Dietary Guidelines Committee ignores climate change

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. His previous article on BNC was: Feeding the billions on a hotter planet (Part III).

He also wrote a brilliant recent piece for The PunchFukushima was no disaster, no matter how you spin it

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IPCC calls to reduce meat consumption

Back in 2008, head of the IPCC Rajendra Pachauri told the world to eat less meat because of its large greenhouse footprint.

At about the same time the National Health and Medical Research Council appointed a committee to update Australia’s Dietary Guidelines … last issued in 2003. The preface from the 2003 document is clear:

“The Australian Food and Nutrition Policy is based on the principles of good nutrition, ecological sustainability and equity. This third edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults is consistent with these principles. The food system must be economically viable and the quality and integrity of the environment must be maintained. In this context, among the important considerations are conservation of scarce resources such as topsoil, water and fossil fuel energy and problems such as salinity.”

The Terms of Reference give no instructions about what the committee should do other than to update the documents with the best available science. Environmental issues were clearly worthy of lip-service in 2003, if nothing else. Any reasonable update to the 2003 document should see those issues front and center.

Our impacts on the climate will flow on into most other environmental issues, whether we are concerned with other species, or more narrowly focused on the habitability of the planet for our own. If food choices have a significant impact on climate forcings, then documenting and explaining the extent of those impacts to the public should have been front and centre in the workings of this committee. In addition to the head of the IPCC, no lesser scientific authority than NASA climate scientist James Hansen said in 2009:

If you eat further down on the food chain rather than animals, which have produced many greenhouse gases, and used much energy in the process of growing that meat, you can actually make a bigger contribution in that way than just about anything. So that, in terms of individual action, is perhaps the best thing you can do.

He made an equivalent statement to me in 2008 and advised that he was changing his own diet and was “80-90% vegetarian“.

We shall see later that Hansen’s claim is easily supported.

Speaking in Australia, Pachauri reiterated his call on meat and added:

“This is something that the IPCC was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it.”

The head of an international organisation of scientific experts afraid of speaking the truth? Why? With the recent launch of Australia’s Draft Dietary Guidelines we can see that Australian scientists have avoided this simple truth. Are they similarly afraid, or stunningly ignorant? What ever the reason, the failure to give rational advice about the greenhouse and general environmental footprint of dietary choices requires an investigation at the highest level … a Royal Commission.

Draft guidelines released

The Dietary Guidelines committee finally published its draft document for public comment just before Christmas and the period for comment closed at the end of February.

I wrote a submission for Animal Liberation in South Australia. Many other organisations and people will also have responded.

Section 1.6 … brief and false

The only section of the draft document which even mentions environmental issues is Section 1.6 which is just over a page long and titled: 1.6 Dietary choices and the environment. This section makes the astonishing claim:

“Preliminary work indicates that dietary patterns consistent with the Dietary Guidelines are likely to have a lower environmental impact than other dietary patterns. Available Australian and international evidence is insufficient to be able to provide advice on the environmental impact of specific food items or brands, … “

Both sentences make claims that are easily shown to be false. If the “preliminary work” actually exists, then it must be seriously flawed. If the committee hasn’t actually done any work, then the claim that they have is very disturbing.

Land use, habitat destruction, deforestation

The basic scientific principle of trophic levels makes it clear, as Hansen said, that the lower a person eats on the food chain, the less resources are required. This theory predicts that eating grain directly requires less grain than if you first feed it to animals and then eat the animals. That the theory holds in the real world is easily seen using readily available UN FAO and ABARE data. Australians consume about 1.8 million tonnes of grains annually which provide 718 Calories per person per day. They also consume 1.3 million tonnes of chicken and pig meat which only provide 270 Calories per person per day. Raising those pigs and chickens requires about 4 million tonnes of grain. Environmentally, the principle is sound. Can we construct healthy diets by adding 270 Calories from extra plant sources and leave out the chicken and pig meat? Of course. For example, Italy in the 1960s and 1970s consumed double the cereal intake of Australia currently.

These considerations make it clear that people eating vegan diets have a lower environmental impact than anybody eating a meat based diet, including those consistent with the Dietary Guidelines. The argument is easily extended to show that vegan diets have a still lower environmental impact than even vegetarian diets … because Australian dairy cattle consume about 2.7 million tonnes of grain annually.

So both sentences we have cited from Section 1.6 are false.

