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Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy.

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There’s a gross cognitive dissonance when a Government who professes to think that climate change is the defining issue of our generation can’t face down a few blustering cowboys. This is implied in the anouncement that agriculture will be omitted from the CPRS.

Well, that’s not quite true. Doing good things like planting trees will be rewarded by allowing farmers to sell pieces of paper called offsets. Doing bad things … like generating more warming than all our coal fired power stations, like causing 6,000 new bowel cancer cases annually, like giving teenagers athlerosclerotic plaques. These will also be rewarded in the usual way … by the traditional head in sand approach on the emissions and by medical subsidies while continuing to allow Meat and Livestock Australia to mislead the public without being bothered by silly inconveniences like truth in advertising laws. This is analogous to the time honoured principle behind handling the Global Financial Crisis, privatise the profits and nationalise the losses.

Recall that it isn’t very much of agriculture which is the problem, it isn’t the potato growers or the wheat millers, or the fruit and vegetable growers. Their emissions are tiny and we have no low emission alternatives to these foods when it comes to eating. Quantitatively, even the downstream food processors and transporters are relatively low in emissions. For new BNC readers let me just spell it out once more … suppose the emissions generated by making pasta were the equivalent of a car using 5 litres per 100 kilometers. What are the emissions generated by lean beef equivalent to? About 1000 liters per 100 kilometers. Would we allow cars that were so inefficient? Obviously our current Government would, at best, merely ask producers of such cars to join the other pigs at the free CPRS permit trough.

So out of the whole of agriculture, the big emitters are just the sheep and cattle boys and there’s not too many sheep boys left after a couple of decades of culling by market forces and cheaper (and sometimes better) fabrics. Like I said in the beginning its really just a few cowboys calling the shots. The interests of these cowboys so dominates the Australian psyche that Kevin Rudd seriously thought a few BBQs would heal the rift over the bashing of Indian students. Apparently neither he nor anybody in his office seemed to understand that asking Indian students home for slashed and seared roast religious icon between 2 slices of limp white bread substitute wasn’t going to be quite the winner on the sub-continent that it is in Australia.

Leading the charge for the cowboys these days is Australian of the Year in 2007, Tim Flannery. He was recently paid by Meat and Livestock Australia to speak at a meat propaganda forum for young students at Roseworthy agricultural college just out from Adelaide. ABC’s Bush Telegraph last week discussed the forum and featured Flannery not only discussing the sustainability of red meat but prophetically outlining exactly what Government policy should be. And so it came to pass, that before the sun rose and set a few more times, the deal was done and announced. Bush Telegraph did a follow-up program the next day featuring a rerun of Flannery’s statements and a response from philosopher and well known animal rights campaigner, Peter Singer.

Questioned about the livestock methane problem, Flannery was broadly dismissive, playing the but it’s natural card with a typical sloppy, unquantified and totally irrelevant truism:

red meat has been part of our diet for a very long time … there’s always been cows and sheep and other large herbivores on land burping and farting … they’ve been part of the natural system

Bush Telegraph played some choice comments at the end of the program from students who attended the forum and these indicated clearly that this truism had made a great impression. Perhaps BT can reinterview the students in 7 years time and see if the famous Jesuit maxim is true. The Australian version would be give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the red necked bigot.

Flannery’s truism probably conjures up images of huge herds of bison covering North America and massive herds of wildebeest blanketting the African continent. For many, wildlife documentaries have made such visions far more common than those of livestock. But this all too easy vivid image fails to capture the quantitative essence of the way livestock now dominate the planet having all but totally eliminated wildlife. It is precisely Flannery’s brilliant inspirational capacity as a speaker and author which makes his fundamentally woolly headed romanticism particularly dangerous.

Wildlife rates of conception, growth, and the like don’t match what can be achieved by artifical selection, artificial insemination, good fences, irrigated feed production, predator extermination and all the other paraphenalia of modern agriculture. These have produced a totally unnatural and unprecedented explosion in numbers of those animals which people have designated as livestock.

RsubakConsider the following table. The left side is from a 1994 paper estimating methane flows in the year 1500. It pulls together historical and ecological estimates of populations of relevant species and also gives an estimate of the human population of about 466 million. Rather less than the current 6.7 billion.

As you can see the estimates for wildebeest and bison in 1500 are dwarfed by modern populations of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and even buffalo (mainly water buffalo).

The livestock population estimate on the right side of the table comes from a 2008 paper also looking at methane flows but which doesn’t deal with wildlife species. Where we have estimates on both sides of the table for a species the differences are stark. Run the numbers and you’ll see, for example, that the ratio of cattle to people has almost doubled. But despite this growth and the destruction of huge swathes of forest on most continents, beef provides just 1.3% of global food calories.

