Climate change

February 3, 2011

Filed under: Livestock's long shadow — buildeco @ 2:52 pm

Livestock and Climate Change … Status update

by Barry Brook

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

The United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) came out in 2006 with an estimate that 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock. If you exclude deforestation emissions, then the number drops to 14 percent. Some 95 percent of these emissions are direct emissions of methane or nitrous oxide with just 5 percent being from associated energy use as shown in the table which is a contraction of a table from LLS.

Livestock Greenhouse Giga Tonnes
Emissions CO2-eq
Energy Related 0.16
Methane 2.20
Nitrous Oxide 2.20

The reason the energy emissions are so small is that almost no processing is included. The energy associated with the refrigerated meat chain from abattoir to consumer, cooking costs, energy to build the trucks that carry the animals and later the meat etc. None of this was included.

A couple of years after the LLS report, we published a piece by myself, Barry Brook and Peter Singer which showed that Australia’s most powerful climate forcing was livestock and not coal fired power stations. The demonstration relied on the difference between radiative forcing, a concept roughly equivalent to warming and used by climate scientists, and the less accurate concept of carbon dioxide equivalent used in the Kyoto protocol.

Two years later and it’s time for an update. The NOAA chart shows that methane levels are rising again after a flat spot during the early 2000s, and the biggest single source of anthropogenic methane is livestock.

This update will look at implications of livestock growth predictions, the Goodland/Anhang photosynthesis imbalance theory, industry attempts to show beef is carbon friendly, and ruminant methane reduction research. I’d like to also cover black carbon and ozone issues, but that will have to wait. I have written a small section to explain why black carbon and ozone are really, really important, but the detail will have to wait.

Pelletier and Tyedmers PNAS paper

August 2010 saw the publication in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) of a paper looking at the implications of various livestock population scenarios out to 2050. It looked at the impact of the scenarios on postulated safe operating limits for three things:

  1. human production of greenhouse gases,
  2. our use of planetary biomass
  3. and our production of reactive nitrogen.

These are all topics which will be familiar to some degree from earlier BNC posts (here for biomass, and here for nitrogen).

Currently the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq) for every person on the planet average about 4.8 tonnes a year. Australians are among the worst with emissions more than 5 times this. Nuclear powered France comes in at a little less than double the average. Typically, developing countries are below average emitters. For example Bangladesh emits about 0.9 tonnes per person per year. Sub-Saharan Africa comes in closer to average at around 4.5 with half that coming from land-use change … burning the landscape.

By 2050, the global average needs to be about 1. That’s right, just 1 tonne of CO2eq for each of the 8.9 billion people that P&T expect on the planet. That’s no change for Bangladesh and a 25 fold reduction for us.

P&T consider several scenarios:

  1. No change in livestock populations or emissions. Since 95 percent of livestock emissions are direct rather than from energy use, a rebuilding of our energy infrastructures can’t make a dent in livestock emissions. So livestock, assuming no growth at all, will occupy about half of that 8.9 billion tonnes of CO2eq, leaving half a tonne per annum for everything else. Because this scenario postulates no increase in livestock but a growing population, the average consumption of meat per person must fall.
  2. Growth in livestock as per FAO predictions. In this case livestock emissions will be 71 percent of each person’s allocated tonne of CO2eq.
  3. The vegan. This is one of two endpoint scenarios. I’ve called it a vegan scenario, P&T call it their soy scenario because they assumed that all protein comes from soy and none from animal products. Soy protein to go for 8.9 billion can be generated for a greenhouse gas cost of just 0.1 tonne of CO2eq per person. Of course, it’s not necessary to eat soy to get protein. Protein is actually tough to avoid and humans don’t need much compared with, for example, goats.
  4. Extreme meat. In this scenario P&T look at what happens when animal products supply all of a person’s protein requirements. They view this as the opposite endpoint of the vegan case, but it’s already happening in many first world countries. Australians, for example, average 73 grams of protein a day from animal products, which means all the rest of the food they eat contributes superfluous protein. In such a scenario, 92 percent of your tonne of CO2eq will come from the animal products in your diet. There won’t be much room left in your allocated tonne for anything else. As a footnote, I should say that P&T are using very low emission factors for their beef, so I’d say many Australians are already well over their tonne just from their meat alone.
  5. Chicken substitution. This interesting scenario postulates that all livestock increases above the year 2000 level required to meet the demands of the extra 2050 population will come from chicken which has the lowest greenhouse gas footprint of any meat. Under this scenario, livestock consumes 62 percent of a person’s 1 tonne allocation.

An LLS reply …

The P&T paper prompted a response from FAO’s LLS authors Steinfeld and Gerber who argued that changes are already in place to make meat more environmentally friendly … by making it more animal abusive with a shift to pigs and chickens. It was a qualitative reply to a set of quantitative predictions.

Steinfeld’s use of the word “shift” is vague and a little misleading. The global cattle population has increased in each of the past four decades. True, it hasn’t grown as fast as pigs and chickens, but this doesn’t mean that there has been any global substitution of pigs and chickens for cattle. Pigs have long been the dominant meat globally with pig and chicken meat production combined being triple the size of beef. Without a reduction in cattle, and there is no evidence of this globally, it’s difficult to envisage any significant decrease in overall livestock impacts in the 3 areas P&T consider. Steinfeld’s response is really no more than hand-waving.

Is “abusive” a defensible description of the pig and chicken industries? Absolutely and it has solid scientific support. A major study looking at chickens in the UK found that only a few percent can walk normally. The researchers looked at 51,000 birds in 206 flocks. Apart from the few percent walking normally, the rest suffered varying degrees of crippling because their muscle growth exceeds that of their skeletal system. Scientists have also shown that the birds are in pain. They will quickly learn to select drinking water laced with analgesic when given a choice. This is a heavily globalised industry so there are good reasons to believe this study is representative. The situation with pigs is little better … typically 60 percent of breeding sows are replaced each year with lameness being a common reason.

P&T on Biomass

P&T use an estimate of the maximum sustainable limit on human biomass use by 2050 of about 9.7 billion tonnes annually which is consistent with a a land use stabilisation scenario of the IPCC. Livestock already use about 7 billion tonnes of biomass. But far more critical is which 7 billion. Almost 3 billion of those 7 are crop residues. This increases erosion and damages soil structure, ultimately reducing the productive capacity of plants which provides the bulk (83 percent) of human food. In wealthy countries we compensate with more fertiliser, but in poorer countries low productivity and hunger are the result. It’s tough to decide which of the livestock industries’ devastating impacts on animals, people and the planet is worse … animal suffering, species extinction, bowel cancer or methane’s contribution to climate change. But exacerbation of hunger and poverty in poor countries by the apparently innocuous process of eating crop residues possibly trumps all four.

Worldwatch and mega fauna

In 2009 Worldwatch published a paper by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang which put livestock emissions at 51 percent of anthropogenic emissions. I’ve mentioned this before. A large part of the difference between the 18 percent and 51 percent figures comes down to the treatment of livestock respiration … the carbon dioxide breathed out by animals (and us). If livestock are gradually reducing planetary plant capital, then at least some of their respiratory CO2 should counted. Current IPCC accounting rules are predicated on an assumption that respired carbon is matched (or exceeded) by plant growth.

Measuring such matters is difficult at best, but an interesting study came out in 2010 which throws light on the issue from a different angle. Put simply, the study estimated that humans and their domesticated biomass black holes … livestock … are consuming about 6 times more plant matter than the long extinct mega-herbivores in their hey-day back in the Pleistocene. This makes it clear just how unprecedented our current impact on the planet is, regardless of how the detail pans out.

Carbon neutral cattle stations

The last few years have seen a number of studies trying to show that various grazing systems are carbon friendly. This one from Mark Liebig at the US Department of Agriculture is an example and contains references to quite a few more. Here’s an Australian one from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.

I’ve dealt with these issues in some detail before. But here’s an executive summary.

The first fundamental problem is in how the system boundary is defined. Consider methane. We used to have a planet with a rough balance between the methane sources and sinks. The terrestrial sources were things like wetlands and there were also terrestrial methane sinks like forests and some grasslands some of the time. The terrestrial sinks were always significant but were about a third the size of the atmospheric sinks. Regardless of the relative size of the sinks, it seems pretty obvious that you just can’t run around finding methane sinks and sticking cattle on them to make the area “methane neutral”. Ditto carbon in general. This is as silly as drawing a system boundary around a rechargeable plug-in electric vehicle and calling it pollution free.

The other standout issue is that of alternatives. A long term study in South East Spain illustrates the kinds of gains in carbon sequestration that can be made in suitable areas when pastures are converted to woodland.

These are not subtle points and when groups of well trained and intelligent scientists do substantial studies involving plenty of time, money and equipment and forget to mention these issues in the subsequent paper, then you have to wonder if the work is politically rather than scientifically motivated. In the case of the Queensland study mentioned above, Principal Scientist Gerard Bisshop resigned from the Queensland Government in protest.

Is Queenland a developing country hunting CDM credits?

It’s interesting to compare the Queenland study with appropriate United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) rules. These are the rules which developing countries need to follow in order to get tradeable carbon offset credits for reforestation work on agricultural or pastoral land. The rules are clear and require that the land is degraded and degrading with crops or livestock numbers having declined by at least 30 percent or more during the five years preceding the project. i.e., an ongoing cattle (or wheat) property can’t get credits for woody regrowth because it happened to decide not to bulldoze one or more paddocks. But the above linked Queensland DPI paper claims credit for precisely this kind of non-activity. It wouldn’t qualify for actual tradeable credits for a developing country under CDM and it shouldn’t appear in dodgy pro-industry advocacy papers by Queensland Government scientists.

And the CFI? … Carbon Farming Initiative

The Australian Government has recently released its Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) with a consultation paper and draft legislation for public comment. Despite the draft legislation being 331 pages of very precise legal language, the real substance is still being developed in Methodology documents being developed “with industry”. I’ll try and describe its key features as the substance emerges in a future post.

Less methane per moo

I feel compelled to give an update on the scientific progress to feed or engineer ruminants to produce less methane. Stories about breakthroughs in this area appear about as regularly as brain dead suggestions that eating more kangaroos will save the planet. Here’s a research result that might prompt just such a breakthrough story:

Many members of a series of … [compounds] were potent inhibitors of methanogenesis by rumen contents in vitro. The most potent compound inhibited methane production by 70% or more at a concentration of 1 microgram/ml (approximately 2.5 mumol/l).

Sound good? A massive 70 percent reduction in methane …

Yes it’s in vitro, but that’s a minor issue, think of the 70 percent!

This quote comes from a piece of research almost 30 years ago. Livestock farmers have long considered methane production from an animal as wasted energy and scientists have been working on a solution to this “problem” for a very long time. I traced papers back to the 1980s before losing patience. Apart from a huge wad of basic science about rumen function, I found papers on all kinds of things people have added to sheep or cattle feed to reduce methane production. The list included: mustard oil, horseradish oil, glucosinolate, cashew nut oil, linseed oil, coconut oil, krabok oil, palm fronds, soy oil, whole soybeans, antibiotics (various), fumaric acid, canola oil, copra meal, monolaurin, bromochloromethane, monensin, Yucca schidigera, Quillaja saponaria … and these are just the things with common names rather than chemical formulas. Monensin deserves a little footnote … it’s from a group of chemicals called ionophores, some of which have antibiotic properties. Meat companies are using ionophores as growth promoters while still using “raised without antibiotics” labels. One news story about huge US chicken producer Tysons doing this is here, but, curiously, the original Associated Press source seems to have been pulled from the website.

Many of the compounds reduce methane emissions but none seems to have made it into active use for all kinds of practical reasons. Seriously, who would waste cashews on cattle? A further persistant problem is that the organism populations in rumens adapt and can make any impacts short lived. Antibiotics work to some degree but create an evolutionary arms race in the rumen which will eventually see resistant organisms emerge. We don’t need any more antibiotic resistant bugs on the planet.

Apart from adding things to ruminant feed, the other approach under research is artificial selection. Some animals eat less per kilogram of growth and thereby generate less methane. Breed from these animals and hopefully the offspring will be similar. It’s rather trickier than it sounds and the gains will be small. How small?

Genetic approaches

Back in 2006 an Australian study did modelling suggesting that breeding for low methane production might yield a cumulative reduction in methane emissions in the Australian herd by 3.1 percent by 2025. This is hardly earth shattering, but seems to be enough to secure funding for this approach.

Since then various genes have been isolated that are associated with feed use efficiency (which is linked to methane production) with one study finding that these genes account for about 6.9 percent of the variability and a 2010 study found 150 gene factors (SNPs for those who know about such things) that account for 36 percent of the variability. How do you breed herds with these factors? That’s a good question.

As I was reading these papers it wasn’t always clear what was happening over time in the same animal. A group of Swiss researchers seemed to have the same interest. They examined animals from 3 popular dairy breeds over 41 weeks and found plenty of variability at different times but very consistent long term averages. They concluded:

The apparent lack of persistence of individual animal differences in methane yields suggests that genetic determination of this trait is of minor importance in dairy cows.

Measuring methane

recent news article raised the issue of the accuracy of measurements of methane from cattle. The researcher involved was Canadian PhD student Jennifer Ellis. She has published a couple of papers, one of which I have, but she hasn’t (yet) responded to email requests, so I don’t have the other. The news article states:

Statistics have been giving us a bum steer when they state how much cattle methane emissions contribute to global warming, a new study shows. That’s because mathematical equations used to predict cows’ methane emissions are inaccurate and don’t take into account factors such as dietary changes, said Jennifer Ellis, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the University of Guelph.

The paper of Ellis’s that I do have investigates the accuracy of various equations used to predict methane from cattle. The first step is to look at the accuracy of the various methods of measuring methane from actual animals … there are three. Ellis and her 12 co-authors are happy that all three methods give the same results. So there isn’t a problem measuring methane emissions from cattle. But of course, you can’t measure emissions from every animal. You need to use the measurements on some animals to come up with equations which predict national herd emissions on the basis of livestock genetics and lifestyle. Is it true, as the article implies, that after 30 years of work, nobody has fitted any half reasonable models to the data?

In a 2008 paper, Ellis’s Ph.D supervisor, Associate Professor Ermias Kebreab calculated that current IPCC equations overestimate the emissions from US dairy cattle by about 12.5 percent and underestimate the emissions from US feedlot beef animals by about 9 percent. Since the ratio of beef to dairy cattle is probably about 10 to 1 then, the equations will give a net underestimate of total cattle emissions in any place with US feedlot conditions … and cattle emissions dominate livestock emissions. So the equations may be off by a few percent, but hardly enough to warrant the bum steer claim, especially since they look to be underestimating cattle methane.

But getting back to Ellis and her paper that I do have. She tested a swag of different equations proposed by many different researchers against a database of actual measurements from animals. Here’s a couple of her pictures to give you an indication of the findings. Each little diamond is a single animal. The graph below is from one equation and you can see from the predominance of diamonds below the observed=predicted line, that this equation underestimates emissions.

The equation used in the next figure on the right looks reasonably balanced.

It’s superficially clear that the range of emissions from various animals is large and not well captured by the available equations which are all pretty simple linear combinations of dietary components that researchers suspect are important. The equations were probably popped out of some linear regression software. But all you really need for large scale use is reasonable symmetry about the observed=predicted line. On the other hand for individual animals, the equations are frequently off by large amounts … factors of 2 or more. This indicates that it’s likely that nobody really has a clue about what causes the extreme variability between animals and that the dietary components featuring in the equations may not be among the causal factors driving that variability. The list of causal factors included in the equations includes starch, cellulose, forage, nonfiber carbohydrate, fat, dry matter intake and lignin. These are all common agricultural science suspects. There isn’t a single vitamin in the list or any of the other myriad suspects that feature in human nutritional work. My non-expert judgement is that this research, despite being decades old, is still in the very early stages. Make no mistake, I’m not maligning the scientists. This is very tough science, a ruminant is a wondrously complex creature and the research effort is tiny compared to, for example research into the diseases caused by red meat … like bowel cancer … or heart disease.

Industry responses

The livestock industry has countered LLS with all manner of rubbish. For example the NSW Farmer’s Association ran a line which confused US figures with global figures and left out nitrous oxide emissions altogether. Much of this confusion comes from one Frank Mitloehner who has been trumpetting a 3 percent figure at any journalist who will listen for some time now. While I’m sure Associate Professor Mitloehner knows what he’s talking about, journalists and NSW Farmer’s Association people tend to be easily confused.