But we can go further. It’s pretty straight forward to show that of all the meat and dairy based diets, the most environmentally damaging diets, for a given daily intake of meat, will be those following the advice of the Dietary Guidelines. Why? Because the Dietary Guidelines specify lean meat and “mostly” low fat dairy.

Huh? Why? Because you eat less of the animal when the meat is lean. In the case of milk, full fat milk has about double the energy of skimmed milk so, less fat means more waste. In one US study, it took 70 percent more land to raise the extra animals to produce lean cuts of beef than non-lean cuts. All up, there was a 5-fold difference in the land required for zero-meat diets compared to those with high levels of lean meat, such as the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet … a leading contender for the title of “Most environmentally destructive diet on the planet”.

That any professional on an NHMRC committee doesn’t understand such things is astonishing. But it gets worse.

Climate forcings, methane and land use

A “forcing” in the context of climate science is anything which changes the balance between energy arriving and leaving the planet. The global area of ice has a huge forcing because of its reflective properties. Likewise, the type and extent of dust in the atmosphere for the same reason. Livestock change climate forcings directly by effectively taking a carbon atom from carbon dioxide (CO2) and turning it into methane (CH4). A carbon atom as CH4 traps about 25 times more heat than when it is in CO2. In effect, livestock turn single bar radiators into 25 bar radiators. Natural processes will eventually transform the CH4 back into CO2, with about 80% being turned back into CO2 after 20 years. Livestock methane production is measured in tonnes and a tonne of CH4 has far more atoms than a tonne of CO2. All up the warming impact of a tonne of CH4 is about 70 times that of a tonne of CO2 over a 20 year period.

While most Australians turn off their cars and most appliances when not in use, for each person there are 1.2 cattle and 3.2 sheep emitting methane 24×7. Other animals emit methane also, including about half of us, but ruminants have a particular talent!

The bottom line? Our livestock’s methane emissions have a stronger (short-term) warming impact than all of our coal-fired power stations.

Livestock also impact climate forcings by driving deforestation. Trees are standing carbon and burning them is the usual method of land clearing. In Queensland between 1988 and 2008, the cattle industry cleared about 400,000 hectares every single year. Historically, livestock farmers (or rather their customers, people who buy their products) have been responsible for about 70 million of the 100 million hectares we have cleared in Australia. This historical carbon debt is substantial.

Perfect knowledge isn’t required for good decisions

If the research I cited from New York state in the US were repeated here, the answers would be different. They would be different in many parts of Australia. Similarly, estimates of the methane from livestock vary widely and depend on the species, whether the animals are grass or grain fed, whether land clearing is included, whether slaughter house emissions are included or the full refrigeration cold chain from slaughter to plate. Should the greenhouse cost of extra cancer and heart disease beds be factored in? Australian emissions in many of these areas are considerably higher than those overseas. Grass fed cattle produce more methane than grain fed cattle and the deforestation debt of the sheep and cattle industry is huge.

Regardless of the variability between different motor vehicles, we know that walking a kilometer to the shop produces less greenhouse gases than driving. Likewise with meat production, particularly ruminant meat. Despite considerable variation, we can be absolutely confident that it would never, ever take more land to feed a vegan population than a meat eating population. Similarly, a vegan population could never ever generate methane emissions in a quantity anything remotely like those of ruminants consumed by average meat eaters, regardless of food choices.

It’s actually a simple exercise to show that a vegan could live on food air freighted from anywhere on the planet and have a much lower greenhouse footprint than a red meat eater raising their own cattle and slaughtering them in the garage. As far as its greenhouse footprint is concerned, it matters far more what you eat than where it comes from.

Dietary Guidelines Duties

Is it the job of the Dietary Guidelines to tell people they should be vegan?

The Government has no shortage of websites giving advice to people on how to choose motor cars, air conditioners, fridges, washing machines and the like to reduce their emissions. The Government is absolutely clear that people should reduce their greenhouse footprint. They are not shy about this. Nobody is afraid to tell people that not owning a car, not holidaying in Europe, or not using an air conditioner are all great ways to reduce emissions.

So why be shy in the Dietary Guidelines? People should want to reduce their greenhouse footprint, and if they do, then the Guidelines should advise them how to do so. If foods are ranked in order of their footprint, then clearly vegan diets happen to be optimal, so the dietary guidelines should give people advice on how to construct such a diet … it’s not difficult!

Royal Commission required

The claims I cited above from Section~1.6 of the Draft Dietary Guidelines are not just false, they are as silly as thinking that there could possibly be more carnivores than herbivores on the plains of the Serengeti. And just in case anybody is wondering, it about 10,000 kilograms of prey animals to support a 90 kilo carnivore.