What the right side population numbers don’t show is the dramatic increase in the size and growth rates of some species. For example, while cattle outnumber pigs in the table, pigs provide 3 times more food calories than cattle … which is still not much food all of it causes bowel cancer. The pig industry output is due to huge increases in growth rates, with appalling consequences for breeding sows.

With cattle, the size increase has been dramatic. Indian cattle have a carcase weight averaging 100 kg, probably not too dissimilar to cattle in 1500, but the carcases of the feedlot monsters in many parts of the world tip the scales at 350 kilograms.

Chickens don’t appear in the table, they are insectivores rather than herbivores and the planet at any time has about 18 billion with most being now raised in factory farms regardless of whether it is in the developed or developing world. So, while it is true that there have always been herbivores, current livestock populations are unprecedented and these populations include insectivores like chickens and omnivores like pigs.

The total global livestock body weight combines the impacts of increased numbers with increasing sizes. Livestock’s Long Shadow gives a figure of about 700 million tonnes for the global livestock weight. What is the total weight of humans? About 330 million tonnes. Planet earth is clearly not the planet of the apes.

What is the impact of 700 million tonnes of livestock? Apart from a displacement of wildlife, a new WorldWatch report put the total impact of livestock on greenhouse gas emissions at about 51% of our global total. Can the feeding, fodder growth, irrigation for the fodder growth, fertiliser, watering, transport, slaughter, refrigeration, cooking of 700 million tonnes of livestock really be half the global total of our greenhouse gas impact on the climate? I’d say the biomass estimates alone make this plausible. Certainly the livestock of the rich outconsume and out travel many of the world’s poor. While I think it’s too early to judge the robustness of the WorldWatch number, I expect it will eventually be judged reasonably close to the mark.

But in Australia, the red necks are firmly entrenched and even our 2007 Australian of the Year puts BBQ protection ahead of saving the planet and gets paid for it.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

114 replies on “Forget the quality, it’s the 700 million tonnes which counts”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than one epidemiological study that has shown read meat consumption only correlates to (bowel) cancer rates in those who concomitantly eat a low fibre diet. A diet that is, therefore, necessarily low in all the other nutrients we need to keep us health

The problem here, in it’s entirety, I believe, can be summed up as follows: it is not animal protien consumption, GHG, peak soil / oil / ground water / whatever, ocean acidification etc that is the problem.

It’s is that there is too many of us and no ones carescc

Seriously. To be able to concern ones self with such things as we do here is a prerogative of the privelidge.

If we don’t address population control we’re going to very quickly exhaust this planets resources even if we do prevent catastrophic climate change.

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I think you right Jade – we are talking at cross purposes – our definition of low hanging fruit is our point of difference.

When I see a statement like this-

“If you can get people onto public transport by making said transport much more comfortable and practical…”

I don’t see an easy fix solution (which is essentially what I take “low hanging fruit” to mean). Making public transport more comfortable will also make it more expensive. The incentive thereby creating a disincentive. Making it more practical involves a complete overhaul in both our public transport system and in the design of our cities and suburbs. I would like to see that happen. I just don’t consider it low hanging fruit.

If – as one of your previous posts suggests – your definition is this –

“If you by low-hanging fruit you mean something that requires no new technological breakthroughs and which has excellent EROEI, high net public goods and which, because it reaches far beyond mere CO2 abatement into imporved housing and amenity, reductions in road trauma and per capita cuts in high cost health spending has low program specific expenditure, then I would certainly regard it as such.”

I would call that an excellent solution. In fact with a little tweaking on the particulars of the net public goods with which it would endow us, I would call that nuclear power.

I find your definition too broad.

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Ahh, Austrailian lamb chops… coarsley ground black pepper, a dash of large grained Kosher salt, and pop ’em on a hot grill. No more than 3 minutes per side… watch ’em close because they are very fatty and tend to flare. Remove from grill, cover with tin foil, and let rest for ~ 5 mins. Absolutely succulent! Perfection! No need for silverware… just pick ’em up by the bone and dig in! (Keep napkin handy… very juicy!)

Ladies and gentlemen, plain and simple… there is no “soy” or “gluten” substitute for that! Who are you trying to kid? C’mon…

With characteristic economy and pith, Finrod said it best, “If you want to effect lasting behavioural change, you need to work with human desires, not against them.”

Truer words were never spoken. They highlight another pitfall associated with this line of attack. There already exists a palpable public sensibility that many in the pro-AGW debate consider the human condition as a lower order concern than the animal/vegetable/natural world… sometimes with good reason. Rightly or wrongly, this line of reasoning feeds that frame of mind and runs the risk of alienating more folks than it would recruit.