Livestock methane emissions in the US are indeed about 3 percent of US emissions and are well below the 14 percent global average figure of LLS … about half of which was nitrous oxide as we saw in the first table.

It is common for US authors to confuse the US with the entire planet, but US livestock methane emissions are below average for a number of unsurprising reasons:

  1. US cattle are predominantly grain fed (producing less methane) than cattle on pasture.
  2. The US ratio of cattle to people is about 1 to 3 compared to 1 to 1 in Brazil and well above 1 to 1 in Australia.
  3. US methane emissions from garbage are huge. In Australia, by comparison, and we are not noted for frugality, our garbage methane emissions are 1/6th of our livestock emissions. In the US, methane from garbage exceeds livestock methane.
  4. The US imports about 10 percent (net) of its beef and almost all of its sheep meat … not that they eat much. So the emissions from that beef don’t appear in US figures.
  5. Lastly, US advertisers and fast food chains may portray their home country as a hamburger culture, but Americans actually eat twice as much chicken as beef and almost no sheep meat at all. Australian ruminant meat intake is double that of the US.

It’s not so much that US livestock emissions are small, but that they are swamped by other profligate consumption emissions.

Tropospheric ozone and black carbon

Some readers will have seen the Supreme Master TV ads (on SBS in Australia) which proclaim that “If we cut methane emissions now, the worst climate change effects could go in a decade.”. The Supreme Master organisation has some of the look and feel of a religious sect to an athiest like me, but its backbone seems to be a large group of dedicated, caring and sharing volunteers who are refreshingly easy to deal with. I haven’t seen data to back their claim but here’s a claim from a paper co-authored by one of the world’s top climate scientists. Veerabhadran Ramanathan is Distinguished Professor of Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California. Here’s the quote:

Fully applying existing emissions-control technologies could cut black carbon emissions by about 50 percent. And that would be enough to offset the warming effects of one to two decades worth of carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing the human-caused ozone in the lower atmosphere by about 50 percent, which could be possible through existing technologies, would offset about another decade’s worth. Within weeks, the heating effect of black carbon would lessen; within months, so, too, would the greenhouse effect of ozone. Within ten years, the earth’s overall warming trend would slow down, as would the retreat of sea ice and glaciers.

The detail will have to wait, but ending animal agriculture would be a big contribution to the reductions of both black carbon and ozone because the main cause of rising tropospheric ozone is rising methane and livestock is also a potent producer of black carbon via deforestation. The bottom line is that the Supreme Master claim is definitely plausible if Ramanathan’s modelling is accurate.

Concluding remarks

Livestock’s Long Shadow marks a watershed with livestock industry advocates giving solid numbers for many of livestock’s worst environmental impacts. The numbers were conservative as the subsequent Goodland/Anhang figures indicated. The report was also solid in its demonstration that more meat and dairy products requires more intensification if environmental impacts are to be minimised. Intensification is the industry’s euphemism for confinement, chemicals, crippling and suffering. The only way for meat and dairy to reduce its costs on the environment is to increase its cost on animals. For meat to become greener while continuing to be produced in vast quantities requires that it become crueller.

A population’s various impacts on the planet are largely dominated by what it eats. As people get richer, they can swamp this impact with other things. Private jets and a couple of Hummers will blow any environmental footprint budget. But for most of the planet’s 9 billion people in 2050, it will be food choices that dominate their impacts on the planet and it’s pretty clear that change is required. More of the same is both undesirable for most of the creatures involved and probably impossible. We need a substantive dietary transformation. The changes will be small in Bangladesh but large in Australia and other extreme-meat countries. As omnivores, unspecialised eaters, we have choices. We can trash the planet with our food choices, we can allow pigs, chickens and cattle to outbid the poor for food, or not.

Appendix … P&T figure with food supply characterists

P&T contained some fancy graphics which confused me a little … so I’ve tried to redraw, in the figure above, some of the data in what I think is a clearer form and added a heap detail about the global food supply … sticking to the law of conservation of confusion which allows the additon of extra data while keeping confusion constant 🙂 I haven’t (yet) included nitrogen data. The data in the figure are generally the latest I could find, but the percentages of meat from different systems are ratios from LLS (circa 2000) and applied to the 268 million total meat production in 2007. The biomass data come from Kraussman. If you look at the red lines from “Meat” to “2796 Calories”, you will see it is about 8 percent of global calories. The other 8 percent, not highlighted with any lines, is dairy and eggs.


November 25, 2010

Of brains, biceps and baloney

Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Livestock's long shadow — buildeco @ 9:51 pm

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

NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s recent book Storms of my Grandchildren makes accessible the evidence behind the judgement of many climate scientists that we need to get atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 350 ppm (or perhaps 300-325 to be really safe) to avoid dangerous climate tipping points. But he also makes it clear that merely redesigning the global energy infrastructure isn’t enough, other important climate forcings like methane, nitrous oxide and black carbon must also be reduced.

What do we need to do?

Here’s Hansen’s todo list. Stick it on the fridge.

  1. Phase out all coal fired power stations by 2030. Of course, you can still use coal if you sequester all the emissions, … good luck with that.
  2. Undo 200 years of deforestation. We need to start this now, but it will take over 100 years and contribute a reduction of about 50ppm by 2150.
  3. Reduce non-carbon dioxide forcings. Hansen is a little vague here, but the argument implies that pre-industrial levels are required.

Now, if the next sentence doesn’t hit like a shattering ice-shelf, then reread until it does. All three items are mandatory. This isn’t a smorgasbord where you pick what you want and ignore the rest. With countries around the world still building new coal power plants, the first todo is looking shaky. Fortunately the second and third are technically easier. We don’t need any new science or technologies but the politics are diabolical.

You can’t tackle reforestation without a global food system rethink. People who’ve read my previous posts on BNC understand this, but be patient while I race through a little background for new readers.

As with reforestation, steep reductions of methane, black carbon and nitrous oxide forcings also require a rethink of the global food system. This is because 96 megatonnes of the 350 mega tonnes of anthropogenic methane emitted annually are due to livestock. It’s also livestock production which is responsible for the bulk of the annual global conflagrations responsible for preventing plenty of natural reforestation while also contributing rather a lot of black carbon. This is covered in Boverty I. The good news is that 38 megatonnes of methane emissions will go when we stop mining coal and another 73 megatonnes are tied up with oil and gas production and can be relatively easily dealt with when there is a will to do so.

The livestock reforestation impediment

Currently, a major sticking point on reforestation is the attitude to animal product consumption of the UN FAO which is summed up in the just released report on the greenhouse gases associated with the dairy sector: Without concerted action, emissions [from livestock] are unlikely to fall. On the contrary, they are rising, as global demand for meat, milk and eggs continues to grow rapidly. Projected population growth and rising incomes are expected to drive total consumption higher–with meat and milk consumption doubling by 2050 compared to 2000 (FAO, 2006b).

The cognitive dissonance at the UN FAO in understanding that livestock is currently the largest driver of deforestation, but also planning for a doubling of meat and milk consumption by 2050 while trying to reform a frontier cowboy culture is extreme. Any growth in the global livestock industry will make ending deforestation difficult and the required massive global reforestation impossible.

A huge part of the problem is that decades of meat and dairy industry propaganda has left people with the a cult-like certainty that they are some kind of wonder food. This sentiment is echoed in a recent special edition of Science onFood Security in a paper by H. Charles Godfray et al:

… in developing countries, meat represents the most concentrated source of some vitamins and minerals, which is important for some individuals such as young children.

Note that Godfray felt no need to justify his claim. Henry Thoreau wrote about a similar prejudice in 1852:

One farmer says to me, You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.

How can you argue with the likes of Godfray when Science, one of the world’s top peer reviewed science journals allows him to get away with unsubstantiated assertions? There is not even any science to debate if you don’t justify your claims. Thankfully, the 2006 UN Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) report provides a hint of science in its justification for pushing livestock products in the developing world:

Children in particular have been shown to benefit greatly in terms of physical and mental health when modest amounts of milk, meat, or eggs are added to their diets, as shown by long-term research carried out in Kenya (Neumann 2003)

The above two quotes go to the heart of the international stranglehold of the livestock industry on the only organisations with enough political clout to have a chance of driving a major global reforestation effort. The players like the UN, the EU and major national Governments.

This post examines the second of these quotes in detail.

But what about all the starving children?

The LLS quote is some serious blackmail. It implies that nobody who cares about starving children could possibly suggest any reductions in global meat production, particularly in the developing world. There have been plenty of calls for a decrease in global meat production via a transfer of meat to the developing world. The most important of these was back in 2007 from an Australian team writing in one of the world’s top medical journals, The Lancet. They proposed the world’s average 100 gram per day meat intake be reduced to 90 grams per day with a hefty redistribution to even out global consumption. High income countries would drop from 200-250 grams per day to 90 grams per day and low income countries would increase their meat from 25-50 grams per day to 90 grams per day. Such a move might halt deforestation, depending on if and when the global population levels off, but it will clearly not be enough to allow the necessary massive reforestation.

The Lancet paper also contains a nice little qualitative table claiming that the proposed increase in meat in the developing world would heavily decrease childhood stunting. Such a claim is in line with the LLS quote, but no reference was given. Again as with Godfray, it seems nobody thought any evidence was needed.

LLS had 6 authors with the lead being the coordinator of the UN FAO’s Livestock Environment and Development Initiative (LEAD) … Henning Steinfeld. Is the quote just a demonstration that LEAD is a livestock industry pawn, or is it simply good science? Let’s look at the Neumann studies.

Show me the data!

The Neumann paper cited by LLS is part of a set that appeared in a 2003 supplement in the Journal of Nutrition.

The papers describe a study involving 554 children in Kenya provided supplemental food on a daily basis for 12 months. This is solid, careful, painstaking clinical research involving a supervised team of over 100 locals taking blood samples, preparing food, measuring biceps, administering IQ tests, freezing and transferring blood samples to the US for processing and dealing with a maze of logistical difficulties. All the meat was shipped into the rural area from Nairobi. Many of the children involved came from families with cattle, but they rarely eat or milk them. A Control group got no extra food at all. Why did they agree to take part? They were given a milking goat at the end of the research. Great PR for the dairy biz.


The randomisation to different extra-food groups was done by school. All the children of the selected age group in one school got more meat, those in another school got more milk and another got just plain food. So 12 schools were allocated to one of 4 groups … 3 schools per group. It’s easy to understand why this randomisation procedure was used, but equally easy to see how something unusual in even a single school might cause problems.

Hang in there while I describe accurately the extra food the children got. This kind of detail is unusual in a blog, but BNC is different and the details matter.

Who got fed what

The children had a median age of 7.4 years old and food intake before the study was highly variable with a quarter of the children being stunted at the start of the study. In addition to a Control group getting no supplementary food, there were 3 types of daily supplement, denoted Meat, Milk and Energy by the study authors. I’ll call them Meat, Milk, and Plants. Calling the Plant food group Energy makes it sound like that’s the only thing Plants can provide … a revealingly silly choice of terminology.

The three supplementary food groups were built around a local stew made of maize, beans and greens and all balanced to contain about 240 Calories. So the children either got stew with meat (60 grams of beef mince), stew with milk (200 ml), stew only, or nothing.

Comparing the LLS quote with the actual research

Now, how does LLS’s description of the results compare with what actually happened? Note that all the key studies are publicly available thanks to the enlightened policies of the Journal of Nutrition. You can read them yourself.

First, there was no egg in any of the supplementary feeding. Oops, strike one for LLS. Second, is 60 grams per day for a 7 year old modest? It’s almost double the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council recommended meat intake for a 7 year old. It’s double the per capita daily production of beef in Kenya. It’s close to double the average red meat intake of Australian 7 year olds (subscription required for this link). After a few months in the study, the meat supplement was increased to 85 grams/day and the milk increased to 250 ml. To describe this intake as modest seems a poor choice of adjective.

The daily food supplement was called a snack by the researchers, and had about the same caloric value as a standard McDonald’s hamburger which has 90 grams of beef mince, similar to the 85 grams in the Meat snack. This is also close to the 90 grams of meat recommended by the Lancet authors (although they recommended more of that meat be chicken or pig meat). The beans and greens however would have made the Meat snack rather more nutritious than a hamburger.

Did the children benefit greatly in physical or mental health as LLS claimed?

The title of the paper describing the physical impacts seems clear: Food Supplements Have a Positive Impact on Weight Gain and the Addition of Animal Source Foods Increases Lean Body Mass of Kenyan School children. But as with everything else about this research, you have to actually read the damn papers, not just the titles and not just the abstracts to find out what actually happened.

All the intervention groups gained an average of 10% (0.4 kilograms) more weight than the Control group but there were essentially no changes in height for age … sorry about the jargon, what does this mean? No change in stunting.

There were no statistically significant differences in height gain, body fat (as measured by skin fold tests) and a few other measures, but the meat group (and not the milk group) got statistically significantly bigger biceps … how much bigger? … after all, this is where the Increases Lean Body Mass of the title comes from. So, are we talking little Kenyan Schwarzeneggers? Not quite. The biceps were bigger in circumference by less than 1 millimeter, the Meat group’s bicep increased by 7.1 mm compared with 6.5 mm in the Plants group. Also, as usual, the paper’s title is misleading because it wasn’t all animal source foods which achieved this mighty sub-millimeter muscular gain, only meat. Milk produced the same gains as Plants. The area of the biceps was also bigger in the meat (but not in the milk group) but whether either of these changes was due to nutrition or the possibility that one or more schools did more physical education wasn’t discussed.

The other aspect of physical health that could be construed as important is micronutrient status. We will deal with that below.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. The researchers were alert to all manner of possible confounding problems. They even measured the food given at home to see if it changed as a result of knowing that the children were getting extra at school. It did. The Control children and the Meat children both got an increase of food at home (about 150 Calories), while the Milk and Plants children received a similar sized decrease in home nutrition. The quantity of extra or reduced home feeding wasn’t uniform over time but the direction of the changes persisted throughout the study.

The researchers went to great lengths to measure physical activity, but didn’t report any details except to claim an improvement. The activity results were published in 2007. I could describe them, but this post will be quite long enough as it is. Suffice to say that, regardless of the supplementation, many of the children would still not have been getting enough food to support high activity. I base this claim on the variance in the reported energy intake of the children and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommended energy intakes for children, suitably adjusted because Australian children are a little bigger at the same age. The reported extra 150 Calories per day over the 12 months for the meat group didn’t rate a mention in the 2007 paper which duly reported more high activity among the Meat group compared to any others.

That’s strike two for LLS, there were no great physical benefits for the meat children over and above the benefits of extra food.

Is taller better?

It’s worth noting here that while stunting is a definite indicator undernutrition, it doesn’t follow that maximising growth rates in children is good. There is a really good reason not to maximise growth rates. The big “C”. Your height as an adult is a good cancer predictor … greater height equals greater cancer risk. The 2007 World Cancer Research Fund report explains how it works and gives “adult attained height” the rare accolade of having been convincinglyshown to be a cause of bowel and breast cancers with a probable role in other cancers. So if additional animal source foods do maximise growth, then this is evidence against them, not for them.

Great improvements in mental health?

Now for the last of the LLS claims. Recall, LLS also told the world that animal foods, all of them, produce great benefits for mental health. I call this LLS’s meat head claim.

I’ll begin with a quote from the abstract of the relevant study before revealing the actual results. The abstract is beautifully crafted to mislead people who don’t read the entire study while being somewhat defensible in the face of a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation. First, comes the quotable quote, the take home message, the thing that will survive in the annals of meat industry propaganda:

Results suggest that supplementation with animal source food has positive effects on Kenyan children. …

There you have the guts of the LLS claim. But the LLS promoted “positive effects” into “benefitted greatly”. The abstract follows up on this general claim with a semblance of the truth expressed as abstractly and vaguely as possible:

However, these effects are not equivalent across all domains of cognitive functioning, nor did different forms of animal source foods produce the same beneficial effects.

Now let’s see what happened. The researchers measured 3 things: arithmetic, verbal skills and Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM). There were virtually no differences on the first two. Even the Control group, living on their normal diet and the promise of a goat made almost identical gains to the children with the burger-equivalent snacks.

But the Raven’s results showed a statistically significant impact. Keep in mind that the bicep increase (of less than 1mm) was also “statistically significant” … which is a rather different concept from “important”. An RPM test consists of a matrix of geometrical patterns with one missing, as in the example from Wikipedia on the left. Usually, the matrix is also accompanied by a set of possible candidate patterns.