That such claims should appear in an official document prepared by a high level committee requires explanation.

While the preface of the 2003 Guidelines made it clear that environmental issues should have been dealt with in any updating of that document, I believe the clear and immediate risks of climate change require more explicit instructions and that a Royal Commission should investigate the setting up and operation of the committee.

  1. Why wasn’t clear instruction given to investigate food impacts on climate forcings?
  2. Why wasn’t clear instruction given to investigate food impacts on other environmental outcomes?
  3. Why did such a high level committee have such a low level of environmental expertise given the clearly false statements in Section 1.6.

In addition a press release from the National Farmer’s Federation in late 2011 makes the following claim:

“The NFF has worked tirelessly over the last 18 months to ensure the NHMRC understands that there is a huge amount of variability between different industries and different production systems as to what constitutes ‘sustainable’ production, and that the data around this has to date proved inconsistent, inconclusive or irrelevant to Australian agriculture.”

There is a vast amount of data which is relevant to Australian agriculture and the climate forcing of various foods. The NFF has clearly been attempting to mislead the committee and from the ignorance on display in Section 1.6, they may have been successful.

The Royal Commission should therefore investigate the lobbying activity of all food industries on the Dietary Guidelines Committee. This committee should be giving accurate scientific advice and not just be a mouth piece of one or more industry bodies.

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48 Comments

  1. Thanks Geoff for another interesting post.

    The call for a Royal Commission is interesting. I consider the whole system of governance to be flawed, not just this case of a report that ignores the major issues.

    It is disturbing that the National Farmers’ Federation appears to have trouble understanding the concept of sustainability. It is not sustainable to live beyond our means. A high proportion of meat in a diet, continued population growth and economic growth are all unsustainable. Sustainability is easy to comprehend once there is a time frame. If the consequences are considered in terms of 50, 100 or 200 years from now it is easy to understand sustainability.

    A major theme of Dietary Guidelines should be about how to reduce the meat consumption of a nation.

    Ideal governance should be based on identifying the most important issues and finding the best solutions. Our governance is based on perception management by political parties and the media and does not work in this realm. All people on this planet need to ask what kind of world we want in the future.

  2. I suspect that food price inflation will reduce the meat content of the average diet. The immediate drivers will be expensive diesel, expensive fertiliser and unreliable water, either rainfall or irrigation. A couple of articles in the sidebar seem to back up this belief; see the articles on water wars and resource depletion. My view is that the public will notice food and fuel cost increases well before they acknowledge systematic climate change. Food price inflation was a trigger for the recent Arab Spring riots
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%932008_world_food_price_crisis

    No doubt we will have our own panic attack in Australia when dry weather and high fuel prices coincide, perhaps within a few years. Grain will be too expensive not only for bread but to feed animals. Therefore I think ruminant methane may be self correcting to some extent. Factor in concentrated phosphate depletion and it points to intensive growing close to cities with nutrient recycling, less tillage, less processing and less transport.

    The fact that one division of CSIRO was telling people to eat more meat and another division was flogging sustainability is on a par with our booming coal exports while imposing a domestic carbon tax. Our federal bureaucracy seems to hold all positions at the same time.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. heritagevision: CSIRO’s vision statement doesn’t say who it works for when there is a conflict between the interests of industry … which it promotes … and those of the public. CSIRO has done projects precisely aimed at helping farmers INCREASE the fat in meat … because it gets premium prices in some countries despite clear knowledge of the adverse impacts of the saturated component. Buyer beware is clearly CSIRO’s attitude.

    For most articles I write, the choice of images is Barry’s. Its always interesting to see what he comes up with. In this case he’s chosen two images that deserve a little comment. The USDA meat consumption data is just showing hinting at a decline in meat consumption in the US that has since become something that looks like free-fall at the
    appropriate scale … down 12% in just 5 years.

    http://www.dailylivestockreport.com/documents/dlr%2012-20-2011.pdf

    Is this just the GFC? I don’t think so. US meat producers are no different to other producers, why sell meat to poor Americans when you can sell it to richer people elsewhere who can outbid those poor Americans. So US meat exports are up while domestic consumption is falling. I’m hoping domestic consumption is falling because multiple messages on the health, climate change, and cruelty fronts are getting through.

