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. His previous article on BNC was: Feeding the billions on a hotter planet (Part III).
He also wrote a brilliant recent piece for The Punch: Fukushima was no disaster, no matter how you spin it
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.
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!
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.
- Why wasn’t clear instruction given to investigate food impacts on climate forcings?
- Why wasn’t clear instruction given to investigate food impacts on other environmental outcomes?
- 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.