The Meat group did statistically significantly better than the Plants and Control groups, while the Milk group statistically significantly worse. The size of the effect was similar. What we are talking about here is a relative change in the slope of the increase in RPM scores as the children aged.

Despite the lower RPM rise rate in the milk group, neither the study authors nor the LLS authors are recommending less milk to prevent a decline in mental health and there was no mention of rethinking the Control group’s free milking goat and perhaps delivering it in sliced and diced form.

By now, you will understand that research cited by LLS doesn’t show what it was supposed to. Not even close. It was funded by the USAID Global Livestock Nutrition Collaborative Research Support Program and was a substantial study carried out by well qualified people with a financial and professional interest in showing that animal foods are a god-send to poor children in developing countries. But apart from the occasional misrepresented and tiny result, they found nothing. This must have disappointed another of their funding sources: The National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

The sloppy, inaccurate and uncritical citation of these non-results by otherwise careful LLS authors just reflects what happens when people have been brainwashed by the tunnel vision of the dominant meat obsessed cuisine challenged culture.

Summing up

Remember that we began with a study cited by LLS which had UCLA Professor Charlotte Neumann as the lead author. Here is its full title.

Animal Source Foods Improve Dietary Quality, Micronutrient Status, Growth and Cognitive Function in Kenyan School Children: Background, Study Design and Baseline Findings

The title makes four claims and we can now summarise their accuracy:

  1. Animal source foods increase dietary quality. Vacuously true by Neumann’s definition of quality.
  2. Animal source foods increase growth … trivially true, but did it increase growth more than plant source foods? No.
  3. Cognitive functions … if the meat RPM increase is considered important, then the milk decrease should be similarly considered important … I’d judge both to be trivial and confounded.
  4. Micronutrient status … with the exception of B12, this is false. Again we need to read a subsidiary study. This paper says that none of the supplementary feeding had any impact on any biochemical nutrient measures except B12. Even with B12, the results will surprise some people. The rate of serious B12 deficiency dropped in the Meat and Milk supplemented groups, but the rate of moderate deficiency actually increased in the Meat group.The status paper has various results tables. Let me just cherry pick a few results, not because they prove anything, but just because they will surprise normal meat eaters. Serum zinc levels fell in all the groups, but fell most in the meat group. Oops, not good. Ditto copper. Plasma folate fell more in the Meat and Milk group than in the Plants group. Hemoglobin levels rose more in the Plants group than in the Meat and Milk groups. Serum iron increases in the Plants group were double what they were in the Milk group. The researchers defined anemia as having hemoglobin levels below 115 g/dl. The group which had the biggest fall in anemia rates was … wait for it … the Control group!There’s an old saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There are clearly some complex interactions happening between many factors in these children, some of which probably are not on anybody’s radar, let alone researchers who see animal foods as the ultimate hammer.

The issue of B12 is important and came up in the blog responses to Boverty II. The children given Meat or Milk in the Kenyan study didn’t all end up with good B12 blood levels. Judging by the rise in moderate deficiency, some went backwards. How could this happen? The B12 in animal foods is bound to protein and not well absorbed. The B12 in supplements is easier to absorb, doesn’t come with saturated fat, bowel cancer causing heme iron and other carcinogens, and can be supplied to 9 billion people without the deforestation that animal products on the required scale would entail. Older people (over 50) frequently have sub-optimal absorption anyway, which is why the US Institutes of Medicine advises all people over 50 to use B12 supplements … whether or not they eat meat. B12 fortified foods are common in developed countries, they need to become globally ubiquitous … much as iodine is in salt.

So you can stop reading now … if your only concern is the possible deleterious impact that reforestation and a consequent reduction in global livestock could have on global health, particularly to vulnerable children in developing countries. In my previous BNC post, Boverty Blues, I explained the mechanics of the livestock anchor chain depressing reforestation and agricultural productivity in many parts of Africa.

But the rest of the story about this research is fascinating and should be told.

RPM’s have risen in Kenya without animal foods!

Was the size of the RPM improvement as cognitively significant as the mighty increase in bicep circumference? The researchers don’t hazard an opinion. Most of them are also co-authors on another paper involving Kenyan children and RPM scores. This paper shows that there are ways of getting genuinely large increases in RPM scores without adding any animal source foods. The paper reports on a 1984 cohort of Kenyan children of similar age who also underwent RPM testing. The difference between the average RPM scores in the 1984 and 1998 cohorts was 4.5 points. This result held even when the 1984 cohort was carefully filtered to make it closely match the characteristics of the 1998 cohort. As we shall see, this isn’t a one off. RPM scores have been rising globally for decades and the increases are the subject of much research.

What do we know about the possible causes of this particular RPM increase over time? We know with a fair degree of certainty that it wasn’t caused by any increase in animal source foods … because while the 1998 children were better fed than the 1984 group, all of the additional food was plant food. Interestingly, I didn’t find any articles by this group with a title like: Increase in plant foods drives large IQ increase in Kenyan children.

But wait … there’s still more.

In search of the vanishing cohort

The Kenyan research actually involved not one but two different groups of children. My account above only described one. But there is mention of two cohorts in the main Neumann paper. The second cohort had 500 children and was enrolled 12 months after the project start. This cohort was enrolled after a drought and a teacher’s strike caused local food and logistic problems. These extra cohort could be used, they said, either as a replication or to increase the statistical power of the research.

But something happened to Cohort II. The cognitive functions paper just ignores it as does the micronutrient/dietary quality paper and the physical growth response to supplementation paper.

But Cohort II springs to life in a 2007 paper by Neumann et al … but it has shrunk from 500 to 375 without explanation. Cohort II appears in some end of term school test scores where Meat did best, followed by Plants, then Milk with the un-supplemented Control group bringing up the rear. It also appears in a figure describing bicep size changes.

I have emailed Professor Neumann asking what happened to Cohort II, but have so far not had a response.

RPM increases

Last but not least, RPM is a very interesting type of test. We have already noted the Kenyan increase over time without any animal food increments. RPM is a component of most IQ test batteries and children have been getting steep improvements on it (as well as some other IQ tests) for decades, prompting some to speculate that just as improved nutrition is responsible for height increases over the last 80 or so years, it is also responsible for IQ increases. Except that it isn’t.

A recent paper by one of the people (James Flynn) who discovered the effect which now bears his name, The Flynn Effect, demolishes the theory. The paper is called: Requiem for nutrition as the cause of IQ gains: Raven’s gains in Britain 1938-2008. The name nearly says it all, except that it also considers data far beyond Britain. The point that concerns us is that you can train for RPM and improve. This is fine, except that it doesn’t necessarily bringing arithmetic improvements.

The Flynn paper shows that once above some basic threshold level, it isn’t nutrition that drives performance on RPM nor improvements on RPM. It’s easy to dream up simplistic theories about what is driving these increases, but a paper by John Raven (a son of the RPM designer), demolishes more than a few such one-factor theories. Flynn’s own hypothesis about the cause of the increase, presented in his book “What is intelligence?”, is considerably more subtle.

Concluding Remarks

This post began with climate change.

Dealing with climate change requires a global reforestation effort, but that can’t happen without a dietary change and a dietary change won’t happen while people in positions of authority in developed countries sincerely believe that their own meat based diet should be the goal of developing countries. The chain is clear.

The false nutritional beliefs are based on decades of advertising lies and plenty of sloppy reporting of scientific results. This has been a longish post to untangling a tiny part of the tangled web of nutritional misinformation that has to be dispelled as part of our efforts to avoid dangerous climate change.

August 10, 2010

Balancing carbon with smoke and mirrors

Filed under: Livestock's long shadow, nitrous oxide emissions — Barry Brook @ 2:17 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.

Have I got a deal for you! I’ll be marketting my new patent-pending sandals in China and if just 1% of the population buy them, then I’ll sell 13 million pairs. To test my business plan, I gathered 100 Chinese into a room and sold 3 pairs of sandals. How can my plan fail?

The Wentworth Group of concerned scientists released a paper recently called “Optimising Carbon in the Australian Landscape”. It has a similar deal, but one for all Australians. It quotes a CSIRO estimate that there is a biophysical capacity to store 1,000 million tonnes of CO2eq in soils and vegetation every year for the next 40 years. The Wentworth group isn’t aiming to capture 1% of this “market”, but 15%. A mere 15% would offset 25% of estimated annual greenhouse emissions for the next 40 years. Who could resist a deal like that? How could it fail?

Leaving aside any problems with the methods behind the CSIRO estimate, it seems reasonable to ask just how hard this “market” is. Why pick 15%? Why not 20%? or 10%? But even more important than a justification of the number is the definition of the slippery little word offset. It needs examination. This isn’t semantics, but goes to the heart of the possibilities of climate change stabilisation.

Climate target constraints

First I’ll repeat the physical ground rules for new BNC readers. These basic limits come from James Hansen and coworkers recent paper Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?. Hansen has simplified the presentation in his book Storms of My Grandchildren. He calculates what will happen to atmospheric CO2 levels over the next century if we can phase out unsequestered coal use entirely by 2030. This is unlikely considering the number of coal fired power stations still being built, but where would it put us in 2150? It would give us an atmospheric CO2 level of about 400 ppm and continued climate change with risks of crossing points of no-return to a climate of more and bigger storms and even more serious global food problems than presently. So, even the daunting challenge of phasing out coal by 2030 isn’t enough. Pulling the CO2 level down below 350 ppm will require further action. If we actually want to undo ongoing ocean acidity changes and arctic sea ice shrinkage, then Hansen suggests that a level of perhaps 300-350ppm is required. In addition, we must cut non-CO2 forcings … black carbon and methane being the biggest.

What is the most that a total roll back of 200 years of deforestation could yield? According to Hansen and the best available estimate of what those 200 years of deforestation have contributed to the atmosphere, the most is about 60 ppm … and we need it all.

This is the scenario within which the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and others are discussing offsetting and carbon credits.

Offsetting within a constraint

If you accept Hansen’s target and understand that the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 severely hampers your pathways toward that target, then this determines the kind of offsets that make sense.

Hansen understands this implicitly when he says that deep cuts in non-CO2 forcings can allow us to slow the rate at which we reduce CO2 emissions (the coal phase out). Similarly, cuts to cooling aerosols will need to be offset by even quicker cuts to CO2 emissions or non-CO2 forcings.

It clearly makes sense to use the term offsets when trading emission reduction methods. If you increase one, you must offset this with a decrease in the other. But can reforestation be regarded as an offset for some positive emission? No, because it is already being used for something … namely the restoration of 350 ppm. Likewise if you use the shutdown of a coal station as an offset for some other emission, then you have achieved nothing.

A numerical example will help. Suppose that, as part of our goal to get to 350 ppm by 2150, we plan to reforest N million hectares. Now lets say we propose some activity which leads to CO2 emissions … for example that we increase the national cattle herd by a million animals which turn carbon dioxide into methane … massively increasing its warming impact for the next decade or so. Whatever we do to offset these animals must be over and above the reforestation, because that reforestation already has a purpose. It is spoken for. To regard it as a cattle offset is double counting.

Grazing and balancing

Recently, Barry Brook had an email from Tony Lovell of Queensland Accountancy firm AllStatePartners who was interested in increasing soil oxidation to absorb methane from cattle.

In the previous section I outlined why any increase in cattle can’t be balanced by reforestation, unless it is by an increase in reforestation over and above the level required to get us back to 350 ppm by 2150. Can an increase in either soil carbon or soil’s ability to absorb methane be used to offset methane from current cattle populations?

In principle, yes. But we must avoid double counting. Here’s how to run the calculations. Let’s assume for now that we can just use increases in soil carbon to offset methane.

Consider a grazing area g with a particular herd you wish to offset.

  1. Calculate what the rolling back of deforestation and soil carbon losses on g would contribute (if anything) to the 60 ppm achievable from a global deforestation roll-back. Call this the sequestration potential S(g) of area g. Cleared rainforest in Queensland has a huge reforestation potential, cleared mallee rather less. Some areas of deforested land are simply unavailable for reforestation … we live on them. But, in Australia, this is only 2 million hectares out of the total of 100 million cleared since white arrival. The sequestration potential of any area we can’t reforest has be made up … somehow.
  2. Now calculate the carbon difference associated with keeping the land under grass for cattle with a normal management regime rather than reforesting it. Call this the foregone sequestration F(g) that results from running cattle.
  3. Lastly we add in the amount of carbon required to offset the various emissions (particularly methane and nitrous oxide) from the cattle. This is the production cost P(g).

The amount of soil carbon and/or reforestation you need to provide to offset the herd on g is thus F(g)+P(g). If you are finishing the cattle with feed or fodder grown elsewhere on land needs to be kept clear, rather than reforested, then you will need to add in a further foregone sequestration amount. If you are running the cattle on uncleared land, then F(g) may be quite small.

Here’s a simplified concrete example. Consider a grazing area near Daintree in Far North Queensland. Assume it was cleared and will support a rainforest with a carbon sequestration potential of around 500 tonnes per hectare when fully reforested. If we leave the cattle in place the pasture may have a soil carbon content of perhaps 100 tonnes per hectare. The NSW Department of Primary Industries is telling farmers they can add 0.3 to 1 tonne per hectare for perhaps 50 to 100 years using improved management practices. Being very generous, this amounts to 200 tonnes per hectare, giving us a 300 tonne per hectare shortfall over straight reforestation. F(g) per hectare over the area is 300. Add in a number for P(g) and this is what your improved management practices really need to be delivering to compensate for keeping the land under cattle rather than returning it to its previous state.

Balancing and capping and trading

The fundamental shortcoming of cap and trade and carbon taxes is the presumption is that if we just stopping emitting carbon, everything will be okay. This belief is intuitively plausible but not supported by the science. The carbon already in the atmosphere won’t decline quickly without our active efforts to sequester it. To do this we must stop global burning and other activities which prevent reforestation from drawing down carbon and oxidising other trace gases.

Under a cap and trade system foregone sequestration doesn’t appear. It is an off balance sheet item.

And then there’s triple counting

The third step in the grazing balance formulation above, the calculation of what you need to do to offset production emissions is quite complex and I’ve just glossed over it in my example … not that the first two steps are really simple either!

The methane and nitrous oxide from cattle can be dealt with in various ways. You can sequester some quantity of carbon to account for it, or you can arrange for the soil to oxidise an equivalent amount of both gases or some mixture of the two.

But it isn’t enough that the soil under the cattle oxidise an amount of methane equivalent to that produced by the cattle. Why not?

That soil was always oxidising methane, even back in preindustrial times when atmospheric methane was 0.7 ppm rather than the the 1.82 ppm that it is now. Ignoring other methane sinks in the upper atmosphere, the soil oxidised the methane produced in wetlands, bogs and the like. It’s like a see-saw with a block of natural methane emissions on one side and natural breakdown on the other. There was, at human time scales, a rough balance. It was 0.65 ppm in 1600 and just 0.7 ppm 200 years later. Now however, people are quantifying that natural methane breakdown block on one end of the see-saw and saying, ”Wow, we can put an equivalent block of cattle on the other end of the see saw and the emissions will be offset. Beef can be carbon neutral!” Of course, there is a way to make beef carbon neutral … remove an equivalent number of other natural emitters … drain some wetlands, for example. This is a popular method for making grazing country in the South East of South Australia. But just counting natural oxidation as offsetting additional cattle is double counting, plain and simple.

This kind of double counting of a natural sink is over and above the double counting we discussed previously, which is where we take increases in forest cover or soil carbon that are absolutely imperative to bring us to 350 ppm and think we can use them in offset calculations. Combine the two and we have the real possibility of triple counting.

It’s all in the numbers

Here’s a little quantitative background on soil oxidation of methane.

Back in January 2010 US Environment news source Grist ran a story about cattle in which all sorts of claims were made. Including the following:

In contrast, one cow’s worth of healthy land actually absorbs one hundred times the methane emitted by that cow in any given year.

The claim turned out to be based on an article in the Australian last year which mentioned high country in the Monaro region of New South Wales that could oxidise 8.7 tonnes of methane per annum per hectare.

How does that number look to you? Tonnes?

A paper published last year surveyed areas in temperate, Mediterranean and sub-tropical regions of Australia with sites in both forested and pastured land found a range of absorption per hectare of -0.8 to 2.6 kg of methane per annum in pasture and 0.08 to 4.3 kg per annum in forest. That’s right kilograms in the peer reviewed journal and tonnes in the Australian. I’d been meaning to chase that descrepancy for months and finally did it when I decided to write this piece.