    The second image that deserves comment is the Hansen bar chart of different climate forcings. Focus on the CO2 and the CH4 (methane). That CO2 has been growing steadily for 200 years and quite a bit of that bar isn’t down to recent emissions. But the methane? That’s pretty much all ours. There is nothing left from the livestock and leaky gas fields of our fathers. A graph of the forcings we are generating in the here and now would have methane and CO2 pretty much neck and neck (AR4, CH2, p.206).

  4. Geoff
    When you say our meat eating is worse than our power plants, are you referring specifically to Australia?
    Also, if half of us are methane emitters, is that mainly determined by genes, diet, gut flora, or a mix?

  5. Livestock do provide insurance against famine. In good times, livestock provide milk, wool, draft power, and progeny to be sold for cash. In times of drought, floods, pests, crop disease etc, when there is nothing vegetable to eat, the people can eat their livestock.

    The presence of livestock, as the article implies, limits the number of people the land can support. If the land can only support much fewer cowboys at the limit of their resources than the potential number of farmers, also at the limit of their resources, then the presence of livestock has protected the land from an excess of people. And in the bad times, the hunger of the people protect the land from an excess of livestock.

  6. jfon: Yes, Australia is right at the top of the table in its ruminant to person ratio with about 1.2 cattle and 3 sheep. The US is about 0.3 cattle per person and very few sheep. As to why only half of us emit methane, I’ve no idea. There is a reference to a study on Wikipedia and the sample is small but I haven’t chased the issue down. Human methane emissions are included in National greenhouse inventories so I’d be pretty sure somebody has more authoritative information.

    David: The quote I gave from Pachauri does make it sound like he is speaking officially … which is why I included it! Pachauri gave a big speech in London a couple of years back entirely dedicated to the issue. I’d argue that this makes it official … unless he particularly prefaced his remarks with an “I’m only speaking unofficially” escape clause.

  7. Geoff Russell — Yes, I was only objecting to the sentence that the IPCC says so. Since its not in any IPCC report, the IPCC in fact does not so urge. Pachuri cannot, in fact, speak for the IPCC even if it might appear he has done so.

    Who knows; perhaps in the next IPCC report the recommendation will appear. But given the way the IPCC is structured I’m not precisely holding my breath.

    Anyway, I have started taking his advice (and so somwhat yours); I eat beef only about once a fortnight now.

  8. Thanks Geoff,

    You writing over time has been a bit of an eye opener for me.

    Both in the environmental and the health aspects, food seems an area where our Government experts seem particularly keen to massage information that is pretty straightforward into some kind of different message.

    Take cancer. The risks are now well established with meat, particularly processed meat. Australian Cancer Council acknowledges this, then promptly follows up with “Meat is an important part of the Australian diet”.

    Who gives a shit? Vodka is an important part of the Russian diet. That says nothing about whether is it good for them or not and surely to God clear advice on vodka consumption should not be based from a starting point of “what is the current consumption pattern?”. Same goes here, I seriously dislike the reticence to simply attend to the information accurately and give people clear recommendations and choices based on what they wish to achieve from their diets. It speaks wholly of lobbying. The Harvard Medical School has done, in my opinion, an excellent effort in their “Healthy Plate” recommendations where they really put the sword through the Government equivalent.
    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/

    I know it is not as vegan as you would recommend, but they have drawn many clear and important distinctions. Again, the grubby paw of lobbyists is all over the Government recommendations.

  9. Geoff,

    Maybe you should lobby for the growing of Hemp ! The seeds have the second highest complete protein profile and they also have the best omega 3/ omega 6 essential fatty acid ratio making it a super food !

  10. mmgwisbs: I know people are lobbying to get hemp products approved as foods in Australia. The current restriction is bizarre considering we have so many foods on supermarket shelves and freezer cabinets that are known to be extremely unhealthy. Like most seeds, hemp seeds have too much fat to make them a superfood … regardless of w-3 amounts, but as a supplement food? Sure. The plant certainly has more than enough good properties to make it worth some serious production efforts.

  11. I notice that you have deliberately ignored the nitrous oxide emissions from food production. Considering that they have a much larger impact on global warming, will have to increase under increased cropping production and would have to be massively increased under your scenario of less meat and more vegetables; you really need to address this issue.

    I note that you also don’t address the shortfall in landuse, considering that the majority of animals are extensively grazed on land that is unfit for cropping. This is a massive caloric shortfall and wouldn’t support a vegan diet.

