The livestock industry says the standard method of calculating the global warming contribution of methane significantly overstates the impact of cattle and is calling for policy changes that could slash the emissions counted against the industry.
While some scientists are backing the proposed change, others argue it could lead to an overly optimistic assessment of the climate change contribution of the industry, which committed in 2017 to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
Livestock are the main contributor to agriculture sector emissions. Cows’ gassy burps are loaded with methane, a byproduct of digesting grass. Last year agriculture emissions accounted for 12.9 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas output, down 5.8 per cent as farmers reduced their stock due to drought.
In 1997 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed on a methodology to account for the global warming potential of greenhouse emissions over a 100-year time frame, known as the GWP100.
However, some scientists promote a new accounting methodology known as GWP Star, which counts the global warming potential of greenhouse gases over 20 years.
Methane emissions break down in the atmosphere over 12 years, much quicker than carbon dioxide, which takes 100 years to break down.
Tony Hegarty from the Cattle Council said GWP Star could provide a “more accurate approximation of the actual warming” caused by methane over its lifetime.
“We are prepared to allow the scientists to do the analysis. It’s better for us to call on the government and international community to have a serious conversation. I’m very confident it’s a more accurate approach and it could make a significant difference to our [cattle industry] emissions,” Mr Hegarty said.
The GWP Star method says the greenhouse effect of methane should not be calculated in the same way as carbon dioxide. Under this methodology, when an industry increases above the baseline of emissions starting in 1997, that is counted as growth.
But significantly, a decrease below the 1997 baseline is counted as emission reduction. In this way, when industry emissions fall below the baseline set 23 years ago, it can claim not to be contributing to additional global warming.
Melbourne University agriculture Professor Richard Eckard, who endorses using GWP Star, said the Australian national herd has declined by 12 per cent over 20 years and under GWP Star this would be recognised as net greenhouse gas reduction.
“This calculation shows that livestock in Australia have potentially contributed to a cooling rather than warming, relative to the period prior to 1997,” Professor Eckard said.
However, other scientists say the rate of breakdown doesn’t change the impact of a gas on warming if it’s continually topped up by grazing cows, even while emissions break down.
Australia National University Climate Change Institute director Professor Mark Howden said the atmospheric heating effect of methane “is not fundamentally different to carbon dioxide”.
“There’s a difference in the lifespan of the gases but because there are constant emissions the build-up in the atmosphere is the same,” Professor Howden said.
He said the 20-year accounting time frame also ignores historical emissions.
“GWP Star is trying to compensate for the different lifespan of greenhouse gases, but in doing so it actually grandfathers previous emissions levels (before 1997), which brings all sorts of problems into the system.”
Professor Howden said under GWP Star when an industry reduced its methane emissions by 12 per cent, it may claim to contribute to global cooling and “get a green light”, whereas under the existing GWP100 approach it would still get a red light – just slightly less red.
“These are pretty fundamental differences,” he said.
Researchers at Oxford University have developed GWP*, a new climate metric that accurately measures the impact of methane emissions on global warming – recontextualising the debate surrounding ruminant methane emissions and climate change.
ffinlo Costain, host of FAI Farm’sFarm Gate podcast interviewed Myles Allen and John Lynch from Oxford University to explore their new method of measuring the impacts of methane on climate change. GWP* is a new metric for global warming potential that measures the change in emission rates for methane instead of measuring emissions by volume. According to their research, GWP* gives a more accurate picture of the influence greenhouse gases have on the world’s climate than existing measures, which assign gases a nominal CO2 equivalent number.
Current climate measures, like GWP100, categorise ruminant-emitted methane and agricultural activities among the greatest contributors to climate change. GWP100 reaches this conclusion by comparing the total amount of emissions and extrapolating the potential impacts on the global climate. According to Roland Bonney, co-founder of FAI Farms and Benchmark Holdings plc, many farmers and farm organisations feel unfairly demonised by these conclusions and public reaction to them. Allen and Lynch echo this view and assert that the GWP100 metric doesn’t capture the full relationship between emissions and climate change.