It’s a mistake. A microgram figure got promoted to milligrams. Ouch. Off by a factor of a thousand. It happens. Everyone can be thankful it isn’t in an IPCC report or we’d have high-country-gate! Professor Mark Adams has kindly sent me a conference paper which gives correct figures and a correction has been printed (see previous link). Unfortunately, the myth will live on and be circulated far and wide by cattle friendly bloggers … not everybody sees corrections … and the correction doesn’t seem to have made it to the original newspaper!

The bottom line is that the high country can oxidise 2 or perhaps 3 times more methane than the other areas measured, but not a thousand times. Grass fed cattle might produce 83 kg of methane per annum so it may take 10 hectares of high country to deal with each cow, assuming it wasn’t already dealing with other emissions. Remember, even after the mistakes have been rectified, this is still just double counting.

Here’s a quote from the conference paper that Adams supplied:

Given the parameters of this [beef] production system that equates to 5.4 tonnes CH4 produced annually.

Given the average rate of CH4 oxidation … for each landscape element, multiplied by the area represented in this production system, total sequestration amounts to 7.6 tonnes, or a 2.2 tonnes offset to enterprise scale emissions of CH4

So the natural methane oxidation is being claimed, not just to offset the beef methane, but the excess (in this case) is considered a further offset asset.

Rewriting environmental history

Part of the reason people think they can get away with double counting is a warped view of the history of animal life on earth. Lovell in his email to Barry paints a depressingly common, but wrong, picture to support his scheme:

We have had billions of ruminant animals on the planet for millions of years, without any issues until human management and mismanagement got involved. Nature has a way of balancing things, and the simplest way to balance the bacteria in a rumen that produce methane is to have some other bacteria in the soil that oxidise methane.

Not true … in a number of ways.

Ruminants evolved about 50 millions years ago as small (less than 5 kg) forest dwelling omnivores. While animals we would easily recognise as cattle are perhaps 2-3 million years old, there weren’t very many of them until very recently.

Here’s a chart from a few posts ago showing some relevant animal populations in 1500 and now. There were a couple of hundred million largish ruminants in 1500 and a couple of billion now.

The current total population of wild ruminants is estimated at a mere 75 million and most of those are quite small animals. There are, all up, 46 times more domestic ruminants. That’s right 3.5 billion. And there are not just many more of them, but many have been artificially selected to be bigger. Our agricultural selection pressures have totally changed the metabolic processes in the animals. Dairy cattle, for example, aren’t just bigger, but they now produce about 2.5 times more milk than a wild variety of similar size would produce. N.B. If you understand allometric equations, then you will understand the full import of this sentence. More milk requires more feed and thus entails more methane. Second, many of the large grassland areas that have emerged during the past 8,000 years are anthropogenic. Following the last ice age, global forests expanded as the ice receded, a process which lasted 8,000 years or so.

The prairies of the US were far smaller 18,000 years ago than 8,000 years ago. The large bison herds at the time of European arrival in North America were a human creation, not some non-anthropogenic natural phenomena. People with fire can clear forest and have been doing it for thousands of years. But until recently there weren’t that many people. The current explosion of humans and ruminants, not to mention other domestic animals is unprecedented.

Another of Lovell’s misunderstandings is his apparent belief that nature made soils with the aim of balancing that ruminant methane. Nature doesn’t give a damn about balance and has no goals of any kind. This is demonstrated by the way that the planet has whip-sawed with speed and violence between ice ages and hot ages as recorded in ice core and other climate records. When things move slowly on human time scales, we infer balance, but on longer time scales it is quickly seen as an illusion.

Similarly, evolution doesn’t strive for balance or efficiency or perfect form and function. Many of its “inventions” are suboptimal kluges that would embarrass any engineer. Others are elegant or efficient or both. Evolution always has to build on what went before. Unlike an intelligent designer, it can’t start with a blank page. Sometimes we judge the result to be brilliant, sometimes not.

It is humans who seek balance and it is us, along with many other animals, who have goals and desires. We have thrived during the recent few thousand years of relatively stable climate and we desperately want it to continue … well some of us do.

Offsets, carbon trades and all the other financial paraphernalia have some lawyers and accountants salivating overtime with dreams of trotters in the trough. It may be inevitable that such mechanisms will be put in place, given the prevailing economic ideology. But they need to be solidly constructed so that they don’t undermine what we absolutely must do in the coming couple of decades.

June 1, 2010

Trawling for snake oil

Filed under: Declining fish stock, Global Warming, Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 11:43 am

A new guest post by Geoff Russell — only mildly climate-change  related, but definitely ‘food for thought’ in the context of sustainability of natural resources (and bad science)…


The last couple of weeks have seen a few things tickle my particular itch … the linkages between nutrition, food security and climate change. The first is a long overdue piece in New Scientist on omega-3 oils by Sanjida O’Connell. I called these the new snake oil in Perfidy and the NS article does a good job of explaining the dodginess of the evidence for the many wonderous effects claimed for omega-3s.

The second was stunning vision on ABC TV’s Catalyst program of trawling deep in the southern ocean. Catalyst got a dishonourable mention in Perfidy for swallowing the omega-3 myths hook line and sinker in a singularly silly program back in 2006. But more recently Catalyst redeemed itself with a brilliant piece on antarctic ice which should be running on a (nuclear powered) big screen on a continuous loop in mainstream malls all over the planet.

Scientists come second in race to trawl southern oceans

In last week’s Southern Ocean story, Catalyst journalist Mark Horstman was embedded with scientists busily trawling (i.e., trashing) an area to find out what it contained so they could protect it. Don’t worry, I don’t quite understand the logic either. The theory seems to be that if you give people a list of what’s in an area they are less likely to trash it than if you just ask them politely to stay out.

But the NS article and the Catalyst piece became intimately connected by the first major discovery of the scientists … namely that they weren’t the first people to scrape a big metal frame with a net on it along the ocean floor. Some of the world’s fishing fleet had beaten them to the punch in an area supposedly protected by international law. The images of trawler scrape marks and dead ocean bottom were ominous. Why ominous? Consider the odds of the scientists just happening to drop their camera and trawl frame on the only trawled area in the massive expanse of ocean below the 60 degree latitude. It would be far easier to find a needle in a haystack. Clearly, plenty of trawling has been taking place, and we aren’t just talking about a few navigationally challenged lads in a tinny throwing a hook over. The trawl marks also show, of course, that preparing a species inventory is unlikely to keep fisher people out of the area because some already know what’s down there and they want it … so ends the case for the prosecution.

Climate change and hunting for fish

Capture fisheries, as distinct from aquaculture industries, are just wildlife hunting industries and wildlife is intrinsically unproductive … which is why hunter gatherers were displaced by farmers. The graph shows that capture fisheries are levelling off at about 100 million tonnes per annum. This is about 1/3 of the weight of terrestrial farmed meat, and has about 10 percent of that meat’s caloric value. Farming involves selective breeding, hormones, antibiotics, rubber gloves, artificial insemination and all manner of strategies to improve on mother nature’s relatively dismal productivity. Providing food for people just isn’t an evolutionary imperative.

The leveling off in capture fisheries shown in the graph hides the more detailed picture which is a gradual decline in the trophic level of fishery captures as a succession of crashes means a constant search for new species or new areas of the same species to replace those which have crashed. This just means that fish eaters are gradually eliminating the bigger fish at the top of the food chain and working their way down the food chain.

But humans aren’t just knocking off top predators and disrupting ocean food chains, the changing ocean temperatures are kicking in synergistic effects. Some people may recall a Catalyst story on the rise of jellyfish in the sea of Japan. This isn’t just a one off isolated ecosystem imbalance, but part of a much wider class of mechanisms which is only just beginning to be recognised and investigated in detail.

Ocean wildlife systems are extremely complex with food webs which have long subchains and many interconnections. Only in the North Sea are there decades worth of catch and survey data not only of the targets of human fishing, but of the fundamental supporters of the whole edifice, the little things, the microalgae and plankton communities. Correlations between the populations of a range of ocean animal communities are changing with temperature and interacting with human exploitation of the top predator … in this case cod. Analyisis predicts that the movement is toward a new system which is being dominated by jellyfish near the surface and crustaceans down deep. Some people will welcome the crustaceans, but jellyfish are a rarely aquired taste.

Other jellyfish increases are being measured in the northeast Atlantic and elsewhere. Jellyfish are predators of fish larvae, can kill fish in aquaculture net-pens and can do serious damage to power station water intake systems. They have a capacity to dramatically change ecosystem structure and function in ways people don’t enjoy … stinging doesn’t earn them many friends either.

On a regional level, CSIRO’s fishery scientists predict that our changing climate will bring both reductions in ocean fishery productivity levels and range shifts.

Fish farming is growing at about 6% per annum and is filling the void left by this continuous stream of crashes in capture fisheries. Aquaculture is increasingly turning (human) food into (fish) feed. It has become yet another drain on the world’s grain crop, along with factory farms, feedlots and biofuels.

What drives demand for fish?

So what drives the global demand for fish and why, in particular, would fishermen face the formidable logistical and financial challenges of trawling a couple of kilometers deep in the southern ocean?

At a rough guess, it’s partly because every fresh faced wanna-be TV food guru tells people that fish is healthy because it’s rich in omega-3s. At a second rough guess its because the ACCC allows Meat and Livestock Australia to lie about omega-3s in red meat being brain food without sanction. At a third guess, I’d blame the not-so-fresh faced nutritionists at the CSIRO who are also happy to cherry-pick science to sell their fishy diet books. You may recall that CSIRO’s famous diet isn’t just a red meat diet, it also advises people to eat double the national average fish intake. This diet has been translated into 17 languages so it is effectively telling a substantial part of the planet that a diet which requires trashing oceans and emulating Australia’s world best practice deforestation and extinction rates to produce bucket loads of red meat is better than alternative diets which are more environmentally benign. The fact that this isn’t even an accurate representation of the scientific results doesn’t seem to bother them at all. A new Total Wellbeing Diet Book has just been launched confirming that CSIRO continues to advocate trashing the planet’s oceans and maximising every person’s greenhouse emissions above and beyond “mere” energy use despite some at CSIRO swimming against the tide by advocating against the Total Wellbeing Diet.

CSIRO’s plan to leverage fishery collapses

But the CSIRO has plenty of dogs in this fight for nutritional brand loyalty. This is a disgusting phrase, but it is appropriate given the CSIRO Nutrition Division’s ethical standards. CSIRO are working to engineer plants to produce long chain omega-3s in bulk to take up the slack when their obedient customer base has finished exploiting not just our ocean but anybody else’s who will trade with us. A nutritionally honest message that nobody needs fish would undermine the market for these new products.

It doesn’t matter to CSIRO that the only big meta-analysis of the impact of omega-3 oils on heart attacks showed no benefits. This was done by a group called the Cochrane Collaboration. These people are rather different from many researchers, most of whom have done just a smattering of statistics during their undergraduate training. The Cochrane people are specialist statisticians and, just like in those John West salmon ads, it’s the studies they reject that make them the best. The Cochrane people may not be infallible, but CSIRO’s nutritionists need more than just good sales figures to take them on. They need evidence.

Similarly, it doesn’t seem matter to CSIRO that there have been large IQ gains over many decades in many countries which are demonstrably not due to fish. And it doesn’t matter to CSIRO that people who don’t eat any fish have lower heart attack rates than people who eat fish … I’m talking about vegans and most vegetarians. Don’t tell anybody, but some vegetarian Indian populations are letting the side down by clogging their arteries with ghee. Saturated fat by any other name still works its magic.

The Great Barrier Reef coral spawning pales into insignificance beside the seas of omega-3 hype spawned by TV foodies, CSIRO, Catalyst and even MLA, and this hype drives up the demand for fish.

Australia already imports over half the fish eaten here. We buy them from somebody else’s ocean. The same is true in many other countries where the omega-3 myth is rampant. The current mechanism whereby collapses in one fishery are replaced by a new one is unlikely to continue for long. Fishers have to run out of new fisheries some time, and fishing the Southern Ocean does rather smack of desperation.

Other omega-3 myths

But the New Scientist article provides a summary of the myths that cling to the omega-3 brand like barnacles to a pylon. In brief:

Studies that claim omega-3 helps ADHD kids are just too junky to draw conclusions from.

Omega-3 might delay alzheimer’s in rats, but large human studies have once more demonstrated that people aren’t rats. Back when I served on the Flinders University Animal Experimentation Committee, they were (and probably still are) doing plenty of work which involved giving strokes to rats. There are dozens of really good drug treatments which work wonders on stroke in rats. None of them work wonders on people. People are not rats.

When ever the micky mouse studies showing that extra omega-3 intakes improve spelling, reading or something else are done properly, they fail to find any effect.

… etc

The Maasai and omega-3s

There is one more wrinkle in the omega-3 story which also emerged last week. The Maasai. That’s right the tall bouncy African tribal group who live on blood and yoghurt … except they don’t eat much blood, if any, and haven’t done so for decades. A press release from Jena University announced that the Maasai had a perfectly healthy amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their red blood cell membranes “even though they are not ingested“. Many Maasai live on milk and maize-meal porridge … neither of which contains any long chain omega-3s (see appendix below).

The full paper by Nadja Knoll hasn’t been published yet but it promises to be an interesting read. But I’ll bet it won’t stop the trashing of the oceans in pursuit of fish to sell to CSIRO diet aficionados.


Appendix on Omega-3s: Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids which come in various lengths. The short ones are in all kinds of foods and we use them to make the long ones. Some animal foods, for example eggs, contain a small amount of short omega-3s and a large amount of long omega-3s. Plant foods can contain 50-100 times more short omega-3s but no long ones. Similarly, milk contains no long omega-3s. The advocates of increased omega-3 intakes are talking about the long ones … the ones in the products they sell or in the products their funding sources sell.

The Maasai, mentioned above, traditionally feed their children nothing but cows milk (following weaning) until about 5 years of age. The long chain omega-3 intake advocates believe that the process by which we make long omega-3s from short ones is inefficient and that it is therefore desirable to eat the long ones directly in meat and eggs. There is also a nice story about omega-6 oils competing for the enzymes required to turn the short omega-3s into the long ones. Google the net and you will find another famously inefficient molecule, this time an enzyme, called RuBisCO. It manages to drive all plant growth on the planet despite being inefficient. Nature is full of inefficient processes that seem to get the job done.

February 16, 2010

Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part II)

Filed under: Climate Change, Global Warming, Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 11:04 am

This is the second of a two part post by Geoff Russell. Part I sketched the quantitative features of the global fire regime, biomass flows, while this part looks primarily at Africa.

Boverty was defined in the previous post as the human impact of too many bovines overwhelming the local biosphere’s ability to feed them … the bovines are usually cattle and more than a few African countries have boverty induced poverty. Their livestock is a millstone around their necks and helping to keep them poor.

Western aid organisations, particularly those run by BBQ obsessed Australians, seem dominated by people haven’t woken up to the simple fact that the foods they grew up on when the planet had half its present population haven’t been sustainable globally for a very long time. Even in Australia, with its vast landmass and small human population, the production of these foods has driven and continues to drive water shortages, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Advocacy of such foods in Africa will benefit few and damage prospects of long term food security.

African reforestation

As outlined in the Part I, many grasslands on the planet are not the product of natural forces, but were cleared by people and kept as grasslands for livestock grazing by annual or occasional conflagrations. This is global burning on a massive scale as shown in the NASA firemaps presented in Part I. The continent with the most deliberate human burning is Africa. Over 200 million hectares and 2 billion tonnes of dry matter are burned annually in deliberately lit fires. Almost all of these fires are set by livestock herders to stop grasslands becoming forests. By comparison, burning by shifting cultivators for crops covered an area about 10 percent of this size. A recent study in Nature gives an idea of what could happen if the burning stopped. The reforestation potential is massive.

Consider the above image from the Nature article. The vertically hatched area has an average rainfall over 780mm and would, according to Sankaran and the large number of other authors, revert to some kind of forest if given half a chance. Its status as savanna is anthropogenic and not a product of natural attributes like soil type and climate.

How long can such regrowth go on adding carbon in the form of forests? Most additional carbon would be added during the first 3 decades but forests can go on adding smaller amounts for centuries. It’s worth noting that fire is probably always a suppressor of biomass production. The frequent claim that fire helps regeneration, making it some kind of friend of biodiversity, can be true but is highly misleading. I intend to do a post on this sometime in the future. But despite some plants benefitting from fire, the general impact is to reduce biomass production. Measurements under 2 rainfall regimes and 4 soil types in Africa always recorded higher biomass production in areas not burned.

