The environmental cost of meat

This is the remainder – and perhaps the more important part – of the article by Diane Alford which I quoted from in my previous post. (Please return to that post for a description of ‘Rainsby’ and her family’s life there if you haven’t already seen it.) I have added a couple of links and some more of the photos I took during our visit but the words are hers.

“Shun meat,” says UN climate chief. The article by BBC Environmental reporter Richard Black raises my hackles while sending a chill of despair through my body. I read further, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming, says the UN’s top climate scientist.” I trawl through the article then, in frustration, pound the keyboard.

Obviously a redneck climate-change sceptic, you think. Well actually, no – at least, I like to think not. Simply a grazier, and one who’s battling to survive in an environmentally sustainable and responsible way at a time when primary production seems to be a dirty word. So … welcome to my world.

Rainsby house and garden
Rainsby house and garden

With my husband Bill, I live and work on Rainsby, a 23 000 hectare beef cattle property in central western Queensland. Rainsby is managed and worked mostly by Bill. He is hard working, determined and persistent. The hours are long and mostly he works alone. In mustering times we employ two men for a month, three times a year. We muster on horseback.

When we purchased Rainsby it was previously droughted and had areas devoid of grass. Fortunately seasons improved, and with Bill’s hard work we now operate a rotatational grazing system, monitoring grass usage and leaving a lot of our country unstocked during the wet season to maximise pasture growth. We neither clear country, fertilise, grow crops for fodder nor dam watercourses.

Cattle in grassland
Rainsby cattle with Black Gidgee in the background

Our cattle are fattened on native pastures alone. We restrict the number we carry – about one beast to 16 hectares (40 acres), maintaining grass cover by stocking at 70% of the recommended rate. Our aim is to pass on our pastures in better condition than when we bought them and, seasons allowing, we believe we will. We have photo monitoring sites that prove the increase in pasture cover and species diversity. Land care is integral to our livelihood. We belong to a local Landcare group, and attend Grazing Land Management Field Days. We believe we are prudent and responsible custodians – in spite of the fact that every media release paints our industry as the very opposite.

Our profit margins are small and in decline – as is our morale, since we are continually painted as environmental vandals.

Concerned citizens are urged to eat less meat and reduce emissions by stopping the clearing of rainforests (which we do not have), and to save the emissions caused in growing, fertilising and harvesting crops to fatten stock (which we do not do). Almost every mainstream media article mentioning the carbon cost of ‘meat production’ does so on the basis of the typical US and European production methods – grain-fed beef on feedlots, factory farming in fact – which are far different from our own rangeland grazing..

If you read far enough into the studies (which no-one does) you find that “Over two-thirds of the energy is spent on producing and moving cattle feed,” which we do not do, and “a Swedish study conducted in 2003 claimed that raising organic beef on grass rather than feed,” as we do, “reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and consumed 85% less energy.”

Furthermore, studies (and headlines) often assume that the land used to feed animals could be used to grow grain instead and feed people directly, producing two to ten times as many calories of food per hectare. That is not true here, either. Right across Western Queensland and the Top End, the soil is too poor and fragile and the rainfall too low and unreliable for any use except grazing. We are, in fact, using the land as productively as possible. And at the same time we are maintaining it far closer to its original condition than agriculture could possibly do.

Yes, our cattle do emit methane, but the science is still incomplete as to how much carbon uptake there is in open rangeland grazing. On Rainsby alone, with 16 hectares of grass and many hundred trees to each beast, it would be fair to assume that there would be at least some uptake. (Why is it that tree planting, elsewhere, is seen as an acceptable form of carbon abatement but existing trees are not considered when calculating carbon emissions from grazing land?)

If grazing is eventually included in Australia’s carbon tax, without allowance for any uptake of carbon, it will be the death of family-owned grazing enterprises, as we couldn’t support the extra taxation burden and have no way of passing on the costs.

Should our grazing industry become totally unviable and people still want to eat beef, it will be up to the overseas investors and the large companies to continue the buy-up of grazing land or to import meat. But I guess the food miles of imported meat will be seen as okay, since only the emissions from fossil fuels used in transportation will be counted on Australia’s ledger, and a whole lot of production practices which the majority of Australian graziers do not incorporate, will be assumed to have been removed. Farcical, I know – but not too far from the truth.

Please think about grass-fed beef more carefully, because there are not the inputs you may have assumed.

Yellow acacia flowers
Black Gidgee in flower

The issue which justifiably concerns Diane is not an easy one to clarify to the general public because, unfortunately, most beef (globally) is indeed produced in environmentally expensive ways. That means any study or article which takes a global perspective (here is another recent one) is reasonably justified in ignoring situations where beef production is actually environmentally cheap and, as Diane says, the most productive use of the land; but ignoring the good producers slams the door not only on the producers but on a more nuanced approach to something we desperately need to do: making the most sensitive possible use of all parts of our environment.

A carbon tax at last

A message from GetUp! which I am happy to support and pass on:

Today we woke up knowing that the global conversation on climate change has changed. Yesterday’s passage of the Clean Energy Act into law means we’ve finally taken action to secure our clean energy future. To mark the occasion, Al Gore passed on these kind words:

“This is a historic moment. Australia’s Parliament has put the nation’s first carbon price into law. With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis. This success is the result of the tireless work of an unprecedented coalition that came together to support the legislation, the leadership of Prime Minister Gillard, and the courage of legislators to take a vote that helps to safeguard the future of all Australians.

I have spent enough time in Australia to know that their spirit of independence as a people cannot be underestimated. As the world’s leading coal exporter, there’s no doubt that opposition to this legislation was fierce. But through determination and commitment, the voice of the people of Australia has rung out loud and clear.

Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we do everything we can to ensure that this legislation is successful.”

– Al Gore, November 2011

Click here to watch a video that tells the story of how we arrived at this day.

Yesterday’s success is yet more evidence of the fact that coordinated community action has the power to lead our Parliamentarians toward just, environmentally sustainable outcomes. But a wider community movement will be needed to protect these laws and grow further investments in clean energy.

As GetUp! and Al Gore say, there is more to be done – firstly to ensure this step is not allowed to slip away and secondly to build on it – but it’s nice to have got this far at last.