Bonney asserts that raising ruminants sustainably can be part of the solution to climate change. Raising cattle and sheep in a mixed rotation system, ensuring they are grass-fed and that they have access to natural pastureland can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. In his view, how we farm has a greater impact on global climate than what we choose to eat.
The differences between methane and carbon dioxide
Though both methane and CO2 contribute to climate change, they impact global temperatures differently. Humans emit more carbon dioxide than any other greenhouse gas and it remains the largest contributor to climate change. Though some CO2 can be absorbed by the ocean or be fixed in plant biomass, the bulk of human emissions go into the atmosphere. According to Allen, the CO2 left in the atmosphere causes a persistent warming effect over thousands of years, making its impact more cumulative than other gasses. Unless humans ramp up efforts to remove carbon, it will remain in the environment.
In contrast, methane is emitted in smaller quantities. The gas has a stronger warming effect than CO2, but it breaks down quickly. This means that after a few decades, the methane will be out of the atmosphere and any warming affects will cease.
When describing the different impacts of the gases, Lynch compared the impacts of methane emissions to drinking excessively and getting a hangover – the immediate effects will set you back, but as long as you don’t drink to excess again, the pain and nausea will dissipate. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is more akin to lead poisoning – exposure will cause immediate negative effects, and sustained exposure will cause significant damage in the future.
Metaphors aside, comparing one tonne of emitted CO2 to one tonne of emitted methane (CH4) doesn’t give researchers an accurate picture of the gases’ warming potential. Allen’s research indicates that for methane to have the same warming effect as CO2, humans would need to increase methane emissions by multiple tonnes per year and maintain that emissions level indefinitely. In his view, it’s more appropriate to compare the emission rates of methane with a single tonne of emitted carbon dioxide – the central aim of the new GWP* measure. The new metric will also give more accurate climate forecasting than the current GWP100 standard.
GWP* appears to capture these subtleties more effectively than GWP100. Researchers at the SRUC found that measuring the warming impact of farms with a traditional carbon calculator overestimated the impact of farm emissions on climate. When they used GWP* to analyse the same farm data however, methane emissions fell by 75 percent, halving the total climate impact of agricultural emissions.
Ruminant methane and GWP*
In Allen’s analysis, methane’s contribution to climate change is historic – we are feeling the effects of methane pulses from 50 years ago when the global ruminant herd increased. Ruminants contribute to global methane emissions as the herd expands. A new source of methane will have a huge effect, but a sustained source won’t be as impactful. If the herd remains stable or declines (which is happening currently), the methane they produce won’t add to the warming that’s already occurred. Allen argues that the methane produced by the world’s ruminants is keeping global temperatures at stasis – it isn’t contributing to warming or cooling either way.
GWP* allows researchers to differentiate between new sources of methane and existing ones, meaning that fluctuations in the global ruminant herd can be accurately accounted for. According to Lynch, analysing discrete methane sources makes GWP* more accurate and prevents overestimates of the gas’s climate effects.
In Allen’s view, removing all ruminants in order to tackle methane emissions wouldn’t provide a huge climate benefit. Culling ruminants would only give the climate a temporary pulse of cooling – a temporary reduction of 0.1 degrees at the absolute maximum. That’s the equivalent of a few years’ worth of warming from CO2 emissions. Instead of focusing solely on ruminant emissions, activists should also account for methane leakages in Britain’s natural gas infrastructure. Both Lynch and Allen agreed that eliminating CO2 emissions would do more to counteract climate change than simply reducing methane produced by ruminants.
Refocusing on carbon
Allen told Costain that though reducing methane would help the climate, tackling carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry is more pressing. The emissions from this sector are “additional” to the world’s existing carbon cycle and cause present and future warming events. Unless the UK and other countries enact zero net carbon emissions policies, global climate change will continue. Lynch echoed these sentiments, saying that carbon emissions needed to be removed or offset to stabilise global temperatures.
Mycobacteria and TB have been in the news a lot recently. In fact, one particular species has been hogging the limelight: Mycobacterium bovis. As its name suggests, it likes to infect cows, but as we’re recently all too aware, it’s quite happy in badgers too.