One way of measuring a country’s fire intensity is to consider the ratio of biomass burned to biomass appropriated. We saw in Part I that Australia burns about 40 percent of what it appropriates. This ratio is the same as in South East Asia, but much higher than the 1 percent of Western Europe.

Both burn ratios pale beside the staggering 150 percent of sub-Saharan Africa where far more is burned than is otherwise appropriated. This is a stunning number. Corey Bradshaw recently wrote a piece on his blog where he summarised a recent paper on Australia’s mammal extinction crisis. His bottom line summary was that we should “Stop burning the shit out of our forests“. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are burning 12 times more biomass from an area 6 times bigger than the 37 million hectares we burn each year. If we are doing as Corey says, then what are the Africans doing? And for what? They reap far less than they burn.

Climate Change

How will global warming compound or alleviate Africa’s problems? The most critical impacts will be changes in rainfall regimes.

A warmer world is a wetter world but it is the timing and distribution of water that matters more than the absolute amount. This is as true for Africa as anywhere else. Perhaps the Sahara will gain water in a changing climate and return to its rather wetter state of 5000 years ago. Perhaps rainfall will be less regular but more intense, leading to more topsoil erosion and magnifying cattle impacts.

In any event, regional predictions are rather less certain than global ones. The good news is that for a substantial part of the potential reafforestation region we identified earlier, the predictions are for increased rain. It could also be viewed as good news that the rainfall predictions for the Sahel … that transition band of Africa that runs along the bottom of the Sahara desert, are uncertain. Uncertainty being rather better than a certainty of drying!

African Boverty

Africa is about 4 times the size of Australia but has 260 million cattle compared to our 28 million. On average the cattle are smaller with an average carcase weight of 150kg compared to 250kg in Australia. By now you may have predicted what so astonished me and drove the preparation of this post. The areas doing so much of the burning are precisely the ones with the most cattle and the most chronically hungry people. For example, Ethiopia and Sudan have 43 million and 41 million cattle respectively. In Ethiopia 80 million people eat 11 million tonnes of food while those 43 million cattle and assorted other livestock graze 80 million tonnes and are fed a further 20 million tonnes as feed. All these figures are DM (dry matter) numbers. Sudan burns over 30 percent of its entire annual vegetation growth … and this is 30 percent averaged over the entire country. Consider what this means. Australia burns huge areas, but averaged over the entire country the burn rate is less than 5 percent.

Cattle don’t bring food security

Proving that cattle cause starvation is tough, but demonstrating that cattle don’t protect people from food insecurity is trivially easy. It’s in the numbers.

This plot of per capita cattle ratios and undernourishment proportions shows pretty clearly that livestock are not effective in protecting people from hunger. Compare the food security of Nigeria, famously the happiest country on the planet which feeds 154 million people, with an undernourishment rate of 8 percent with Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad and Botswana. The latter have some of the worst poverty and chronic undernourishment on the planet while swimming in cattle and burning the shit out of their country every year. All the countries to the right of the 0.3 cattle per capita vertical line have more cattle per head of human population than the US. Allowing for the difference in cattle size we should really shift this line to about the 0.5 point. So Niger, Chad, Sudan and such have more cattle than the famously obese hamburger munching US. But still they starve. Does it look like more cattle will fix anything?

Nigeria’s submission to the IPCC states “Much of the savanna is a by-product of centuries of devastation by man and fire“. The author has a clear understanding of the problem and it looks as if some pretty effective steps have been taken because Nigeria’s biomass burning level is now just a tenth of Sudan’s. If you look at a high resolution version of the fire map from Part I of this post, you can see that Nigeria’s fires are fewer than those in the rest of that burning band. Nigeria feeds a population half the size of the population of the US but has only 10 percent of the land. Nigeria isn’t quite self sufficient in food, importing about 5 million tonnes of cereals to supplement the 25 million tonnes of cereals and 85 million tonnes of root vegetables it produces annually.

Root vegetables are probably the most efficient food crop per hectare of any on the planet. During some of the BNC discussion of Part I of this post, the subject of Polyface farm came up. Michael Pollan and Tim Flannery have both written flatteringly about this US farm. It is, to their minds, organic eco-friendly livestock production at its best. I did an analysis of Flannery’s vision for Quarterly Essay and will post a version of it on BNC at some time, but let me digress briefly on the production figures from Polyface which so astonished Tim Flannery in Now or Never, his Quarterly Essay. Polyface produces an annual combined total of 45 tonnes of various meats, plus some eggs from 60 hectares. The figures are probably carcase figures, so will be somewhat higher than the amount actually consumed.

An average Australian potato farmer would get some 2160 tonnes from 60 hectares, and the global average cereal productivity is well over 2 tonnes per hectare with many countries getting 3 or more times this yield. Most rice growers would get 400 to 600 tonnes from 60 hectares. Grow almonds on 60 hectares and you would get double the amount of protein without the pain and suffering of slaughter days at Polyface or the subsequent bowel cancer cases due to the red meat. And just to forestall the usual claims from US readers about grass fed meat being healthy and that all the many meat health issues are really just a result of grain feeding, I need to point out that most locally consumed red meat in Australia is grass fed, but we are generally top of the global table in bowel cancer rates. The causal chain from red meat to bowel cancer is now pretty well nailed down and has nothing to do with what the animals eat.

But returning to Nigeria. The Nigerians know about root vegetables, so next time you watch those brilliant Nigerian track athletes, the ones with the huge shoulders, just think of them as children … the odds are that they grew up on yams and other root vegetables!

Animal products provide less than 3 percent of Nigeria’s food calories. That 3 percent of animal products will more than likely be largely appropriated by the wealthy, the overseas oil consultants, and the tourists. Make no mistake, Nigeria is a desperately poor country with many serious public health issues, but its food production successes are remarkable given its tiny land area, its massive population, its history of burning, and the dominance of ignorant meat centric dietary advice from all manner of international agencies.

Growing food in a basket(case)

Do a little googling and you will find plenty of news stories over the past few years about China (and others) investing in Africa to grow food. At home, China is losing land to desertification and running out of water. It has also developed a taste for beef and now has over 80 million cattle (plus 20 million buffaloes) to feed on top of its half a billion pigs. What is the cause of so much of its desertification? Grazing, of course, with sheep being as effective as cattle.

But why Africa? How do you produce food in Africa? This is the continent with the worst food insecurity on the planet. A New York Times article relates the astonishment of a botanist who was flabbergasted at Saudi plans to grow food in Africa, thinking that if Africa can’t feed itself, how can it feed foreign markets? Easy. With some exceptions the problems of food in Africa are cultural and financial, they are not technical. Africa is 3 times bigger than China with 300 million less people. Yes, it has some rather large desert regions (40 percentof the land area), and some poor soils, but also large areas of current and potential forest. In simple terms, if mother nature can produce a forest somewhere then a good farmer can grow food.

More rigorous study of African soils, carried out a decade ago by the US Department of Agriculture, estimated that the 11 percent of Africa with good soils could support a doubling of the population while noting the desperate risks of rampant desertification due to low input agriculture and rapidly increasing livestock populations.

Foreign investors are demonstrating this in many countries in Africa. The Guinea Savannah mentioned in the NYT article above matches the vertically hatched area of the Nature paper quite well. This is land that can grow vast amounts of food but is currently set on fire in a massive cattle conflagration each year that produces nothing but ongoing boverty.

To be specific, Ethiopia, for example, claims (see above IPCC submission) about 73 million hectares of land suitable for farming but is using just 7 million. It has 3.7 million hectares suitable for irrigation and with adequate river water resources but has only 160,000 under irrigation.

Africa’s undernutrition problem, put simply, is that more than a few countries have a culture which prefers cattle and burning the shit out of the country to growing food.

Aid agencies … anyone for desert(ification)?

What is the role of aid agencies? Before proceeding, let me say that for many years I’ve been, and will continue to be, a regular donor to Oxfam. But the criticisms in this post must be addressed. Supporting disfunctional food cultures and policies isn’t aid, it is, at best, assisted suicide.

Part of the problem in dealing with Australian aid agencies is nutritional ignorance fanned by decades of meat industry lies couple with a deeply ingrained Australian BBQ culture. The irony of seeing the McGrath Foundation promoting the biggest source of bowel cancer in Australia, red meat, with BBQs outside supermarkets to raise funds to assist breast cancer victims is probably not uniquely Australian, but does illustrate the extent of the problem. Belief in the superiority of meat as the only real source of all the nutrients which matter is a myth that runs deeper in the Australian psyche than the Pope’s belief in God.

To illustrate, here is a 2010 ad from the Australia Day Council. It couldn’t have been more blatantly an ad for Meat and Livestock Australia if the latter had commissioned it from their ad agency. Note in particular the three meats: steak, sausages and lamb chops. There is no chicken … MLA is locked in a mortal battle with the chicken industry. Either I’m right about the ingrained nature of BBQ myths in Australia, particular among the those in positions of cultural influence, or there is serious corruption at the Australia Day Council.

But the king in the international spread of Boverty is not Australian, it is a US based group, Heifer International. This group runs, among other things, irrigated dairy projects in Ethiopia. A dairy industry, especially an irrigated dairy industry, is a brilliant way to fritter away scarce water resources and create a water crisis. New Scientist journalist Fred Pearce, in his book When the rivers run dry, wrote about the dairy driven plight of Gujarat in India. Pearce sketches the Gujarat irrigation treadmill nightmare as wells are driven ever deeper into a dropping water table to flood irrigate fodder fields for cattle. Again, the farmers involved may well profit, it is future food security that is being traded away. Where irrigation is river, rather than groundwater based, it is the opportunity for more productive use of water which is lost.

First world countries are not immune from dairy’s water hungry ways. In Australia, the dairy industry has been the biggest culprit in the over-allocation of Murray Darling Basin water. It is far and away the biggest user of irrigation water in Australia. At its peak in 2000/1 it dominated water use in the Murray Darling Basin using more than double the water of rice and 9 times more than fruit and vegetables combined. For all that water, the dairy industry in 2000/1 produced just 20 percent more calories than rice … with many of those calories being saturated fat which, in the developed world, is removed before sale … because it kills people. Some may argue that this is not an issue in parts of the world where diseases of poverty kill people before they get heart disease, but this isn’t accurate. The toll of ischemic heart disease is often high in developing countries. For example, the disability adjusted life years (DALY) lost rate due to heart disease in Sudan is four time higher than in Australia. Sudan can’t do the 40,000 major heart operations that Australia does annually to subsidise our livestock and junk food industries.

The revenue per million litres of that Murray Darling Basin dairy water was about 1/9 of that of water used to grow fruit, but with so much water being funnelled through the paddocks, it was still profitable … until the inevitable drought spoiled the party. Similarly, those Ethiopians involved in irrigated dairy production may be well be making good money, but regardless of the financial success of livestock aid projects in Africa, the long term impact of anything which serves to increase in the ratio of livestock to human biomass can only be to decrease food security for both humans and wildlife.

Of course it is true that understanding the root causes of a problem does not automatically provide solutions. Mapping realistic pathways to change a culture is tough and western countries have shown their own inadequacies in this regard by their inability to tackle the much simpler problem of obesity. We have been incapable of taking strong action against ingrained false and dysfunctional beliefs and against organisations who are perfectly happy to make people fat and unhealthy for a living (e.g., Hungry Jacks).

So let’s look at how Oxfam, Heifer International, World Vision, and other agencies who run livestock projects, directly contribute to African poverty.

Turning soil into dirt

Cattle without careful management are wonderful degraders of land. Their huge bulk pressing through small hard hooves compacts soil and kills much of what doesn’t go in their mouths. Consider the following grazing practices from an area of Kenya. They are no doubt replicated in villages across Africa and elsewhere. The idiocies should be obvious, but go unremarked by the author writing for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

None of the cattle owners in the study had enough land to meet the grazing requirements of their cattle, but local custom allows them to graze on anybody’s crop residues … without permission.

Residue grazing has many impacts.

It removes nutrients in the residues and uncovers the soil which maximises the further loss of topsoil and nutrients to wind and rain while the trampling ruins the soil structure. Yes indeed, soil has a structure and the physical structure effects everything from water flow and erosion rates to how nutrients find their way into roots.

The best you can hope for is that some of the nutrients may be returned as fertiliser. The key word here is some and may. Cattle dung from residue grazing can’t add nutrients to the soil that weren’t already in the residue and where dung is removed for fuel, the loss of nutrients is large.

All but the best and deepest soils will soon degrade under the abuse of being trampled and uncovered. Livestock advocates frequently write as if grazing crop residues was doing the world a favour … cleaning up the unsightly mess and turning waste into protein (see digression on protein). But these grazing practices are effectively trading the long term food security of good soil management for a little milk and an even tinier amount of meat. Nigerian studies compared leaving residues in place with removal and showed that residue removal halved crop yields over a period of 13 years and had a range of bad impacts on soil parameters.

It is taking farmers everywhere, not just in the developing world, quite some time to realise that bare fields are a recipe for long term agricultural decline, with ploughed bare fields being even worse.

Continuing with the Kenya grazing practices, … and again, the same will be true in many places. When cattle are grazing in and around crops and fences are largely non-existent, cattle need to be shepherded to stop them eating and trampling crops, this requires people power. An alternative control method when labour is short is to tether the cattle. This is perfect for concentrating and maximising the damage from cattle.

The low productivity of the soils was mentioned by the IFPRI author without apparently realising that she had described many of the processes that had produced that low productivity. The productivity of soils isn’t a given, it is a product of many things with more than a few being under our influence.

But cattle aren’t perfect. They will browse bushes but are more naturally grazers. If you want perfection in land degradation, you need to add an animal who can clean up any young shrubs and trees which the cattle hooves miss. You don’t want any vegetation to impede the winds in their efforts to blow away your topsoil. Goats are pretty well perfect for the job. The dynamic duo of cattle and goats will maximise the area left bare so that the wind and rain can strip topsoil to uncropped areas. Better still, if you have a local stream or river, the drifting soil from ground left bare by goats and cattle can silt it up for you. This is an added bonus in the raft of eco-system disservices provided by livestock.

Goat feeding for beginners

Goats are remarkable creatures, but frequently misunderstood. Their role as Oxfam gifts singles them out for particular attention. The capacity of goats to survive in harsh environments is achieved by pretty much the opposite of what most people believe. Goats don’t have low nutrient needs which can be met by any old plant matter. Assuming that you want a goat for milk and not just companionship and decoration, the standard veterinary advice on the minimal protein intake required for a 50 kilogram milk producing goat is 174 grams of protein per day. That’s enough protein to feed about 220 kilograms worth of people.

Goats survive in harsh landscapes not by having low nutritional requirements, but by an astonishing ability to fastidiously select and process the optimal available food for their needs. They will pick the newest leaves, shoots, twigs, stems, flowers or grasses, the ones with peak digestability and protein content. Where a sheep will make suboptimal choices when times are tough, the goat will find the best food.

To get the required feed to enable lactation, assuming you aren’t buying any feed, that 50 kilogram milking goat needs to eat about 2 kilograms of dry matter per day. This is the average NPP (remember NPP from Part I? Net Primary Productivity, a fancy word for plant growth) of 5 square meters of Africa over an entire year. This means a single milking goat will consume the entire plant growth of 1825 square meters of land during a year. But goats have no interest in NPP maximisation. Confine a goat to exactly 1825 square meters (about 2 empty suburban blocks) and you won’t find it in the same state at the end of the year, with the goat having nicely harvested the annual growth. No. A goat won’t feed to maximise the area’s productivity, it will start with the new growing shoots, stems and leaves. This depresses NPP. In a sense, the goat will gradually eat its way down the food quality chain and a dust bowl will be the result.

African goat breeds will have parameters somewhat different from those I’ve cited, and averages must always be taken for what they are, but the picture is clear. If you want to establish a belt of trees to shelter your fields and possibly for harvest when mature, then a free roaming goat is your worst nightmare.

Many aid agencies offer donors the chance to donate animals to a poor African family and goats feature prominently. Oxfam and World Vision are just examples. There are now some 290 million goats in Africa along with a similar number of sheep. To the extent that aid agencies encourage livestock acquisition, they are damaging long term prospects for food security.

Miscellaneous Boverty impacts

This last section looks at a few issues that are boverty related in varying degrees.

Cooking the planet

Globally we use almost as much biomass (as wood) for for heating and cooking as we eat. It amounts to about 10 percent of the 12.1 billion tonnes harvested or grazed. Remember we eat about 12 percent.

