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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

The methane is hitting the fan

Back in 2009 I wrote a book, CSIRO Perfidy, about the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet … the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Total Wellbeing Diet. I wrote it for a general audience, but it was mostly vegans who read it. Preaching to the converted can be really hard to avoid when the unconverted prefer to live in denial.

But the Dutch decision, back in February, to reduce the cattle population by 30 percent over the next seven years, coupled with the New Zealand proposal to tax methane from sheep and cattle has caused panic in Australia’s extensive animal agriculture sector. Australian producers and their pit bull political party are outraged.

What did they think was going to happen?

The science on methane and the climate has been solid for over 20 years. The need for global reforestation on a massive scale has been solid for over 20 years.

Did they really believe feeding cattle seaweed was going to save the day? According to Australia’s submissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), methane from animals in feedlots is about 6 percent of the total. All seaweed does is reduce that 6 percent, leaving the other 94 percent untouched.

Reducing the national herd has impacts on those two rock-solid climate issues. First, it directly reduces methane and nitrous oxide. Second, it can allow reforestation which directly removes carbon from the atmosphere. A third, lesser and variable impact, is on soil releases of methane and nitrous oxide. Contrary to popular cattle industry propaganda, soil emissions of these gases are almost always lower on forested land than on pasture.

The ruminant industries have no more chance of maintaining their size and significance than the fossil fuel industries.

The growing realisation between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s among epidemiologists that red and processed meats cause bowel cancer should have been enough to take action. But that didn’t happen. As with tobacco, the meat industry has been very effective in diffusing the message and simply telling lies about their product. Their early funding of CSIRO diet research has been the best investment anybody could imagine. They probably couldn’t believe their luck when CSIRO researchers stooped so low as to misrepresent their own peer reviewed high red meat diet research to support claims for their Total Wellbeing Diet. They told people, in their best selling book, that people on their test diet lost more weight, when they didn't. Millions believed the book and didn't check the actual research.

But delaying the march of science is never a long-term winning strategy. Details on exactly how red and processed meat cause cancer just keep getting richer (for example, see also and also and also and also) and clearer and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just keeps publishing its big reports calling for reforestation and a change in the food system. It doesn’t matter how mealy-mouthed and polite these calls are, they just keep coming.

As climate change bites, the list of people needing help (meaning money) to change what they are doing or how they are doing it will continue to grow. The only question for our ruminant industries is whether they want to be on the end of that queue or get in early; and getting in early is a chance that has come and gone.


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