Not to worry though… I doubt it will be adopted as the driving theme of this site, and it does bring up some interesting facts. As part of the larger narrative, to my mind the most persuasive part of the argument has to do with habitat destruction. Of course, as the unrepentant carnivore that I am, it only leads me to the “frankenmeat” and/or even more highly industrialized and condensed animal raising solutions.

John Rogers

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marion said:

I would call that an excellent solution. In fact with a little tweaking on the particulars of the net public goods with which it would endow us, I would call that nuclear power.

Certainly, nuclear power would be the ideal energy source to underpin a largely grid-demanding transport system, but getting people out of their cars and into mass public transport is what delivers the other associated public goods in the short term — the decline in RTAs and associated human and other costs.

If just 10% of people now commuting in their cars felt using public transport was feasible and arranged themselves to act upon it, then not only would those left on the road emit less but 100% of the travellers would be somewhat more than 10% safer from having a collision and the associated costs. That benefit is one we wouldn’t have to wait for — we get it straight away and for nearly zero marginal cost — perhaps some extra buses or train services.

In practice, we are going to have to improve public transport infrastructure to deliver that, but that’s something that can be done on a 5-7 year timeline rather than one in decades. Low hanging fruit IMO

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John Rogers said:

There already exists a palpable public sensibility that many in the pro-AGW debate consider the human condition as a lower order concern than the animal/vegetable/natural world… sometimes with good reason.

While this idea circulates commonly on the internet I attach no more significance to this than any other talking point by those opposing mitigation. If one took these things at face value, one might conclude that many think that Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet or that most think it has been cooling since 1998 or scientists were predicting an ice age in the 1970s.

The truth of the matter is that we humans are part of a dynamic ecosystem. We mark it and it marks us. Trying to work out who or what is more valuable in a global sense is an intellectually implausible exercise. We humans, almost as soon as we had consciousness, concluded that our interests were to be preferred to every other life, and in the end, that is what is central to policy.

That said, only a fool will forget that our interests depend in significant part on maintaining the quality of the systems offering us pretty much everything we value in life. If raising livestock in commercial quantities for food subtracts from public good, then we should oppose it. If an attitude of indifference to the suffering of sensate beings harms our culture or forces cognitive dissonance and logic chopping, then we should stop being indifferent and irrational.

After all, if one may be indifferent to the suffering of a cow or a sheep or a pig, then why should one care about the suffering of a chimpanzee or a dog or a human of feeble mind, or of someone whom we don’t like or who seems to be a rival for some resource?

Being human is a package and I’d argue that part of that package is empathy. Those who lack empathy are viewed by others as sociopathic and at best, to be kept at arms’ length and viewed with suspicion. Accordingly, it seems to me that those who cannot see why the imposition of unnecessary suffering on those who can appreciate it is axiomatically a bad thing must necessarily rub shoulders, in cultural terms, with those one would deem sociopathic, however artfully they may try to distinguish their rationale for such dealing from those of people who are regarded as sociopathic.

All of us are entitled to attempt to sustain our lives and to live as well as we can and to avoid misery, whatever that means, constrained in our conduct only by the recognition that every other person also has that right. And while, when the choice is forced, we may prefer animal suffering to human suffering, it is incumbent on us I believe to ensure that that choice is indeed forced rather than a false dilemma.

The fact remains that one can live very well without eating meat, and in many cases, if other forms of protein were substituted, those denied would live better and suffer less. And we now know that the industrial production of meat has a massive ecological footprint which is harming the prospects of our species even more. That the cruelty we have inflicted on animals is harming us both immediately and in the longer term in approximate proportion to the scale of the imposition urges a very clear conclusion, in my opinion.

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@Jade Peters – Jade, while I cannot say that I embrace this particular philosophy that you describe, I must say that is the most rational and objective statement of it I have seen to date.

The rest of the animal rights movement should take note that this way of presenting their view, will make people consider what they are saying much better that the strident, accusatory tones that it is most often delivered in.

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DV8XL/Jade: Yes Jade. Well put.

AdamB: On fibre and bowel cancer. Plenty of populations with low fibre
diets also have very low bowel cancer rates, e.g.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10235221

Fibre in European studies seems to reduce bowel cancer rates
in meat eaters, but not in US studies. US fibre tends to be from
fruit and veg and European tends to be from grains. Which kind
of explains why CSIRO is pushing a resistant starch fibre product
to undo the damage of its high meat diet. They have the
patents and they want to make money selling you the diet and the
antidote :)

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