Many of the world’s poor have no choice but to cook and heat with biomass. Some not-so-poor people do it by choice. Typically the biomass is wood, but for poor people it can also be dung or crop residues. Burning biomass produces smoke. Smoke is an all-natural product containing a dazzling array of all-natural harmful chemicals. A US EPA approved wood stove generates very little smoke, but the stoves of the developing world generate plenty and have a death toll of about 1.4 million people each year. The main victims are women and children who spend more time near cooking stoves. Many of the smoke related respiratory infections wouldn’t be deadly with basic antibiotics and reasonable medical care.

Burning dung or crop residues out of desperate need or ignorance is tragic. The best use for dung is as fertiliser, and the best use for crop residues is to leave them to protect the soil. Biochar technologies are unlikely to change this in the short to medium term. Biocharing residues extracts and binds more carbon, but the cost is leaving soil uncovered.

One of the components of smoke is black carbon and which is a potent climate forcing as well as a serious health risk. Household biomass burning causes as much black carbon production as the world’s global wildfires, both natural and anthropogenic. Together they are responsible for about 40 percent of black carbon production. The warming impact of black carbon is tough to measure and was probably underestimated in early work, but may well be up there with methane and carbon dioxide as one of the big climate change culprits. The long term health impacts of black carbon are many but include cardiovascular disease. So if you wonder why they get heart disease in Nigeria despite low intake of animal products, look no further than burning biomass.

There have been a variety of recent initiatives to design and distribute more efficient biomass cookers, but the low energy density of dung makes complete combustion to minimise harmful emissions a particularly difficult design problem under the strict cost constraints (Prof. Kirk Smith, by email). The 3 billion people who cook with biomass desperately need better energy sources. They shouldn’t be burning animal dung or crop residues. Burning biomass of any kind in primitive stoves is thus both a significant health and greenhouse issue.

Ozone’s jekyll and hyde show

As the largest source of anthropogenic methane, livestock are partly responsible for another all-natural dangerous pollutant: ozone.

The global increase in atmospheric methane to more than double pre-industrial levels in recent decades is the main cause of the increase in the background level of tropospheric ozone.

Ozone is a good guy up in the stratosphere where it protects us from UV radiation, but a bad guy at ground level. Spikes in ozone levels occur in polluted areas thanks to sunlight acting on chemicals called VOC (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are a broad class of chemicals, encompassing things as diverse as petrochemical pollution fumes and the most delicious of cooking smells. Unhappily modern living seems to create more VOCs like the former than the latter. The resulting ozone spikes cause increases in asthma, bronchitis and heart attacks … to name but a few.

Wildlife or cattle, choose one

In July 2009 a major study confirmed what some African wildlife experts had long suspected. Key species in Kenya had declined by some 40 percent over the past 30 years, both inside and adjacent to national parks. The causes: poaching, bush meat, habitat destruction and human encroachment.

Kenyan rangers recently ejected 10,000 cattle from Tsavo West park. Massive cattle tracks visible from the air also show that herders have been illegally driving their cattle into the heart of the Masai Mara National reserve.

The story in Africa has direct parallels with the history of livestock expansion in the US, Australia and Brazil. Australian pastoralists have long seen deforestation as a legitimate farming practice.


In semi-arid areas of Africa and elsewhere grazing can accelerate desertification in various ways. Cattle eat a patch bare and trample it hard. This decreases the amount of water that enters the soil, instead it runs on to vegetated areas which increase in growth because of additional water. This focuses grazing on the patches of vegetation which remain. This creates a postive feedback and patchiness results. More generally, grazing changes surface reflectivity (albedo) which can act as a further positive feedback on a large scale. This has been found to change soil temperatures and rainfall in the African Sahel as well as India. Smaller impacts have been found in comparisons between areas differentially grazed along the US/Mexico border.

Cattle, goats and V8 utes

I began the first part of this post with an analogy about SUVs and their societal impacts. There is a related automotive analogy that probably has more explanatory value, particularly for Australian audiences. Visit any country town in Australia and you will see an impressive collection of utes, often with huge V8 engines. A ute is the Australian equivalent of a “pickup” in the US. A V8 ute earns its owner considerable prestige within their circle of peers, but absorbs petrol like a parched flood plain. Dollars which could go into education and high quality food for a family ends up vanishing into the ute for a tiny transportation payback.

So it is with livestock in Africa, sometimes aided and abetted by aid organisations trying to satisfy the dangerously dysfunctional aspirations of people with strong cultural bonds to cattle. This week’s Lancet editorial was too polite (or scared of legal consequences) to name the aid organisations it attacked, but it certainly spread plenty of shame. The various “Livestock for Africa” begging campaigns are excellent examples of what happens when aid agencies lose the plot.



Terminology: Grasslands and Savannas

In this article, I’ve used the terms grassland and savanna without paying any attention to the technical differences. Savannas are sprinkled with trees. The timing and amount of rainfall tends to be different also. Scientist have various sub-categories, some of which occur naturally. Elephants seem to be the only other species besides us which can make savannas. In some circumstances, cattle can destroy grasslands. Their preference for grasses allows woody vegetation to gain a hold … this is the start of reforestation. Without people or lightening to burn this, or enough active browsing, some kind of forest will probably reassert itself.

Digression on Protein

Livestock producers and advocates generally have such a profound ignorance of nutritional issues that they often talk as if meat and protein are synonomous while vegetable protein is an oxy-moron. A cursory check of the WHO Food Balance Database tells a different story. Meat in all its forms provides just 17 percent of global protein. Animal products in total, provide just 40 percent. Increasingly, the weapon of choice against life-threatening undernourishment in children is plumpy’nut. This is pretty much a vitamin and mineral fortified peanut butter which outperforms the older vitamin and mineral fortified milk-powder based F100 formula. A newer wheat based solid product, BP100, is also available.

Plumpy’nut is often described as a high protein high energy spread. It is described this way because the nutritionists involved know what they are talking about. They know that the protein requirements of people are very low, about 7 percent of calories. Plumpy’nut has about 10 percent of its calories as protein … which makes it high. But vague words like high and low can change meanings depending on the context. In the advertising jargon world of popular nutrition hype, this is a low protein food. For comparison, the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet recommends 30 percent of calories from protein and is based around a food, lean red meat, which typically has 80 percent of calories as protein. So in a typical western context it is quite misleading to call this food high protein. In common parlance, plumpy’nut should be described as a low protein, plant based, high energy, life saving food.

One notable advantage of both Plumpy’nut and BP100 over F100 is that F100 looks like milk formula. This can undermine efforts to have mothers breast feed instead of using infant formula.

Yams is pretty much a generic term in western countries, often meaning sweet potato (which aren’t really yams), but the various Dioscorea, true yams, typically have very low nutrient density, but a high ratio of nutrients to calories, particularly minerals like iron and zinc and protein. For example, some have more than half their calories as protein.

Digression on Fish

For those who have swallowed, hook line and sinker, the fish industry propaganda that fish is brain food or a vital global source of protein … both are excellent examples of the old maxim, if you must lie, tell a whopper and tell it often.

Globally, fish and seafood is about 1 percent of calories and included in the 17 percent provided from animal sources in part 1 of this post. We are, in effect, trashing the oceans for an entirely superfluous food. The campaign to persuade people to eat fish as brain food is simply junk science gone crazy. The Japanese have a per-capita fish consumption 5 times that of the Australians, Germans, Chinese or Americans. Has all that fish made them smarter? The whole notion of brain food is based on deeply flawed reasoning. One of the world’s foremost experts on IQ, James Flynn recently wrote an article Requiem for nutrition as the cause of IQ gains. The name says it all.

Industrial fishing hauls vast amounts of sea life out of the ocean and extracts the small amount which is valuable. The rest is called bycatch. Jonathan Saffran Foer’s interesting new book Eating Animals paints an accurate picture of the mind numbing (usually ignorant) destructiveness of almost all people who eat fish: If a plate of sushi was served with all the bycatch associated with its production, then the plate could be around 5 feet wide. In some cases, seafood bycatch also includes people. Many of the 146,000 people killed by cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008 died because the mangroves which used to protect the coastline had been cleared for prawn farms.

January 12, 2010

Burning the biosphere, boverty blues (Part I)

Filed under: black carbon, Livestock's long shadow, nitrous oxide emissions — Barry Brook @ 2:37 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.

This is the first of two posts on some large issues connected with global fire regimes, biomass flows, and food security. Part II will be posted in a few weeks time.


Boverty is the human impact of too many bovines overwhelming the local biosphere’s ability to feed them … the bovines are usually cattle and more than a few African countries have precisely this problem. Their livestock is a millstone around their necks and helping to keep them poor. Well-meaning aid organisations often contribute to the problem.

The ecosystem impacts of cattle spread far and wide but it may not be the owners of the animals who suffer the impacts. Indeed, the animals can buffer their owners against the worst impacts of boverty. This is analogous to the way that drivers of large SUVs do well in collisions with smaller vehicles. The entire community suffers from the presence of the vehicles, but the owners may be the least affected.

But these conclusions are just the end point of a longish discussion. We need to start at the beginning. But before we get to the beginning, here is a MODIS satellite firemap of the planet during the last days of December 2009. The sub-Saharan cattle countries are ablaze.

This post surveys the impacts of livestock, firstly at a very general level on the biosphere due to its domination of global biomass consumption, proceeding through the cattle-specific annual planetary conflagrations as people ignite the world’s grasslands to prevent reforestation. Lastly, we look at more intimate and sometimes more indirect bovine impacts, like the accelerated degradation of arable soil, the tens or hundreds of thousands of children killed by cooking with dung, and the global increase in respiratory and heart disease from ozone increases caused by rising methane levels.

Cattle are a major causal component in all these problems. The planet’s 1.4 billion cattle have a liveweight biomass exceeding that of humans and dominate many of our adverse impacts on planetary eco-systems.

Eco footprints and plant growth

Over the past couple of decades, a variety of measures of our impact on the planet have emerged. Eco-footprints seem to be the sexiest of these, with great logos and a resonance with old folk-lore about treading lightly on the planet. I’ve always felt this measure was conceptually flawed. Converting things as different as what you had for breakfast along with electricity and water usage into a square kilometer figure is bizarre. Happily, an older, clearer measure is now making a comeback, thanks to the increasing power of those remarkable spies in the skies, the satellites that between them can weigh Antarctica, measure fire scars, spot ocean bottom trawling damage, and check out which of your neighbours has a swimming pool.

The old measure is based on photosynthesis. Photosynthesis produces plant growth and underpins almost all life on the planet. Every year the planet produces a huge quantity of plant growth, we eat some of it, other species eat some of it, and the rest either forms long-lived things like trees, or is more quickly broken down, returning its nutrients back to the soil, water and air. How much of this growth do we use?

An Austrian team has been turning out some remarkable papers cutting and dicing our usage in considerable detail using both satellite data and more normal statistical sources. Initial work by Helmut Haberl and the team culminated in a 2007 paper estimating that we use about 23.8 percent of the planet’s annual plant growth … otherwise known by the catchy name of net primary productivity (NPP). The language of the preceding sentence was a little sloppy, … we don’t actually use all of this, but we certainly appropriate it in ways that will slowly become clear.

NPP is measured as dry matter (DM). This is what’s left when you get rid of the water. If you didn’t do this, 10 kilograms of water melon would count the same as 10 kilograms of rice. The choice of this as a measurement unit is important and sensible because dry matter plant material is about 50 percent carbon. This means you can easily convert between carbon and dry matter quantities. So when I say that global NPP was 118.4 billion tonnes of dry matter in 2000, this means that about 59.2 billion tonnes of carbon was sucked out of the sky that year by plants using photosynthesis.

Even though this measure is conceptually clearer than eco-footprint areas, there are plenty of gotchas which can trick new jugglers of these numbers. First, only about half the NPP is above ground. So plenty is simply unavailable. We dig out potatoes but not tree roots. So when you cut down a tree for timber, the roots aren’t used, but they still count as appropriated. This is reasonable because the tree certainly can’t use them any more. Secondly, the NPP of an area isn’t fixed. Humans do things which change the NPP of land. They pour on fertiliser and pump in water which raises NPP. They pave paradise with parking lots or graze it to a dustbowl and NPP drops to zero.

Reducing planetary productivity

The Austrians estimate our land degradation and pavement have reduced annual global plant growth (NPP) by about 6.2 billion tonnes of carbon. That’s a pretty significant number for a couple reasons. First, because it’s not that much below the amount of fossil fuel carbon we emit annually … which is up around 8 billion tonnes! Second, because its higher than the net annual land clearance emissions of 1.47 billion tonnes. The estimated carbon released to the atmosphere due to deforestation over the industrial period is 200 billion tonnes. These numbers indicate that managing the biosphere to draw down a couple of decades of fossil fuel emissions is possible and we have two mechanisms at our disposal: reforesting areas we have deforested and thickening current vegetation … enhancing NPP. These mechanisms, used to their theoretical maximum, won’t make rebuilding our energy infrastructure unnecessary, but they can buy time. We shall see in part two of this post that rebuilding and extending our energy infrastructure to poor nations is probably essential if we are to successfully reforest the planet.

Biomass flows, global and local

Another Austrian permutation, headed this time by Fridolin Krausmann, has done more work on these datasets and has produced biomass flow data with breakdowns by country.

This shows that globally, we only eat about 12 percent of the 12.1 billion tonnes of plant material that we either crop or have our livestock graze. This provides 83 percent of global food calories. Livestock eat 58 percent of that 12.1 billion tonnes and provide the other 17 percent of calories. What about fish? Fish are just 1 percent of global calories and part of the 17 percent.

Note that the 12.1 billion tonnes doesn’t include biomass incinerated in deliberately lit fires … this is important later on.

Australia, all by itself, appropriated 468 million tonnes of plant growth in 2000. We harvested it for paper, animal feed and timber and much else besides. Our livestock eat about twice as much of what we harvest as we do and that obviously counts as our appropriation. But they don’t just eat the bulk of the harvest, they graze another 30 times more. But that’s not the end of their impact.

Is livestock consumption exceeding plant growth?

In my last post here, I referred to an estimate just published as a WorldWatch report that put the impact of livestock on greenhouse forcings at about 51 percent of the global anthropogenic total. I didn’t analyse this figure, but suggested it wasn’t unreasonable to think that land clearing, feeding, watering, housing, slaughter, transport and cooking implicit in dealing with 700 million tonnes of livestock biomass could conceivably be responsible for half of the total climate impact of 335 million tonnes of human biomass. But I was waiting for more expert analysis and still am. Many of the additions over and above the 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) estimate rely on close knowledge of the precise details of the FAO’s statistical data collection processes.

But on theoretical grounds, one of the most contentious inclusions in the 51 percent figure is livestock respiration … the carbon dioxide that livestock exhale. On the face of it, this seems plain wrong. All of the carbon dioxide in livestock respiration comes from the atmosphere via photosynthesis in plants. So it’s simply part of the carbon cycle. Isn’t it? The WorldWatch authors have subsequently justified this a little further, re-citing evidence given in LLS which states that animal respiration plus soil carbon oxidation (co2 flowing into the atmosphere) exceeds the drawdown due to photosynthesis by one or two billion tonnes of carbon annually. In many cases it is livestock driving the loss of soil carbon by deforestation and desertification and given that the planet’s 700 million tonnes of livestock dwarf wildlife by a ratio of about 23:3, it is possible that the planet’s total plant biomass may be shrinking under livestock’s onslaught. This is the implication of the reduction of NPP noted above and the carbon flow imbalance just mentioned.

I say may be shrinking because it’s tough to measure things like global photosynthesis or global respiration, and the figures in LLS are not the same as the figures in the Austrian work. Close, but not the same. But if the respiration plus soil carbon losses really are outstripping photosynthesis, then including at least some livestock respiration in the ledger isn’t just reasonable, but mandatory.

Fire, soil and carbon inventories

In any case, not all parts of the carbon cycle are currently excluded from national greenhouse inventories. Livestock methane is part of the carbon cycle and everybody includes that in their inventories … for good reason. Turning carbon dioxide (CO2) into methane (CH4) doesn’t increase the carbon in the atmosphere but, in effect, puts it on steroids for a decade as far as its warming effect is concerned.

Similar considerations apply to fire. Under IPCC accounting principles, CO2 emissions from fire are ignored unless the fire changes the underlying vegetation. For example, a fire in a savanna doesn’t permanently change anything, the grass comes back. But a fire that clears a tropical forest to make a pasture results in a net permanent reduction in standing carbon (the trees!) which is added to the atmosphere.