  12. Tyson: Look at the image that Barry supplied … nitrous oxide is 0.15 W/m2. Cereals supply 46% of global calories and meat provides 7.8% (Faostat). In Australia nitrous oxide emissions (2009 Inventory) are
    19.5 MtCO2eq compared to methane’s 65.3 MtCO2eq and we produce vastly more calories of cereals than meat … and 12 million tonnes of those cereals are fed to livestock anyway. Your last point is tantamount to asserting that there can be more carnivores than herbivores in an ecosystem. I suggest you consult any basic ecology text on trophic levels. Alternatively … in the submission to the dietary guidelines (linked above) I calculate the land required to totally replace domestic beef production with green vegetables … of the same protein value. It would take about 200,000 hectares. I used broccoli as an example, but it doesn’t much matter. Of course we don’t actually need to replace the protein, just the calories but I calculated on replacing equivalent protein just to preempt silly objections about protein. A switch to a vegan diet would allow us to export far more food or retire huge amounts of land. Suppose all you ate was broccoli? Would you get enough protein? You’d get far TOO MUCH protein.

  13. 200,000 hectares is a rubbish estimate Geoff. First of all, animal protein is more available and more complete than plant protein. Secondly 12 million tonnes of cereals is not a lot of grain and it is feed grain, mostly not suitable for human consumption. Thirdly, stocking the 50 million hectares of rangeland and extensive grazing is a big acerage to recover. A real estimate is closer to ten times your claim.

    Also you still have ignored my point about nitrous oxide. You haven’t even approached a calculation of the increased emissions that would result from the increased use on crops. The figure I have seen is a multiplier of 1.4 over pasture in intensive use, it is even higher in broadacre cropping. Thus nitrous emissions would have a huge heating factor, far and above methane, that you seem to want to ignore.
    MODERATOR
    Tyson, please be aware that, as per BNC Comments Policy, your assertions must be backed up by links/refs. Please supply these when you comment. Thankyou.

  14. Tyson Adams,

    It was estimated a number of years ago that ~40 % of the world’s grain was being fed to livestock, and that 800 million people could be fed with the grain used to feed livestock in the U.S. alone. I.e. we could switch a lot of that to producing grain/vegetables for human consumption instead, have no increase in N2O, and a massive decrease in CH4. It also largely addresses your concern about a shortfall in land use.

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/aug97/livestock.hrs.html

    Another thing; the majority of farmed animals aren’t from land that is unfit for cropping (marginal land) – they’re from feed-lots or equivalent, and the grain they are fed is from productive land. I suppose there could still be a niche market for some livestock on marginal land, provided the amount of grazing is controlled to minimise ecosystem damage.

    Also, we could start eating more ferals in many places in the world and being doing the environment a massive service by controlling invasive species numbers.

  15. Also, no one is suggesting that we literally eat the grain that is currently fed to livestock. The point is that productive land is being used to grow grain for livestock, when it could be used to grow similar quantities of food for humans.

  16. Tom, the 40% is feed grains worldwide, not necessarily what is fed to animals. Feed grains aren’t necessarily suitable for human consumption either. Feed grains are grown in areas that can’t produce other suitable grains.

    Also I’m talking Australian emissions from cropping and livestock. Regardless the switch cannot be made as readily as you would like to think. If you read the Long Shadow book/report you will see that they have estimated NO emissions and found that a switch in diets cannot do as you say. Rather, what needs to happen is less grain feeding of animals and better diet management to reduce waste emissions (as methane is from inefficient rumination).

    Another point, feral animals are already consumed (goat, kangaroo, etc). They aren’t a consistent market and would have to be farmed to be of any value. You can’t farm kangaroo without massive breeding programs, which would take decades. In one decade we could reduce animal methane emissions just by better pasture management, changing feed grain diets and some of the rumen research currently in the pipe coming on line.
    MODERATOR
    As I was not on-line when you submitted this, I am leaving this comment despite having no refs. Note that from Tues 27/3 comments withour refs may be deleted and you will be asked to re-post.

  17. Tyson: you’re working with a protein theory that was demolished about 40 years ago … I dealt with it in some detail here:

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/12/04/feeding-billions-p2/

    The food of choice for bringing back children from the brink of death through malnutrition isn’t meat of any description … that would probably kill most … its vitamin laced peanut butter. Plumpy’nut.
    Tom has dealt with some of the rest of your arguments. But the broccoli estimate isn’t “rubbish”. The world yield of broccoli is between 20 and 50 tonnes per hectare … I used 20 in my calculation.