There are about 120 species of mycobacteria. They’re rod-like bacilli with a thick, waxy cell wall. The “human” member of the Mycobacterium family (using this word conversationally, as Mycobacterium is of course a genus, not a family, taxonomically) is M tuberculosis. From its point of view, it’s very successful. From our point of view, it’s the most important bacterial disease that afflicts us, causing about one-and-a-half million deaths a year.
This is how TB is caught: you breathe in tiny droplets of fluid containing just a few bacilli. In your lungs, your own immune cells move in and swallow up the bugs – but this is exactly what they want. Inside the immune cell, the bacilli replicate and pile up. More immune cells pile in. If you’re lucky, the bacilli are held tight in this lump, this tubercle. If you’re unlucky, the bugs get out and the disease spreads – through your lungs (and you start coughing up droplets with bacilli in, ready to infect someone else), through your whole body, even getting into your bones.
Not that long ago, TB in humans was thought to have been a fairly recent affliction, dating back to the neolithic and the origins of farming. This oft-repeated idea seemed reasonable – there didn’t seem to be any convincing cases of TB in skeletons dating to earlier periods. Perhaps close contact between early farmers and their cattle exposed them to M bovis, which then evolved into M tuberculosis in its new host.
But this isn’t the story written in the DNA of the bacilli. In 1999, an early genetic study cast doubt on the ancestor-descendant relationship between the bovine and human forms of TB. More studies confirmed the new story. If anything, the ancestor of both human and bovine forms must have been closer to the human form – with its larger chromosome. It’s even possible that cows caught TB from us (or at least, from another mammal that had caught “human” TB).
Using molecular clocks to date the age of M tuberculosis, looking for the last common ancestor of current versions of the bug, is problematic, and has produced a great range of dates from 15-40,000 years ago. All of these easily predate farming. However, this date is likely to just record a population crash in TB, probably because of a crash in the numbers of its host. Humans (and their ancestors) could have been suffering from TB for hundreds of thousands of years before then.
Earlier this year, filming for BBC2’s Prehistoric Autopsyseries, I visited Göttingen, and the lab of Professor Michael Schultz. He showed me a fascinating fossil, a piece of a Homo erectus skull, found in a travertine tile factory in Turkey. Scientific articles can be dry, stuffy things, but the one in which Michael described the fossil includes this fantastic quote: “Given the nature of its discovery in a factory workshop, the hominin was unfortunately reduced to a standard rough-cut tile thickness of 35mm.”
Despite the rough treatment of the fossil, the bone was very well preserved, and on the inner surface of the skull, Michael showed me clusters of small pits – things that just shouldn’t be there in normal bone. They were quite clearly pathological, and Michael believed that the best explanation for them, given their appearance and their position inside the skull, was meningitis caused by M tuberculosis. Here was evidence for a human ancestor suffering from TB, half a million years ago.
Back to the present, and TB has scarcely been out of the news for the past few weeks. The Great Badger Cull has become one of the hottest political potatoes of the year. So what is the scientific evidence? Well, it seems pretty clear that badgers do help spread bovine TB. But that also seems to be where the certainty ends. Bovine TB in the UK has been going up and up – but how much of that is due to better diagnosis? And could culling badgers really help to reduce it? A study published in the journal Nature in 2006 showed that culling badgers reduced the rates of TB among cattle in the area where the cull took place – but increased it in neighbouring areas. In 2011, based on the results of previous trials, scientists advised the current government that culling 70% of badgers in large areas could result in a 16% reduction in bovine TB. For the government, that was enough.
But some scientists are now concerned that the cull – particularly if carried out by free shooting, which hasn’t been trialled, or if targets are missed – could make matters worse.
For this winter, the badgers are safe. Like Caesar presiding over a bizarre gladiatorial contest, environment secretary Owen Paterson granted the badgers a stay of execution, at the eleventh hour. There are just too many of them to make a 70% cull achievable this late in the year.
