented explosion in numbers of those animals which people have designated as livestock.

RsubakConsider the following table. The left side is from a 1994 paper estimating methane flows in the year 1500. It pulls together historical and ecological estimates of populations of relevant species and also gives an estimate of the human population of about 466 million. Rather less than the current 6.7 billion.

As you can see the estimates for wildebeest and bison in 1500 are dwarfed by modern populations of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and even buffalo (mainly water buffalo).

The livestock population estimate on the right side of the table comes from a 2008 paper also looking at methane flows but which doesn’t deal with wildlife species. Where we have estimates on both sides of the table for a species the differences are stark. Run the numbers and you’ll see, for example, that the ratio of cattle to people has almost doubled. But despite this growth and the destruction of huge swathes of forest on most continents, beef provides just 1.3% of global food calories.

What the right side population numbers don’t show is the dramatic increase in the size and growth rates of some species. For example, while cattle outnumber pigs in the table, pigs provide 3 times more food calories than cattle … which is still not much food all of it causes bowel cancer. The pig industry output is due to huge increases in growth rates, with appalling consequences for breeding sows.

With cattle, the size increase has been dramatic. Indian cattle have a carcase weight averaging 100 kg, probably not too dissimilar to cattle in 1500, but the carcases of the feedlot monsters in many parts of the world tip the scales at 350 kilograms.

Chickens don’t appear in the table, they are insectivores rather than herbivores and the planet at any time has about 18 billion with most being now raised in factory farms regardless of whether it is in the developed or developing world. So, while it is true that there have always been herbivores, current livestock populations are unprecedented and these populations include insectivores like chickens and omnivores like pigs.

The total global livestock body weight combines the impacts of increased numbers with increasing sizes. Livestock’s Long Shadow gives a figure of about 700 million tonnes for the global livestock weight. What is the total weight of humans? About 330 million tonnes. Planet earth is clearly not the planet of the apes.

What is the impact of 700 million tonnes of livestock? Apart from a displacement of wildlife, a new WorldWatch report put the total impact of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions at about 51% of our global total. Can the feeding, fodder growth, irrigation for the fodder growth, fertiliser, watering, transport, slaughter, refrigeration, cooking of 700 million tonnes of livestock really be half the global total of our greenhouse gas impact on the climate? I’d say the biomass estimates alone make this plausible. Certainly the livestock of the rich outconsume and out travel many of the world’s poor. While I think it’s too early to judge the robustness of the WorldWatch number, I expect it will eventually be judged reasonably close to the mark.

But in Australia, the red necks are firmly entrenched and even our 2007 Australian of the Year puts BBQ protection ahead of saving the planet and gets paid for it.

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