    The major nutritional problem with meat as a food is that the protein comes packaged with saturated fat and, in red meat, heme iron. The former clogs your arteries and the latter causes bowel cancer. Vegetable protein comes packaged with far more good nutrients … stuff that turns cancer promoter genes off and turns cancer inhibiting genes on.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/105/24/8369.abstract

  18. (Deleted snide remark) You still haven’t addressed the nitrous oxide emission increases. I’ll address your broccoli example to keep this short.

    You haven’t looked at what area is actually suitable for growing broccoli for a start (alkaline and well drained) that will have mild conditions. This limits area available already. Not to mention average yields in Australia are 5-7.5 t/ha, not 20. http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/horticulture/vegetables/vegetables-a-z/broccoli

    But you still haven’t addressed my main point. You want to grow more crops to replace meat yet you haven’t addressed increased NO emissions. The link I have provided shows the high nitrate usage in broccoli production. Considering most nitrogen fertilisers volatilise a large proportion (as much as 60%, usually 30%) you cannot ignore this.

  19. Tyson: We don’t have to grow more crops to replace meat. If we remove the livestock we need less crops, not more. Less crops, less deforestation, less hospital beds, less cruelty, less fertiliser, less energy, less nitrous oxide, less methane. They consume far more food calories than they produce.

  20. No Geoff, you would need more crops. You are also showing a lack of knowledge of agriculture and agricultural production. You cannot assume simple replacement. Landuse suitability is not as simple as you are assuming, nor is agricultural production just a gross figure. Nor can you assume US yields on Australian soils and conditions.

    You are still failing to fully appreciate the need to compare actual emissions scenarios.

  21. Feed grains are grown in areas that can’t produce other suitable grains.

    I think what we have here is an unsupported premise. Unless you can provide supporting evidence for this claim, your entire argument is invalid. If it turns out we can grow crops for people on this land instead, then we do have the option of producing far more food, with no N2O increase, and a large CH4 decrease.

  22. I am a plant scientist and can understand that people are having trouble understanding how plants and soils under agriculture behave. The Nature paper actually agrees with me and it is about reading the entire systems approach and understanding how that is applied locally. First of all the paper states we need to shift away from non-food uses of grain (biofuels, which account for a large chunk of crops as I have already pointed out with my previous links).
    Quote:
    “While improving crop yields and reducing agriculture’s environmental
    impacts will be instrumental in meeting future needs, it is also important
    to remember that more food can be delivered by changing our agricultural and dietary preferences. Simply put, we can increase food availability (in terms of calories, protein and critical nutrients) by shifting crop production away from livestock feed, bioenergy crops and other non-food applications”

    It also doesn’t say that nitrogen use will be reduced, it talks about improving efficiency of use in hotspots as we will need to increase N use in agriculture:
    “Taken together, these results illustrate many opportunities to improve
    the water and nutrient efficiency of agriculture without reducing food
    production. Targeting particular ‘hotspots’ of low efficiency, measured
    as the disproportionate use of water and nutrient inputs relative to
    production, could significantly reduce the environmental problems of
    intensive agriculture.”

    This is why I have issues with Geoff’s article, because nitrogen is a key nutrient in plants and is being ignored. See this article on N and climate change: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J411v13n01_05
    I can’t refer to a simple paper on N and emissions, as it is a complex issue that varies with soil type and rainfall zone, let alone land use and management. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1579/0044-7447-31.2.132

    So once again, you can’t ignore NO emissions and say that removing livestock will make any change to the emissions scenario, thus invalidating the argument.

  23. Tyson: Quoting from the Foley Nature paper:

    In Supplementary Fig. 7, we compare intrinsic food production (calories available if all crops were consumed by humans) and delivered food production (calories available based on today’s allocation of crops to food, animal feed, and other products, assuming standard conversion factors) for 16 staple crops. By subtracting these two figures, we estimate the potential to increase food supplies by closing the ‘diet gap’: shifting 16 major crops to 100% human food could add over a billion tonnes to global food production (a 28% increase), or the equivalent of 3×10**15 food kilocalories (a 49% increase) (Fig. 4).

    As Tom said, you need to prove that land comes with a label that says … “Animal feed” only on it. Foley and Ramankutty used detailed data about what grows where to derive that figure, they don’t see a problem shifting from, for example, feed oat varieties to milling varieties … some oat varieties are suitable for both hay or milling. Farmers have told me “Sure I’d love to grow food, but feed is more profitable”.