So the debate continues. It’s an argument about science, politics and economics. It centres on protecting food animals from harm, just as our ancestors have done since farming first got started. But, to me, it also raises interesting questions about how we see ourselves and other animals. It’s about how much we see ourselves as a “dominant” species, entitled to subjugate the needs of other animals beneath our own. It’s about how much room we demand as a human population (with a taste for milk and beef) and how much room we’re prepared to make for wildlife.
And let’s not forget, if it hadn’t been for us, cattle and badgers might not have had TB in the first place.
Over the past decade, we have seen the media place blame for our changing climate on cattle. Scientific evidence does not support this claim though for cattle in the United States.
Cattle produce a lot of methane gas, primarily through enteric fermentation and fermentation of their manure. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that, along with nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and some other compounds in the atmosphere, create a blanket around our planet. This is good; without this atmospheric blanket, the earth would be too cold for us to survive. The current problem is that concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere are increasing, which is thickening our blanket.
Greenhouse gases and the atmosphere
The methane that cattle produce is part of a natural carbon cycle that has been happening since the beginning of life on our planet. Through photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere and fixed as carbohydrates in plant material. Cattle consume and digest these carbohydrates, where some of the carbon is transformed to carbon dioxide and methane gases that are respired back to the atmosphere. This methane is oxidized in the atmosphere through a series of reactions, transforming that carbon back to where it started as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In contrast, when we burn fossil fuels, we are taking carbon that has been stored in the earth since pre-historic times and converting it to “new” carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere. For every gallon of fuel consumed, about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are created and released to the atmosphere. We are releasing this gas more rapidly than it can be absorbed in our oceans and soils. Thus, we are observing a rather rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, and the effect of this change will be with us for 1000s of years. Whereas cattle are part of a natural cycle with short-term impact, burning of fossil fuels has a more permanent impact.
Cattle numbers and greenhouse gas emissions
We must also consider the number of cattle and their productivity. Cattle numbers in the United States have been stable or declining for many years. Beef cow numbers peaked in 1975, and the current number is similar to that maintained in the early 1960s. Dairy cow numbers are the lowest they have been in over 100 years.
We also have to consider that modern cattle are getting larger and more productive. They consume more feed and produce more methane per animal, but they are also more efficient producing more meat or milk per unit of feed consumed. Considering cattle numbers and these increases in productivity and efficiency, methane emission from cattle in the United States has not increased over the past 50 years.
This is recent history; what if we look further back? Ruminant wildlife were prevalent in North America before European settlement. Although there are not accurate numbers for the buffalo, elk, deer, and other ruminants on the continent at that time, estimates are available. Based upon those estimates, these animals produced methane in the range of 50% less to 25% more than the current population of cattle, other farm ruminants and wildlife. This indicates that cattle today are not contributing a substantial increase in the methane emissions from U.S. lands compared to pre-settlement times.
So what might be increasing methane concentration in the atmosphere? Global cattle numbers are increasing. Methane is also released during the extraction, refining, and transport of fossil fuels. This methane also oxidizes in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide, but this is not part of a natural cycle. Like the combustion of fuels, this removes carbon stored in the earth to create new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with very long-term effects.
Can cattle be part of the solution?
The fact remains that cattle produce a lot of methane. This methane is essentially wasted energy escaping the rumen. Reducing this waste by increasing the efficiency of the rumen may provide a substantial benefit by producing more meat or milk with less feed consumed. Dietary changes can reduce enteric methane production, and feed supplements are being explored to improve feed efficiency and reduce emissions.
Depending upon the cost of dietary changes and supplements, these interventions may provide economic benefit to the producer. In addition, there is the possibility of claiming carbon credits for this reduction. Companies and other institutions desiring to reduce their carbon footprint may be willing to pay cattle producers to use these mitigation practices. This is largely in the future for now.
So, although cattle in the United States are not causing an increase in global warming and related climate change, they may become part of the solution. Reducing any source of greenhouse gas emission will benefit our planet.
The cows grazed under a hot sun near a wooden bridge spanning a river in the Amazon. The quiet was occasionally broken by a motorbike growling along a dirt road that cut through the sprawling cattle ranch.
