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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Mining Australia for meat

I don't remember the year, but it was shortly after the 2005 release of Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed". He was in Australia, being interviewed on ABC radio and relating his "welcome" to our country. You see, his chapter on Australia was called "'Mining' Australia" but he was talking out our farmers, not our miners. A chilling chart in the recent State of Environment Report shows just how right he was.

Our media reduce everything to a few dot points ... or worse

The recent 2021 State of Environment Report got the usual 5 minutes of fame when it was released on July 19. It must be intensely frustrating for the 30 people who worked on the report to have it hit the headlines and vanish so quickly. Blink and you'll miss it; hell you probably did blink and did miss it.

ABC Rural gave it about a thousand words with plenty of room for the cattle industry to dismiss it. A group called "Australian Beef Sustainability Framework" got 150 words in the report. They also got the picture at the top of the article + the caption. He wins the debate who gets the good image and the best caption.

One of the co-chief authors of the report, University of Sydney Deputy Vice Chancellor Emma Johnston got to talk a little about the report as did a commenter; one Keith Noble from an organisation with a relevant sounding name. Then it was back to the beef industry. By then, the thousand words were up and the three journalists involved could sign off without actually having to read anything and do any analysis. Phew!

Why did it take three people to write this? Probably because they interviewed three people.

I've posted before about the dismal state of climate/environmental journalism in Australia, and this ABC Rural "report" is a terrific example of boilerplate trivia. An absolute insult to the SOE authors ... but a worthy service to the beef industry from the ABC.

The ABC Rural report web page referenced two other ABC pieces (1 and 2) that covered the report. Both were far more informative within the confines of typical news story word limits. Both mention climate frequently but neither mention food, meat, cattle or farming. Let's just repeat my favourite IPCC WG3 report quote:

... even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food system emissions alone would jeopardize the achievement of the 1.5 degrees C target and threaten the 2 degrees C target.

Jared Diamond got it right back in 2005 and the 2021 SOE report just confirmed it. Australia mines its land and our meat industries are the worst culprits. Here's a chilling chart from the report that says so much with a few coloured bars. It's Figure 27 from the Land chapter. First look at the bottom 9 rows. That's what most people think about when they think about land use.

When Australian Financial Review political editor Phil Coorey gave the SOE report a sentence of attention on Insiders a couple of weeks back he lamented the state of the environment saying that we just have to stop:

...wholesale clearing of land for houses and stuff ...

Can you see what he was talking about? ... he's focused on the little red bars marked "Urban intensive uses". It's like lamenting the road toll but thinking it's all about skateboards.

Look now at the big movers in habitat destruction up the top: "Grazing modified pastures" and "Dryland cropping". Plenty of that cropping is also down to meat production (as I'll explain soon). And then there's "Grazing Native Vegetation". Whenever there's a big rain in central Australia, the road trains will quickly truck in cattle so that all that new growth won't get "wasted" ... on wildlife. Much better to be producing red meat, methane and bowel cancer.

Mining isn't always mining

Look at the bars on the left and the right of the centre line. What do the two bars mean? It means we abandoned some areas (that's the bar on the left) and started using new areas (that's the bar on the right). That's what you do when you mine. You exhaust a resource and move on. That means that the net land use may not have changed but the devastation certainly has.

What does "Grazing modified pastures" mean? It means you modify an area, often by aerially sowing it with introduced fast-growing grasses. What about cropping? The useful linguistic convention is that we talk about "food" when it's for people and "feed" when it's for non-human animals. Plenty of Australia's cropping is for feed.

Here's a typical year's worth of feed use (with the blue bar for food use within Australia).

The data in the above graph comes from the Feed Grain Parnership report 2018, except for the blue bar, "Human Food (Aus)", which is typically about 2 million tonnes. "Grains" in Australia are mostly wheat, barley and oats; but the definition includes various other things grown in smaller quantities including field peas, lupins, and sorghum.

Our grain harvest is highly variable, depending on droughts and floods, but is typically between about 25 million tonnes and 50 million. The 36 million tonnes of wheat in 2021 was a record. What we have over and above the feed and food consumed in Australia is exported. Whether it is exported as food or feed will depend on the protein level and markets. It's fairly easy for animal agribusiness in rich countries to outbid poor countries for grain. In a bad year, we import animal feed. In 2020 we exported $1 million dollars worth of soybeans and imported $5 million; again this is for animals, not tofu.

The ignorance of journalists like Coorey in thinking land clearing is about housing is widespread. It's not just journalists, but it's a myopic bias common in environmental circles and Green politics. I wrote about it back in Red Necked Aussie Greenies back in 2009 and nothing much has changed. While the modern Australian environment movement was getting started waving placards about 3 hectares of bush in Sydney and the famous Green Bans of Jack Mundey and the Builders Laborers Federation, some 20,000 hectares of primary rainforest was being cleared with bulldozers for cattle in Queensland and nobody blinked.

Time for everybody to join in on the chorus ...

... even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food system emissions alone would jeopardize the achievement of the 1.5 degrees C target and threaten the 2 degrees C target.

Lastly ...

There's a big table in the SOE (Figure 3 and associated data in the Land Chapter) which gives clearing rates for different habitats. I've summarised the data a little as follows. This is the total of land cleared since white arrival. Summarising still further in words ... we have cleared about 100 million hectares since white arrive; 70 million for livestock, 25 million for crops and the rest to live on and mine. Nevertheless, we are hell bent on thinking our environmental issues come down to plastic coffee cups and solar panels. Where's the equivalent of a green Pauline Hansen willing to stand up in Parliament and shout "Ban the Burger"!



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