  24. Tyson,

    We are well aware that nitrogen is a key nutrient for plants, and that artificial fertilisers result in nitrous oxide emissions. That is not the point. What Geoff and I are both saying is that instead of growing plants to feed to livestock, we can grow plants to feed to people, on the same land, without increasing N2O emissions. In other words, N2O is factored out of the equation, as there is already massive N2O emissions from growing food for livestock.

    In the article I linked to above, it is stated that the grain fed to livestock in the US alone could feed 800 million people. Even if that was out by a factor of, say, 4, that would still mean 200 million people could be sustained on these grains – many more people than US livestock sustains. That is simple arithmetic.

    So I’ll repeat what I said before; if you want to continue this argument, the onus is on you to provide evidence that virtually all of the land currently used to produce grain for livestock is not useful for food production for people.

  25. Tom and Geoff: I have provided reference to this already. The grains values link. Current spread prices for APW wheat is $16 t, mid last year it was $80 t. Farmers aren’t going to grow feed grains when they can make more money for the same effort growing premium grade grains. Put simply it is illogical to not grow the most profitable foods.

    Geoff, I see you have quoted one part of the paper and skipped the quote I took from the discussion/conclusions that contextualises that statement.

    Again, you cannot simply ignore NO emissions in your calculations.

  26. Tyson: I already gave you the nitrous oxide emissions … from the 2009 Inventory … 19.5 mtco2eq compared to 65 mtco2eq for CH4. Let’s suppose ALL the 19.5 is from crops (which it isn’t, a large amount is from livestock excrement). Those crops provide more calories now for Australians than meat and most of those crops are grown to feed livestock but only generate 19.5 mtco2eq. Meat is generating triple the co2eq but providing far less food with the red meat causing 7000 new bowel cancer cases annually. And if we reduce the livestock, we will need less crops … 12 million tonne less (minus the crops we grow to replace the meat … much less than 12 million tonne).

    I also noticed you contradicting yourself … a while back you were saying it wasn’t possible to grow human food on areas now growing feed … but now you reckon farmers can choose which wheat varieties according to price … of course they can.

  27. Tyson,

    Are you talking about this article? http://www.thecropsite.com/news/9283/final-defra-2010-11-supply-and-demand

    If so, it is in reference to amount produced (in tonnes), has no reference to cost, is a UK specific study, and shows that as much (or more) grain is produced for animals than humans. It has no information about land suitability for crops. It is not evidence to support your claim that “Feed grains are grown in areas that can’t produce other suitable grains.”

    You are the one who is ignoring nitrous oxide emissions, because you don’t seem to acknowledge that the production of vast amounts of grain for livestock feed is a mass producer of nitrous oxide emissions. Emissions which could instead be from the production of food for humans – not feed for methane-emitters.

  28. You haven’t correctly comprehended what I said at all Geoff and you still haven’t addressed my question.

    Land will be used to grow the most profitable produce. Fact. Thus, no farmer would willingly grow the lower value feed grains unless the land doesn’t support the higher value product. Thus you cannot magically convert feed grain lands to human grain lands. This is even more impractical in your broccoli example, because I dare you to find an extra 1000ha let alone 200k hectares to grow broccoli on this feed grain and grazing land. Let alone your massive underestimation of the area required considering the yields of broccoli in Australia are a quarter of your estimate. Let alone the fact that broccoli has 20% of the calories of meat and 12% of the protein.

    And back to my question about NO emissions. You haven’t done an emission budget of a grazed pasture and extensive rangeland versus your replacement enterprise you are going to put there. You want to remove meat production, then you have to replace that meat enterprise with the crop enterprise. The emission profile changes, because you are now treating the soils and plants differently. They will have differing nutrient, carbon and water turnover in the soil. Hell, in the medium turn you will even have soil structure and physical changes to content with, but lets keep it simple. You are not accounting for the changed enterprise. Even in your overly simple scenario of “grow a different variety” you change the biomass, soil carbon turnover, nitrogen pool turnover, fertiliser regime and types, and thus emissions.
    (Deleted inflammatory statement.) FYI, I have seen various budgets done for WA soils and land uses, which is why I cannot support your central hypothesis. Look out for the papers to be published from L Barton et al.
    MODERATOR
    Please supply refs for your last statement. Inflammatory remarks about commenters are not allowed on BNC.

  29. Tyson: Australia is getting plenty of carbon credits because of the collapse in the wool market and the subsequent revegetation. This was a brutal market driven process. The cattle industry will need to be phased out for the same reasons we got rid of the tobacco industry, and hopefully similar mechanisms and not market forces. Revegetation will happen on those areas that were originally cleared. We don’t have to replace all meat enterprises with crop enterprises. I understand the politically unpalatable nature of such a suggestion, but in the long run, sustainable CO2 emissions are about 1 tonne and the current Australian diet is 4-6 tonnes so the status quo can’t continue.

