Carbon forum: Has beef become the sacrificial lamb in emissions debate?


Eric Barker, Beef Central (Australia)



THE “beef is bad for the environment” drum has been beating loudly again in recent months, with media outlets and governments making big claims about the industry’s footprint.


New Zealand, The Netherlands and Ireland have all legislated agricultural emissions in recent months – a reduction in livestock numbers could be on the cards in all three countries. Many media articles also appear to be supporting a reduction in livestock, with “beef is bad” messages appearing to be accepted as fact.


One recent The Guardian article claimed that avoiding meat and dairy was the single biggest way for readers to reduce their environmental impact, while another in The Washington Post said beef was up there with the biggest emitters in the world.


“If cattle were a country, they 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 for consumers to halve their beef intake and replace it with pork.


But the comparison to the US and China’s emissions omits some significant details about the way livestock emissions work.


Many scientists, including University of Oxford professor Myles Allen and University of California Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, have long argued that is unfair to put ruminant livestock methane emissions on the same playing field as emissions from fossil fuels.


Put simply, both scientists point out that the ability of methane from cattle to break down in the atmosphere and be captured by trees and soil on the land on which it is grazed means it should be accounted differently to fossil fuel emissions.


Professor Allen recently told an Irish Government inquiry the focus has gone away from contributions to warming...


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