But the idyllic pasture was on land that the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch has been forbidden to use for cattle since 2010, when it was embargoed by Brazil’s environment agency Ibama as a punishment for deforestation. Nearby there were more signs of fresh pasture: short grass, feeding troughs, and fresh salt used to feed cattle — all in apparent contravention of rules designed to protect vital rainforest.
This vast 145,000 hectare ranch is one of several owned by AgroSB Agropecuária SA — a company known in the region as Santa Barbara. Located in an environmentally protected area, Lagoa do Triunfo is more than 600km from the capital of the Amazon state of Pará, on the western fringes of Brazil’s “agricultural frontier” — where farming eats into the rainforest.
The investigation found that last year the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch delivered hundreds of heads of cattle to some of Santa Barbara’s other farms for the final stage of fattening. Cattle was then sent from those farms to slaughter in JBS plants. Using GPS and publicly available maps and locations, reporters located cattle and pasture inside embargoed areas at Lagoa do Triunfo.
The revelations come as work by Trase, an NGO, shared exclusively with our team, has revealed how huge swathes of felled rainforest can be traced back to this cattle trade — and how beef raised on deforested land ends up in international supply chains.
Embargoes — restrictions that ban farmers guilty of deforestation or environmental damage from using parts of their own land — are imposed by the Brazilian government and serve both as a punishment and a protective measure to allow land to recover. They can be more effective than fines because they come at a higher cost for farmers.
But our investigative team visited land clearly demarcated as embargoed on government websites, and found grazing cows there. A worker at the ranch said that cattle were left to roam in areas employees knew were embargoed. “You can’t cut down the vegetation,” the employee said. “The vegetation grows and we work the cattle inside.”
Santa Barbara is an enormous, powerful ranching empire, owned by the billionaire Daniel Dantas, that controls half a million hectares across Pará. In 2008 Dantas was twice arrested on bribery charges and handed a ten-year sentence as a result of a corruption investigation that also saw his land confiscated. The investigation’s findings were subsequently overturned, the sentence dropped and Dantas got all his land back.
Over the past decade, according to Repórter Brasil, Santa Barbara has been accused of illegal deforestation and faced allegations of using slave-like labour — accusations it strongly denies. Lagoa do Triunfo is one of its largest ranches. There are 12 separate embargoed areas on it, dating from 2010 to 2013.
The Wild West on the Edge of the Amazon
With a population of 125,000 people and over two million cattle, the nearby town of Sao Félix do Xingu, in Pará state, covers an area bigger than Scotland. Cattle ranching fed its growth from remote Amazon outpost to busy town. And there is money here: farmers’ wives are happy to pay $600 for a handbag, said Kelli Moraes, a 25-year-old sales assistant. “They are very fashion.”
Sao Félix do Xingu was mostly forest when Arlindo Rosa, now president of the town’s union of rural producers, arrived in 1993. “There was practically none of this farming … there was no highway, there was nothing,” he said.
“People came from outside with the spirit to raise cattle,” said his vice-president, Francisco Torres, who arrived in 1987. Santa Barbara, the region’s biggest ranching company, began buying land near Sao Félix do Xingu in 2006, Torres said.
Torres said many ranches in the area have suffered Ibama embargoes. “If they removed those embargoes, a lot would improve,” said Rosa. As is common with farmers and landowners in Amazon areas, both men were critical of what they saw as overzealous environmental controls. Rosa owes $1.4 million to Ibama in fines for deforestation, according to the agency’s website.
But embargoes have not stopped Santa Barbara illegally grazing cattle on deforested land, nor JBS being able to perfectly legally do business with the company, our investigation found.
JBS Beef Brazil’s “responsible procurement policy” says it “does not purchase animals from farms involved in deforestation of native forests … or that are embargoed” by Ibama. But the company has also said that the common practice of transferring cattle from one farm to another for fattening can make it impossible to trace individual cows.