Deforestation also produces soil changes. Soil can be viewed as an organism in its own right. Its microbial inhabitants transform soil matter and emit or absorb the greenhouse gases that dominate our current concerns. There are many types of soil and zillions of types of microbes in constant evolutionary flux so getting a handle on what is happening is like holding a bowl of jelly with chopsticks and no bowl.

Anyway, most tropical soils under forest act as methane sinks but lose this property when the forest is goneSimilar results have recently been demonstrated in Australia in temperate, Mediterranean and subtropical regions. When paired sites at various stages of forest and pasture growth were compared, the trend was for nitrous oxide emissions to be lower from forests than pasture, with methane absorption also lower in pasture than in forests. So forests did more of what we want than pastures in both cases. Again, this is complex soil chemistry and other studies have found the opposite with regard to nitrous oxide.

Back in 2006 a study shocked the scientific community by claiming that living plants can produce methane. This prompted an immediate claim from a New Zealand scientist, probably with an eye on his local sheep industry, to claim that forests may have produced as much methane as the ruminants which displaced them. Unfortunately for the New Zealand sheep industry, someone was rude enough to actually do the calculations, and based on the proposed new methane source, show that the livestock emissions were 16 times bigger than the forests they replaced. As it turns out, it seems plants don’t produce methane, but they can transport methane generated in the soil.

The unquantified false claim about ruminants producing less methane than the forests they replaced is a great example of an idea which sounded plausible until the numbers showed otherwise. I’ve written previously about Tim Flannery’s plans to provide abundant meat to the planet by expanding cattle production. This is another example of a plan that becomes laughable (or more correctly cryable) when you do the numbers. Apart from the fact that the current 1.4 billion cattle provide just 1.4 percent of global calories, the injection of another 96 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere by providing Australian levels of beef to most of the planet (excluding India) would make winding back climate forcings even harder than it is presently.

Apart from any nitrous oxide that may be emitted by soils, once cattle are added to the pasture, the nitrous oxide emissions from the cattle droppings are substantial. A global study estimated that livestock waste represents 30-50 percent of global agricultural nitrous oxide emissions. This is in addition to the emissions from the feed crops, many of which are now fertilised with nitrogenous fertiliser.

Note that for either a savanna fire or a forest fire, the methane and black carbon from the fires generate net climate warming. Methane, and a few other gases from such fires are recorded in national greenhouse inventories, but black carbon isn’t because it isn’t regulated by the Kyoto protocol. More on black carbon later. Methane from savanna burning is listed by Australia in its greenhouse inventory, but not by some developing countries, even when they do massive amounts of burning. For example, Sudan lists no methane from savanna burning in its only communication with the UNFCC in 2003, but Nigeria and Ethiopia do.

Burning for fun and profit

In most places in the world, most fires (80-90 percent) are deliberately lit by people. The major exceptions are Russia, the US and Canada where Boreal forests are regularly ignited by lightning. Australia has some of these kinds of fires also, but less commonly because we have less lightening … as indicated in this global map.

Most lightning runs from cloud to cloud, so is irrelevant to ground fires and, as far as I know, satellites can’t pick a ground strike from a cloud to cloud flash, and this map (despite the title) is actually of flashes, not ground strikes.

Tim Flannery recently speculated that removing or reducing herbivores would lead to more fires and a paper last year pointed out that wildfire and insects have turned Canadian forests into a source of carbon rather than a sink. The same paper estimates that the historical deforestation of the planet has added 200 billion tonnes of carbon to the atomosphere. Can everybody see the blazing flaming contradiction here? If we had 200 billion tonnes of carbon worth of forests before we deforested the planet for livestock and the much smaller areas that we crop and live on, where were all the wildfires back then? Certainly we had no firefighting planes and helicopters back when those billions of tonnes of forest were standing. Certainly we had no huge armies of cattle and sheep in Australia at the time before we cleared 100 million hectares. Why didn’t fires burn it all back then? Maybe we did have more natural fires, but with so much more forest, the carbon impact was of no consequence.

The main traditional driver of deliberate human fires has been to clear land and keep it cleared for livestock grazing or cropping. The latter is usually called slash and burn, or shifting cultivation. It’s a cheap and effective method. The collateral damage is generally limited to wildlife and provided Steve Parish has been and taken his pictures for all those airport tourist calendars, what other use does wildlife have? Traditionally, hunting wildlife was the third prime driver of burning. We shall see below that scientists estimate that currently about 2/3 of burning is for livestock grazing.

From a climate perspective, all three kinds of fires represent foregone biosequestration, with the first being a direct climate cost of livestock.

More recent work in the Austrian series refines the estimates of biomass burned through anthropogenic fires with better estimates on the type of burning and better country level breakdowns. Lauk and Erb’s estimates slice fires into two kinds: big fires and little fires. The big fires are almost entirely the livestock fires we have discussed. The small fires are shifting cultivation … plant food fires.

Estimating the extent and impacts of both is difficult and only possible because of new datasets on global vegetation. The satellite data showing what is on the ground can be compared to other global data on potential vegetation and also with satellite data on burn scars and actual fire detection using thermal imaging. Big brother is not just watching you, but watching your back paddock as well. The data on potential vegetation is derived from a global vegetation model which models a raft of processes using input such as current cover, soil type data, temperature and rainfall.

Globally, the big fires release about 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon. N.B. this is a carbon figure. The small fires release between 1 and 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon. There is a largish range because it’s much tougher to estimate the small fires.

If this carbon was balanced by photosynthesis it wouldn’t be a problem would it? Yes and no. Provided the quantity burned each year is constant and vegetation levels are globally maintained, then it’s not causing a net carbon increase in the atmosphere. But are both these quantities constant? The technology is a long way short of giving a real-time read out. Most of the figures I’m presenting are for a single year, 2000. The fires will of course put additional carbon on steroids and produce plenty of other nasties. The Edgar methane inventory lists methane from savanna burning at about 7 million tonnes, probably a little under the true value, but close. This is equivalent to a population of about 60 million cattle grass fed cattle.

Cattle conflagration

Included in the total of plant growth appropriated by Australia is biomass we deliberately just burned. Apart from firewood, most burning in Australia is in deliberate fires set in large regions in the north of Australia every year. The now renamed Australian Greenhouse Office calculated that some 75 percent of this burning was for cattle. This is pasture burned to keep forest regrowth at bay. We are, of course, happy for Indonesians and Brazilians to have tropical forests, but we’d rather do something more useful with our northern regions than merely mop up carbon and provide habitat for wildlife. So we set fire to it. Rainforests can and are expanding in North Queensland into areas no longer subject to human burning. In other areas of tropical Queensland grasslands have changed to closed forests with the cessation of human burning.

That mass of top end burning counts as part of the Australia’s total appropriation of 468 million tonnes of plant growth. How big a part? About 40 percent … some 139 million tonnes DM. All up, we burn slightly more biomass in northern Australia than our livestock graze over the entire continent during the whole year.

But in the burning stakes (or should that be steaks), we are small fry. The global burning picture is massive and has implications for both climate change and food security. Here is a MODIS satellite fire map from the end of July 2009. It’s worth visiting the NASA website to look at when different regions of the planet get burned. Higher resolution maps would show individual fires and not the solid contiguous region that is shown in this image.

What could limits on global burning regimes do? Globally, we burn about 3.7 billion tonnes of dry matter annually. If we reduced this burning to perhaps 2 billion tonnes, which is possible (but hard) and desirable for many reasons, then we could absorb about 1 billion tonnes of carbon. In the first year we did this, we would sequester about an eigth of the fossil fuel carbon emitted each year. As time went on, forests would regrow and absorption rates would slowly fall. As a mitigation strategy, this is significant. Not a single handed planet saver, but useful.

The next part of this two part blog deals with the continent which burns 2 billion tonnes of dry matter annually, a country of chronic undernutrion, poverty and large scale boverty. The next post is on Africa.

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.

November 6, 2009

Red Necked Aussie Greenies

Filed under: Climate Change, Emissions Reduction, Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 10:56 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.



UK Economist Lord Nicholas Stern is the latest in a growing list, including IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri and NASA climate scientist James Hansen calling for a global shift in dietary habits towards less meat. The CSIRO has issued a new Home Energy Saving Handbook which tells people diplomatically, but unambiguously, that if they do use the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, with its huge meat component, then use it for as brief a period as possible and switch to a high carbohydrate diet which has a much lower greenhouse footprint. The book also has a great section on the implications of suburban food growing, including a mention that this also tends to reduce meat consumption. This new CSIRO handbook is a long way short of the major public corporate apology that I called for in my recent book CSIRO Perfidy, but it’s an excellent start. All in all this CSIRO book is a great practical book about how people can significantly reduce their various footprints on the planet. It doesn’t fall into any of the all too common traps like considering the fuel consumption of a car, but ignoring the emissions generated during the building of the vehicle.

Stern’s call reduced animal product intake follows close on the release of a report on livestock and climate change from the Food Ethics Council in the UK(commisioned by World Wildlife Fund (WWF)). The press release announcing the report contains a statment which will probably raise the blood pressure of any meat producer. It says that the report:

Identifies a wide array of measures by which government might change consumption behaviour, …

The livestock industry can live with feel good statments about breeding for lower emitting cattle and the like, but changes to consumption, changes that would actually make a difference, that is anathema.

At the risk of boring people who know this stuff, let me quantify using an analogy that I hope will clarify. Consider a computer screen. I’m using a 19 inch 37 watt LCD. My TV is a little bigger and uses 58 watts. Most people know that huge plasma TVs can be more than a little bigger and use 10 times more power. Systems labelled home theatre can run to over 1500 watts … about half for the sound and half for the picture. Now, pause and think what would happen if somebody started making 7400 watt screens that were much the same size as normal screens. Imagine further that these screens caused serious and frequently life shortening health problems.

Would anybody defend such screens? Would anybody bother with a defence that better manufacturing could reduce their power usage by 25%?

The 7400:37 ratio is about the same as the ratio of greenhouse emissions between lean beef and pasta. The ratio is even higher if the short term (20 year) warming impact of methane is considered. A study hot off the press in Science into the indirect effects of methane calculates that adding these flow-on impacts lifts the warming due to methane by as much as 50%. This makes lean beef akin to a 10,000 watt screen.

Tim Flannery, in the longest chapter of his recent Now or Never essay (Quarterly Essay 31) has put forward a plan to massively increase global beef production … the direct equivalent of a plea to stock the planet with an abundance of 7400 watt computer screens. This has been criticised by both myself (see Quarterly Essay 32) and Peter Singer. Responding to Singer in the US edition of Now or Never, Flannery writes:

And in the beef sector, it’s been found that smaller breeds of cattle produce 25 percent less methane than standard breeds, and that the overall management of the herd has an enormous impact on the overall greenhouse gas balance of the business.

If he were consistent, Flannery should similarly allow that a 25% reduction in the power required for a 7400 watt screen should earn it a green energy saver badge.

In Perfidy, which is about far more than just the CSIRO’s dodgy diet, I examine the implications of Flannery’s call for more cattle in some detail. Firstly, it’s an impossible vision. But going with Flannery’s flight of fancy and assuming there is enough land to graze enough cattle so that most of the planet (leaving out a billion or so steadfastly vegetarian Indians) ate the same amount of beef as Australians (bearing in mind that more chicken is eaten than beef in Australia these days), we would add about another 98 mega tonnes to the annual global emissions of methane. If you are unfamiliar with the global methane budget, the current anthropogenic emissions are about 350 mega tonnes, so a 98 mega tonne injection of methane would be huge.

So, on the one side we have a growing international call to scale down the livestock sector, particularly cattle, but in Australia we either don’t report such calls (and you won’t find the Food Ethics Council paper on the Australian WWF website), or they get a brief mention on page 23 and we have high profile environmentalists like Flannery pushing in the opposite direction. One of the reasons I’ve always been on the fringe of environment groups and more comfortable in animal rights groups is that many greens (and Greens), like Flannery, seem to place the sanctity of the BBQ above the health of the planet. I have absolutely no idea what drives such people, they steadfastly refuse to follow where the evidence leads. Anybody who reads Peter Singer’s work will realise that for him and others in the animal rights camp, using information and logic to formulate ways to minimise suffering isn’t mere entertainment, but the final arbiter of action.

Which leads me to Kelly’s Bush.

Kelly’s bush is about 7 acres of bush land on Sydney’s wealthy North Shore. In the early 1970s it was threatened with development. Some regard the fight to save Kelly’s Bush as the birth of the modern Australian green activist movement. The fight was spear headed by the famous Green Bans imposed by the Builder’s Labourers Union, led by Jack Mundey. The bans began in the early 1970s, but the story I want to tell goes back a decade earlier to 1962. What happened in 1962? Yes, I know, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, but that’s just a book, what actually happened? What actually happened was that Bob Kleberg of King Ranch in Texas bought 50,000 acres of primary rainforest along the Tulley River in north Queensland (ironically not far from where Jack Mundey grew up) and worked out how to use 50 tonne bulldozers to fell giant rainforest trees for just $20 a cleared acre. A huge rolling steel ball with spikes is dragged between the dozers on a chain and when it hits a tree it climbs. As it mounts the tree, the dozers gain leverage and can knock down anything. By 1965, the 50,000 acres (about 20,000 hectares) was gone. By the early 1970s, I’ll wager some of that Tully beef ended up in BBQs and sandwiches at Green Ban picket lines in Sydney. Meanwhile the bulldozers where shipped to Venezuela and the now perfected methods were used there and later in Brazil in an attack on the planet’s rainforests that is on-going.

Such is the story of high profile environmentalism in Australia. The real fight to preserve biodiversity should have been fought in our supermarkets, but the big green organisations, the ones with a profile high enough to have a chance at effecting major consumer change, are too busy having BBQ fundraisers and fighting for can deposits and against plastic bags. But the deliberate focus on the trivial by many in the green movement is more generally symptomatic of what passes for ethical debate in Australia. This is particularly obvious when we consider the ethics of climate change.

Back in May, The Lancet published the results of a joint study with the University College London on the health impacts of climate change.

The study contains the following map (from a 2007 study) showing the causal responsibility of climate change compared with the likely adverse health impacts. The former were measured in giga-tonnes of carbon emitted between 1950 and 2000 while the latter were measured in mortality per million of population. The geographical area of each country in the map has been transformed so that relative areas correspond to relative causes or health impacts. The malnutrition component comes from an earlier World Health Organisation modelling study and is due to a projected increase in regional droughts.

Note that this is a per-capita measure of suffering, not an absolute measure. A map showing relative absolute suffering would make the ethical responsibility even more obvious but would possibly see some of countries which are major causes of climate change totally disappear in the map of adverse impacts.


The malnutrition impacts are considered to have already started. It is of course difficult to disentangle malnutrition due to climate change from malnutrition due to other causes but a June FAO press release shows we have climbed to over a billion undernourished people, having been hovering at about 800 million between 1990 and 2003 when the wheels started to fall off the global food machine. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is now reporting in its 2009 State of Food Insecurity report (SOFI) that the absolute number of malnourished people has been rising since the mid 1990s.

The Lancet isn’t on my list of regularly read journals, but I thought it a little wierd that I’d never heard of this report. So I did some googling to see who covered it at the time. Who did I find? The only sizable news sources which reported on the report were: Radio AustraliaThe ABC (online) and The Mercury. Unsurprisingly, I found no mentions in any of the major newspapers.

Taken at face value, the maps make the asymmetry of causes and impacts abundantly clear. We in the developed world are responsible for most of the pain and suffering that will be felt predominantly (but not exclusively) in the developing world.

Humans have an extraordinarily well developed sense of fairness and justice. But it isn’t just humans who have this. A sense of fairness extends, at least, to other primates. Capuchin monkeys will refuse to work for rewards where they can see other monkeys getting more rewards for the same work. Sound familiar?

The maps plus the monkey research make it entirely unsurprising that both the Chinese and the Indians are playing hard ball in the run up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Wondering why the report and the maps weren’t more widely reported in Australia, I formulated a quick hypothesis: Australians don’t care much for ethical issues. But then I thought more deeply and considered NSW’s MP John Della Bosca’s recent resignation and the blanket media coverage it received. So I modified my hypothesis. Australians treat ethics as a spectator sport, rather like football. Its great to watch a bit of biffo as long as you’re not on the receiving end of the real thing. This is supported by a few tables in How Australia Compares, a nice book of selected OECD data tables selected by Rodney Tiffen and Ross Gittins. In particular Australia is down at, or near, the bottom of the OECD countries in the income of its disabled people, the rate of children living in poverty in either single mother or two parent households, the level of unemployment benefits, and a host of other measures. This book came out in 2004 and most of the tables reflect data as of the year 2000, but I doubt much has changed. The generous country I thought I grew up in has either vanished … or perhaps it never existed.

