Why Cows Are Sacred In Australia Too


Few Australians would link images of our hardworking, independent farmers with greenhouse gas pollution — certainly not in the way that we do with sooty coal miners and smoke billowing from generators. The battling farmer has a proud place in Australian folklore — surely the men and women putting food on our table should be spared further pain from an emissions trading scheme.

Without a thought for our cultural iconography, Lord Nicolas Stern’s latest climate change SOS called on humans everywhere to cut back on the steak. He even suggested that in the future, the public attitudes toward carnivores could be comparable to our current disapproval of drink drivers. Meanwhile, in the US, Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent witty critique of the food industry and our eating habits, Eating Animals, has the burger kings in damage control.

This line of argument is not a re-run of old-school environmentalism’s pro-veg, anti-meat campaign. Eschewing its radical beginnings, modern environmentalism has targeted the mainstream for a long time now.

Agriculture is about food, and food, for the developed world at least, is about choice. Many of us don’t really care what powers our TV or fuels our car, but nobody had better dictate what we put on our plates. That’s what makes the agricultural aspect of climate change policy dangerous political territory. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change almost apologised when it begged, "Please eat less meat — meat is a very carbon intensive commodity. This is something that the IPCC was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it."

The Panel knows we’re very attached to our meat. We slaughter well over eight million of our 28 million beef cattle every year in Australia. This fills the average Aussie belly with its annual 35 kilos of beef and leaves more than half for export. Each kilogram requires 50,000 litres of water to produce, compared to 3500 for a kilo of chicken and 2000 for a kilo of rice. And along with all that water, that same kilo of beef consumed a substantial amount of grain, which itself required a variety of production inputs.

Then there’s the demand on the land — according to the Cattle Council of Australia, beef production covers 48 per cent of Australia’s land mass.

When it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, beef is agriculture’s brown coal. Of agriculture’s 15 per cent contribution to GHG, 70 per cent is from methane with most of that coming from cattle as they belch the gasses produced by their digestive processes. The industry in Australia reckons it’s doing its level best, but according to Government calculations has still only managed to reduce its emissions by 10 per cent since 1990, largely through gene technology and improved feed and practice.

As if it wasn’t alarming enough, the journal Science has just published a NASA study saying methane has 33 times the warming effect as carbon, up by a third from the previously accepted measurements. The IPCC will now have to recalibrate its projection of the impact of agriculturally produced emissions, as will the Labor Government’s own calculations if they want them to be up-to-date.

NASA bases the new figure on a more accurate understanding of how methane interacts with other gasses in the atmosphere. All GHG has the effect of cancelling out the oxidants that form sulphate aerosols. Less oxidants means less sulphate — the aerosol that reflects heat and so keeps the atmosphere cool.

That’s the story on methane (as far as we know), but there are plenty more ways that agriculture is adding to the problem. For example, nitrous oxide, which is emitted through the breakdown of fertiliser, accounts for around 3 per cent of our emissions. It’s even more dangerous than methane: its Global Warming Potential (GWP) is calculated at 296 times that of an equal mass of carbon dioxide.

You can just imagine how all this information must be spurring Environment Minister Penny Wong into action.

So why is everyone saying Wong will cave in to the Coalition who are presenting amendments to the the Government’s ETS legislation which insist that agriculture be excluded from it? Because it’s politically expedient, that’s why. Exclude agriculture and everyone’s happy — the farmers don’t have to change, the Coalition can claim their amendment, the ALP have compromised, and the price of steak stays the same.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the ETS was ever really about reducing emissions. Which is precisely why the CSIRO’s Dr Clive Spash, an ecological economist, felt the need to speak up. He’s produced a study on Labor’s climate policy in which he says that it "appears to be ineffective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions." But according to the ABC yesterday, Dr Spash has been told not to publish it. CSIRO scientists can comment on science but not policy, and they’re still trying to draw the line on this one.

The only ALP voice raised against conceding to the Coalition amendment belongs to Assistant Climate Change Minister Greg Combet. He warns that emissions cuts would have to come from elsewhere if agriculture was left out of the ETS. As you would expect, the Farmers Federation believes its industry can reduce emissions outside an ETS.

As it stands now, the Government’s ETS isn’t exactly tough on agriculture. Under it, nothing would change until 2015, and the industry has until 2013 to come up with a plan for establishing the level of coverage imposed on agriculture’s emissions. And with the US and EU both exempting agriculture from their greenhouse gas reduction strategies, it’s hard to imagine Australia leading the way.

But meanwhile, is reducing our meat consumption the only way, or is the way we produce meat the real problem? Well, there are plenty of examples of small-scale meat production proving meat can be sustainable, but they remain a tiny percentage of total meat production. And the UN is certainly not basing its prediction that meat production will double by 2050 on such down-home enterprises.

Neither Stern nor the IPCC — not even Safran-Foer — think we should stop eating meat altogether. All, however, question the accepted wisdom that it’s our birthright to chow down on meat every day of our lives. Everyone agrees that fuel should be cleaner, that we should use less power. So why is it so hard — even offensive — for most of us carnivores to have a few meat-free days a week? Even just one?

The horse-trading and scare-mongering that make up most of the "debate" involved in the attempt to get the ETS through Parliament makes it easy to forget that an ETS is meant to actually reduce our emissions. When the Greens recently put forward amendments that would do just that, they were politely ignored by the Government, dismissed by the Liberals, and ridiculed by the Nats, all deeply and seriously engaged with rearranging their deck-chairs.

As with all the climate issues, we’re presented with the challenge of change. Almost everyone wants to combat global warming but few to change their way of life. It’s as if there is a god after all, and one that’s finally found an issue to reveal all our base selfishness as well as the inevitably partisan character of our political systems. With leadership like Kevin Rudd’s, it’s not like anyone’s job security is about to be called into question. None of us is about to be asked, much less told, to change. Like most of the great plans the ALP laid out before the election, actually reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere is shaping up as a second term issue.

What’s Mandarin for mañana, mañana?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.