The promise to beef-up Australian cattle exports comes with significant environmental risks, writes Paul Mahony.
It was ironic that an image of a cattle farmer’s empty dam was used in the print edition of The Age to demonstrate the scourge of drought in western Victoria. Beef production is a major contributor to climate change, though the article did not mention that fact.
The impact of beef and other livestock products is under-stated in most official figures, because relevant data are either: omitted entirely; classified under non-livestock headings; or included on the basis of conservative calculations. The link between livestock production and climate change involves many inter-related factors. Its inherent inefficiency as a food source, the massive scale of the industry, associated land clearing, all play a role.
On the same day, The Age reported that the China-Australia free trade agreement would come into force after the Labor agreed to the deal.
However, all parties, including the Greens, are silent on the environmental impacts arising from projected increases in livestock exports. That should be no surprise, as they barely mention livestock’s environmental impacts at other times either.
While the red meat sector salivates at the thought of increased sales, Chinese consumers (like their Australian counterparts) will pay a fraction of the true cost. That’s because the environmental costs will remain externalities, to be carried by all Australians.
As one example, the industry’s own research conservatively indicates that in Queensland between 1981 and 2010, 80,000 square kilometres of land were cleared for beef production alone. The extent of such clearing is equivalent to a 10 kilometre wide tract of land extending 3.3 times between Melbourne and Cairns. Clearing never completely ceased after a so-called ban was introduced at the end of 2006. The “ban” was lifted in 2013, and the extent of clearing tripled between 2009/10 and 2013/14.
A recent peer-reviewed paper argues that animal agriculture is responsible for fifty per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The authors included short-lived greenhouse gases, and applied a twenty-year “global warming potential” to all gases. They also allowed for factors such as livestock-related land clearing, savanna burning, and loss of soil carbon.
With opposition trade spokesperson Penny Wong leading the free trade negotiations for Labor, it’s no surprise that environmental issues, including those related to livestock, carried little weight. Even when Minister for Climate Change in the previous Labor government led by Kevin Rudd, she demonstrated little understanding of the issue. In September 2008 climate change authors David Spratt and Damien Lawson reported:
“In a mid-year meeting with a number of environment organisations, she was asked whether recent developments in climate science since the last IPCC report (such as the rapid loss of the Arctic sea-ice) meant the government needed to rethink its approach. Her answer was that she did not understand the question.”
In environmental terms, the prospect of increasing exports to China is frightening. If we want a safe climate, we need to accept that the “great Aussie barbecue” (along with versions of it that we help introduce elsewhere) is a curse.
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