  30. Geoff, your post is not really relevant to the topic of discussion, but I will address it. I was actually raised on a sheep farm, I don’t know what revegetation you are talking about. Most of the ‘revegetation’ that has occurred in WA has been due to salinity and small areas of tree farms in high rainfall areas (when tax incentives made that worthwhile).

    Also your comparison of cattle to tobacco is spurious at best. Tobacco has clinical and causative values assigned to its cancer risks. These risks are ten times the risks of red meat, which are correlated values and confounded with obesity and alcohol. Hardly a fair comparison. Coffee has 1000 carcinogens in it! http://www.springerlink.com/content/r165687515131203/
    As opposed to red meat, which is perfectly healthy in a proper diet:
    http://nutritionovereasy.com/2011/05/red-meat-and-colon-cancer-beyond-the-headlines/

  31. Broccoli clarification: I used a USDA figure for broccoli yields which had a timeseries from Australia with a range of 18 to over 30 tonnes per hectare. Ausveg put the average yield currently at 7 tonnes per hectare with 8.5 in WA and 5 in SA. I’ve emailed the USDA site to ask where they got their data, but I accept that its either wrong or measuring something else … like gross biomass. You can multiple crop broccili but it wouldn’t make much sense to do so. This means my estimate of the land required to replace beef protein with broccoli protein is out by a factor of 3. So its 600,000 ha and still compares
    well to the over 8 million cleared in Queensland between 1988 and 2008.

    It was only ever illustrative of the small areas of land needed to replace meat production when plants are used. Many mixes of plants will do the job and allow revegetation over large areas previously cleared for livestock.

  32. Nitrous oxide: For anybody still paying attention … Tyson isn’t the first person who has raised the issue of increased nitrous oxide emissions in any substitution of crops for livestock. I agree that some livestock graze in areas which are unsuitable for cropping … although precise details are tough to obtain. However it is worth considering the current breakdown of Australia’s agricultural nitrous oxide emissions as submitted to the UNFCCC:

    http://unfccc.int/national_reports/annex_i_ghg_inventories/national_inventories_submissions/items/5888.php

    Total agricultural nitrous oxide is ~62.8 kt (with a GWP of 310, this is 19.4 MtCO2eq).

    This is made up of:

    1) direct soil emissions of the kind that would rise with more cropping … 15.12 kt (24%)

    2) Manure on pasture emissions 11.77 kt (18%)

    3) Indirect emissions … (complex but due
    to livestock manure deposition) 18.89 (30.0%)

    4) Cattle manure management (feedlots) 5.04 (8%)

    5) Prescribed burning of savanna 11.67 (18.5%)

    + odds and sods

    Most of the prescribed savanna burning is livestock related, but even ignoring that, we can see that livestock is responsible for more than double the nitrous oxide emissions while producing only a third of domestic calories. Keep in mind also that quite a bit of that direct soil emissions is for fertilised pasture and fodder crops as well as feed crops. It’s difficult to break this category down but its hardly worth the time.

    Lastly, the methane from enteric fermentation is almost entirely due to livestock and dwarfs the nitrous oxide in its radiative forcing impacts.

  33. India has a majority of semi-vegetarians with most using dairy products and the rest are occasional users of meat. We count beans and lentils as sources of protein. A sixth of mankind is fed from 2.5% of earth’s land area.
    Lower meat consumption is definitely land-efficient for food.
    Climate of earth is varied and changing and we have to harvest the Greenhouse effects to maximize the biomass production for food and fuel.
    https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ceepa.co.za%2Fdocs%2FCDPNo26.pdf

  34. David B. Benson, on 25 March 2012 at 12:41 PM said:

    What’s the label on the yellow line in the product consumption per capita grah? The contrast is poor and my eys are old so I can’t make it out.
    Robert Lawrence, on 25 March 2012 at 12:53 PM said:

    David, it looks like Pork to me.
    David B. Benson, on 25 March 2012 at 1:20 PM said:

    Robert Lawrence — Thank you. I should have been able to guess that.

    Confirmed. I downloaded the image, and converted it to Greyscale, and it’s clearly legible.

  35. Pingback: Cows and methane | ikners.com

  36. Pingback: Time for a reckoning, time for an apology « BraveNewClimate

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