Juan Carlos desposta, in the Refrigerator of José Brizuela.  Photo: Orlando Pelichotti / The Andes

The headline “beef is bad for the environment” has come back loud in recent months, with the media and governments making big claims about the industry’s footprint.

New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland have legislated agricultural emissions in recent months: A reduction in the number of cattle heads could be at stake in all three countries. Many media articles also seem to be supporting a reduction in livestock, with “beef is bad” messages seeming to be accepted as fact.

A recent article in The Guardian claimed that avoiding meat and dairy was the most important way for readers to reduce their environmental impact, while another in The Washington Post said that beef was among the world’s biggest emitters.

“If cattle were a country, it would be the third largest emitter, behind only China and the United States,” the Washington Post article said, citing the World Resources Institute as its source.

The story advocated that consumers cut their beef consumption in half and replace it with pork.

Juan Carlos desposta, in the Refrigerator of José Brizuela. Photo: Orlando Pelichotti / The Andes (Orlando Pelichotti/)

But the comparison with the emissions of The US and China leave out some significant details about how livestock emissions work. Many scientists, including the University of Oxford professor Myles Allen and University of California Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, have long argued that it is unfair to put methane emissions from ruminant livestock on the same playing field as emissions from fossil fuels.

In a nutshell, both scientists point out that the ability of livestock methane to break down in the atmosphere and be captured by trees and soil on the land it grazes on means it needs to be accounted for differently than fossil fuel emissions.

Professor Allen recently told an Irish government inquiry that the focus has shifted away from contributions to warming.

“We are burdened with the misperception of the conflict due to the incorrect way we measure the impact of agriculture on the climate,” he said.

“This is a problem we don’t need to have and if we were to measure the impact of agriculture on global temperature rather than carbon footprint, I think the results would reassure farmers.”

TRIPLE IMPACT.  With a strategy that aims fundamentally at pasture production, the management

TRIPLE IMPACT. With a strategy that aims fundamentally at pasture production, “holistic” management provides environmental, social and economic sustainability. (Courtesy Ovis 21)

It must be said that the Washington Post admitted that the beef industry had its positive aspects.

“(Livestock) can turn grass into high-quality human food; they are often the best way to get food from land not suitable for cultivation; when their grazing is well managed, they can improve soil health and even sequester some carbon,” he said.

“But they can’t sequester enough carbon to offset what their digestive systems emit and the greenhouse gas cost of deforestation which is primarily driven by rising demand for beef.”

These claims are disputed by the industry. Meat & Livestock Australia says the industry will not need a reduction in numbers to reach the 2030 carbon neutral target, and Professor Mitloehner has said several times that emissions from livestock can be reduced without reducing livestock.

Livestock

Livestock

A conference in Brisbane recently heard that a property in central Queensland is sequestering 50kg of carbon per 1kg of beef, with methane emissions factored into the calculation. More details are awaited on that project, which is currently under review by the independent regulator.

The beef industry has openly acknowledged that there are concerns around emissions from livestock, and all sources cited in this article have said that emissions are an issue that must and can be addressed.

Despite genuine work underway to reduce its footprint, some outlets show little interest in pursuing the full story and find it easy to simply accept the “beef is bad for the environment” message without challenge or fact-checking. .

Putting livestock methane into rational perspective is a bit more difficult, but engaging more with the scientific community will lead to a better outcome for everyone.

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