But one aspect of the above maps worries me … the attribution of malnutrition to climate change.

Brazil doubled its cereal production between 1990 and 2003 with only a 35% rise in human population, it was awash with food. During the same period the proportion of Brazil’s cereal going to feed livestock went from 44% to 57%. Asia between 1990 and 2003 experienced a surge in livestock feeding between 1990 and 1995 going from 15% of cereals to 19%. The lower rate probably reflects the Asian preference for chicken and pork over beef. In any event, this fraction persisted until at least 2003. Indonesia and China dominate the Asian picture and both had a surge in corn production during the early 1990s, with the only beneficiaries being livestock. Total Asian cereal production, imports and and livestock feed ratios moved little between 1995 and 2003, despite a rising population. But the rising use of food for feed elsewhere in the world meant reductions in food available (and possibly affordable) to meet the short fall. The result was that undernourishment increased in Asia … exactly as the UN SOFI report finds.

Australia’s grain production goes up and down like a yo-yo so its difficult to discuss food/feed ratios on a yearly basis. But the amount of grain used as feed in 1990 was about 4 million tonnes, in 1995 it was 6 million, by 2003 it was 7.6 million and by 2006/7 it had surged to 12 million. So all up, Australians eat about 2 million tonnes, feed an increasing amount to livestock which leaves a steadily shrinking volume available for export.

The spread of western meat based diets globally has been accompanied by a spread of factory farming, obesity and chronic disease together with a change in the world’s livestock distribution. Factory farming now produces the bulk of the world’s 98 million tonnes of pigmeat and factory farms are high capital operations which demand, and can pay for, a consistent feed supply chain. They can outbid the world’s poor and turn food into feed and food producers into feed producers in exactly the same way that coffee drinkers turn food growers into coffee growers. While it is perfectly reasonable for any country to have a mix of food and cash crops, its the balance that matters.

Between 1984 and 2004 the world’s cattle population fell by 25% in the developed world but increased by a similar proportion in the developing world. This means that of the world’s 1.33 billion cattle, over a billion are in the developing world. Brazil has 190 million, Sudan and Colombia have 41 and 26 million cattle respectively and all three get a mention in the SOFI report with Brazil still having 12% undernourishment in 2004-6 despite a veritable glut of food production capacity.

Globally, this conversion of food to feed to drive increasing meat consumption accounts for the increase in undernourishment without requiring much, if any, input from climate change. As the better off eat more meat, they create a livestock industry which can outbid the poor for food.

But in Australia, our red necked BBQ culture reigns supreme. It’s impacts are felt in poor countries who can no longer buy as much of our grain because is has been siphoned off to feed livestock. Our culture is felt also in rich countries who buy our beef and get bowel cancer and heart disease as a result. We will continue to focus our ethical might on the sexual peccadillos of our politicians and our environmental muscle on plastic bags.

October 14, 2008

The global food system and climate change – Part I

Filed under: Livestock's long shadow — Barry Brook @ 10:53 am

Guest Post by Geoff Russell.

Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA.


Late in 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation published one of those huge thick reports that gets a one column story in quite a few newspapers and then vanishes from sight. It is Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS).

The report is a compendium of data and analysis on the impacts of the livestock industry on the earth’s eco-systems. There are major chapters on land degradation, air pollution, water pollution, biodiversity, with concluding chapters on policy options for reform and expansion.

This is the first of a few posts which will review major parts of the report. I’m not aiming at an comprehensive review, but rather at presenting key pieces with other relevant information which should allow people to appreciate the linkages between the global systems of food, feed, livestock and their impact on climate change. Remember always that food is what people eat, and feed is what livestock eats. We will begin by looking at the first two LLS chapters which provide structural background for the remainder of the report.

Keep in mind that LLS is written by people advocating an expansion of the livestock industry while I advocate a reduction. Hence my choice of the term factory farm instead of the more euphemistic intensive/landless used in LLS.

Let’s start with a couple of tables which serve to give an overview of the structure of the global livestock system. These tables will also show that the Australian livestock industry is somewhat unusual.

Global Livestock Output

The first table is a who’s who of agricultural commodities. Most of us live in a single dwelling and buy major items of metal, wood or plastic infrequently, but we all eat everyday and the global ebb and flow of food largely determines our appropriation of the planet’s resources. Forestry, for example, causes just 3% of Amazon deforestation. In Australia, we have cleared 100 million hectares since white arrival, but forestry operates in just 13.3 million hectares, most of which are not cleared. We crop just 24 million hectares and urban areas occupy just 1.6 million. Here as elsewhere livestock is the primary driver of land clearing and biodiversity loss.

Meat Production Millions of Tonnes

Production System




Factory Farm










































Food and Feed Production Millions of Tonnes









Fish, Seafood




Palm/Soybean Oil


The data I’ve assembled in this table is an amalgam of parts of LLS Table 2.9 with a little data from the FAO and the US Department of Agriculture on plant food and seafood. The palm oil/soy oil figure of 70 megatonnes comes from USDA. It is faily evenly split between the two oils. The fish-meal figure is from LLS but was checked against with the International Fishmeal and Fishoil association. They give a similar figure and the implication is that global fish-meal, created annually from 30-35 million tonnes of fish, is entirely consumed by livestock (including aquaculture). LLS explains that as aquaculture expands it requires fish-meal, because the fish of choice, like tuna and salmon are carnivorous and require fish in their diet. Despite what you may have heard, people don’t need to eat sea food of any kind. As aquaculture diverts fish-meal from livestock feed, this leaves a hole filled increasingly by soy.

The top section of the table is meat production, the bottom is the major components global plant production, which is a combination of food and feed. We will see later just how much of this production is appropriated for feed.

This is a complex and dense table and we will spend a little time highlighting things that an Australian might find surprising. It is customary to quote meat figures as carcase weights. But you only eat 60-75% of the carcase, so the edible meat will be somewhat lower than this table indicates.

There are 4 kinds of production systems. The two in the middle are mixed systems. These are farms which grow some or all livestock feed for the animals they produce. This implies that some or all of the farm is suitable for crops — arable. A factory farm gets all its feed from somewhere else. So a factory farm competes with humans for the plant food products at the bottom of the table. Absent from the bottom of the table are fodder crops. These are important in many livestock systems. Australia, for example, has an area of irrigated hay and silage production about 50% bigger than our entire irrigated fruit growing areas. In 2005/6 we applied 770 giga litres of irrigation water to this area, which is about 100 giga litres more than we applied to fruit trees. Global fodder figures are missing from LLS but we will revisit the issue when we deal with Chapter 4 of LLS and water issues.

In Australia about 2/3 of beef and half of our dairy products are exported. Ignoring that, beef and chicken consumption are similar with pork being about half the size. Globally on the other hand, pigs dominate the meat industry and chicken production is bigger than beef. In Australia, almost all pig and chicken meat is produced in factory farms.

So the Australian meat production profile, with its beef dominance, is rather different from the global average. But since chicken and pig meat outsells beef locally, over half the meat consumed in Australia is produced in factory farms. Globally, factory farmed meat is just under half of all meat.

The total global production of 241.5 million tonnes sounds like a lot of food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation also keeps accurate data on plant food production and contains what are called Food Balance Sheets on its statistical website. If you take the production figure, add the imports, subtract the exports and animal feed, you get the amount of each food left for people to eat. Divide this amount by the population and you get the calories per person per day.

All up, animal food, which also includes fish, milk and cheese, provides 17% of the daily average of 2808 calories. If you think that protein would be a more flattering measure of the value of animal production then you would be right. But until very recently in human history, a diet with adequate calories provided adequate protein. These days, a diet of coke and fries can simultaneously make you obese and protein deficient. For more background on protein see the section below.

Global Inputs

The LLS map on the left shows the distribution of livestock production systems which provide this 17% of global calories. Livestock graze 26% of the ice free surface of the planet, about 3.4 billion hectares (about 4.4 times the area of Australia). But we can see from the above table that this vast amount of grazing land produces a fairly small proportion of global meat. A grass fed cattle carcase in Australia or from the Brazilian Amazon comes in at 200-250~kg. But a grain fed feedlot animal produces a 350~kg carcase.

In addition to pasture, livestock consumes the output of 471 million hectares of the crop land. This is about one third of all current crop land shown on the left.

All up then, animal foods use 471 million hectares of crops + 3,400 million hectares of grazing + the entire and declining output of both fresh water and ocean fisheries but provide just 17% of global calories. Plant foods provide 83% of global calories from 940 million hectares of crops. Based on current cropping outputs, if people switched to totally plant based diets, we could return the full grazing area of 3,400 million hectares to other species, together with a significant proportion of the 471 million feed hectares. At the other extreme, if the entire 6.7 billion of the world’s population ate like the richest 1.4 billion, then massive increases in both grazing and cropping areas will be required.

Food becomes feed

Feed use in 2002 (million tonnes)

Developing Developed
Commodity countries countries Total





















Fish meal










Now we are ready to look in a little more detail at the global feed consumption of livestock. So here it is, together with an added row giving the total biofuel use of grains in 2007. As you can see, the biofuel contribution to the current global food crisis is pretty much a straw on the back of a camel laid low by the burden of global meat production.

The oilcakes row is interesting. Oilcakes are a byproduct of making oil from soybeans, peanuts or various other oil yielding plants. Oilcake is typically very high in protein and minerals. Overall, LLS estimates that 77 million tonnes of protein is fed to animals in food suitable for humans for an output of 58 million tonnes.

Australian Grain Feeding

2005/6 million tonnes

Feedlot Cattle










Grazing Sheep/Cattle




Source: ABARE Feedgrains report 2007

Of course, when the global food crisis hit in early 2008, even Oxfam jumped on the blame-biofuel bandwagon while ignoring the industry which supplies the beloved Aussie BBQ. How much food do we use as feed in Australia? Here are stats from 2005/6. In the following year, 2006/7, because of ongoing drought in Australia, we imported about 2 million tonnes of feed grains. So, in a very real sense we helped to exacerbate the global food crisis in two ways. First with the import of grains, and second by the normal use of about 11 million tonnes annually to feed cattle, pigs and chickens.

Deforestation and land degradation

This map shows the global area regarded as either vulnerable (yellow) or critically affected (red) by livestock.

Unsurprisingly, LLS cites land use change as the leading cause of global biodiversity loss. Clear a forest for soybeans or cattle and the plants and animals of that forest will die. But of course, we reasonably put out own own need to eat above that of wildlife, but we can choose to minimise the damage. Or not.

LLS describes the mechanisms whereby livestock damage land. On rangelands, we have the holy trinity of extensive livestock production with which any visitor to the Australian outback who knew what to look for would be familiar: desertification, increased woody plants, and deforestation. Queensland’s destruction of Brigalow forests during the 1990s was particularly savage. On a per-capita per-hectare basis, this deforestation surpasses anything in Brazil or Indonesia – the two acknowledged superpowers in the deforestation race.

Factory farms produce different environmental problems. Any damage done during cropping for feed production should be attributed to them and not to plant food production. Water pollution can cause eutrophication, ground water contamination, red tides, blue-green algae and dead zones. Such events can have non-livestock causes, but modern livestock numbers can easily impose intolerable loads on natural systems.

In the US, there is often better data available than elsewhere and LLS presents a figure of 55% as the amount of erosion on both crop land and pasture which is due to livestock either directly or via feed production. This erosion and loss of topsoil has the potential to cause a crisis in global food production that will make this year’s crisis seem insignificant.

Typically, the manner of deforestation is more complete for crops than than cattle. So the obvious question is whether it preferable to clear a small area completely or to clear a much larger area, but less intensively, for grazing?

Forest and Soil Carbon Distribution (tonnes/ha)
Above ground Below ground
Wet Tropical Forest






This table isn’t from LLS, but from a key study into grazing systems relied upon by LLS (Asner et al, “Grazing Systems, ecosystem responses and Global Change”). It shows figures for above and below ground carbon for a tropical forest and grassland. Clearly, a grassland is a poor substitute for a tropical forest as a carbon store. In between grasslands and wet tropical forests are all manner of woodlands with values anywhere between these extremes. When a tropical forest is cleared, it isn’t only the above ground carbon which is lost, much of that below ground may be lost over coming years. Cattle grazing tropical soils compress the ground as elsewhere, but the result can end up with decomposition becoming anaerobic and the soil can become a methane source. More on this later in this series.

The basic transformation of livestock production during the past 50 years has been driven by the simple fact that grasslands which are both available and suitable for grazing are already used. They are not only used, they are frequently degraded. In Australia, we don’t need global studies like LLS to tell us about either deforestation or degradation. We are world leaders in both.

This map shows areas which are both highly suitable and available for grazing. I’ve shrunk the map, but the green areas are forest areas, the yellow are crop areas and the red are urban areas which are currently on land suitable for grazing.

As a result, increases in meat production that have been achieved during the past half century have been due to intensification or deforestation.

Jared Diamond estimated back in the late 1990s in “Guns, Germs and Steel” that gatherer/hunters need 10 to 100 times more land than farmers. Similarly, extensive livestock need more land than intensive livestock, for similar reasons. Most native grasses are, or have been thought to be, less than optimal for maximising livestock growth, so if you want maximum growth, grow the feed elsewhere (or locally) using intensive methods with plenty of water if possible, and fertiliser. Alternatively sow your pasture with grasses selected for maximum productivity and add fertiliser. Australia spent 70 years introducing 5000 species of grasses and legumes in an attempt to improve on native grasses for livestock growth. Fertilisation of non-irrigated pasture is common. In 2005, for example, non-irrigated pasture uses 39% of total nitrogenous fertiliser in New South Wales, 35% in the Northern Territory, 60% in South Australia and 44% in Victoria.

Apart from intensification, the second key to the increase in meat production over the past 50 years has been increased is by shifting from biologically inefficient feed converters, large ruminants, to efficient feed converters, pigs and chickens. The third key to increased production has been a spatial shift. Cattle grazed on rangelands have to be moved to where the consumer lives, typically nowhere near the rangelands. Pigs and chickens are kept in huge sheds fairly close to cities. It is far more efficient to ship feed to factory farms than to ship live animals to abattoirs.

In the next post, I’ll get down to the detail of climate change impacts of the food system in general and livestock in particular.

Nutritional Appendix

We showed earlier that feeding the global population with plant food would release huge amounts of grazing land for other species and even some cropping land. This is an extreme in the spectrum of possible change and has a low social feasibility. But this post is only concerned with scientific feasibility. To show that this is scientifically feasible, we need to show that, contrary to popular belief, animal protein has no practical advantages over the plant proteins found in standard plant staples like, for example, wheat, beans or rice.

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’s 2006 Nutrient Reference Values of Australia and New Zealand lists protein requirements without distinguishing plant and animal protein requirements. This is because there are no relevant differences between plant and animal protein where food intake is adequate. And when food intake isn’t adequate? What then? The weapon of choice at present in saving malnourished children is a product called Plumpy’Nut. It is basically a fortified peanut butter. Compared with traditional fortified milk based products, the peanut based formula works better (restores growth and health faster), is less prone to infection with pathogenic bacteria, is cheaper and doesn’t look like milk. The latter is an advantage because health workers have a hard time persuading mothers to breast feed when the treatment for malnutrition looks like milk (Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78:302-7).

It is worth quoting one last statment on the adequacy of plant based diets from the Professor of Nutrition at New York University, Marion Nestle, who happens not to be a vegetarian, who states in her recent book What to Eat: “The meat industry’s big public relations problem is that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat eaters.”

This of course is a statistical statement. Vegans and vegetarians consuming frequent meals of coke and fries will get sick just like anybody else eating too much of these foods.

So how much protein does animal food currently provide? All up, despite using 33% of arable land plus a massive grazing area, animal food production only supplies 38% of the daily average of 76 grams of protein for each person on the planet. This is likely to be an overestimate because of the use of carcase figures in the data. However animal food distribution is not uniform and makes up far more of the diet of the 1.4 billion people in the developed world with animal protein being about 50% of all protein. Animal protein is about 30% of protein in the other 5.3 billion people on the planet.

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