Official state documents seen by the Bureau, the Guardian and Repórter Brasil showed that from January to October 2018, Santa Barbara delivered at least 296 cattle from the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch to its Espiríto Santo ranch in Xinguara, in the same state. Between July 2018 and January this year, Santa Barbara sent 2,900 cattle from the Espiríto Santo ranch to JBS slaughterhouses.
Throughout 2018, Santa Barbara also sent at least 729 cattle from the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch to be fattened at its Porto Rico ranch in Xinguara. In April 2018, 36 cattle from the Porto Rico ranch were sent to slaughter at a JBS plant.
JBS said that 99.9% of its cattle purchases meet its socio-environmental criteria and that it was working to implement “a new procedure to cover all links in the supply chain” and stop the use of “cattle from illegally deforested areas”.
Santa Barbara said it did not carry out deforestation to increase its area “but rather recovers degraded areas” and turns them into pastures. It said that trees on the Lagoa do Triunfo ranch had been felled before the Forest Code was introduced and that only 7% of the land is under embargo.
New research tracking beef cattle back to the ranches they were raised on has revealed the full extent of deforestation in the Amazon that is linked to a handful of global food corporations.
Trase, a supply chain research project developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy, tracked livestock from deforested areas to abattoirs producing beef for international markets, as well as meat for domestic use. Up to 5,800 square kilometres of forest is being felled in the Amazon and other areas every year for cattle ranching.
The destruction of between 280-320 sq km of forest each year is linked to JBS’s supply chain for exported beef, according to the data assembled by Trase. There is no suggestion any Lagoa do Triunfo beef is exported.
JBS, which slaughters almost 35,000 cattle in Brazil per day, has faced a string of allegations relating to deforestation. In 2017, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, raided and ordered the suspension of two JBS meat-packing plants in Pará accused of having purchased cattle raised on illegally deforested land between 2013 and 2016.
JBS denied the allegations but was fined R$24.7 million ($8 million). In the same year, a Guardian investigation with Repórter Brasil revealed how the company had purchased cattle linked to poor labour conditions and deforestation, resulting in UK supermarket Waitrose removing the company’s products from its shelves.
The findings come amid growing international concern over the looming impacts of climate change, with the Amazon forest seen by experts as a crucial buffer in stabilising regional and global climate.
Between 1980 and 2005, Amazon deforestation levels reached 20,000 sq km per year — with an area the size of Wales being lost. Although there have been political murmurings about trying to halt the destruction, the latest data shows that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has risen by 73% since 2012.
Erasmus zu Ermgassen, lead researcher at Trase, said: “Though some slaughterhouses monitor their direct suppliers and so in theory can avoid farms associated with deforestation, none monitor their indirect suppliers, who make up the bulk of their supply chain.”
Trase added: “There is a huge opportunity to reduce the deforestation associated with the production and exports of beef in Brazil. There is enormous potential to use land more efficiently and sustainably in the Brazilian beef sector, and to improve rural livelihoods by investing in cattle ranching on existing pasturelands.”
Trase will release the data in full later this month.
On Good Friday, 15 animal rights activists occupied a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn in an effort to draw public attention to the lambs who are killed for Easter dinner. They remained inside until the police arrived 20 minutes later. While they were unable to rescue any animals, they did capture footage of lambs and goats in their final moments.
“We wanted to appeal to the conscience of the management during the holiday weekend by giving them the chance to spare two lives,” said Jill Carnegie, one of the protest organizers. “Even with the theme of “new life” spanning multiple belief systems, they refused. As a result, we felt compelled to occupy their place of business.”
Animal rights activists ask slaughterhouse owner to show mercy during the Easter holiday by giving them two lambs.
During the Easter holiday weekend, animal rights activists around the world took to social media to address the inconsistency of eating animals during Easter, a holiday that celebrates life. Almost 1,000 people shared words of wisdom posted by vegan spokesperson Ed Winters, also known as Earthling Ed.
“The cultural tradition of butchering lambs for Easter is so brutally contradictory with our cultural fondness of lambs. Lambs are found in so many things related to human children – books, toys, clothes, decor, nursery rhymes and fairytales. We connect them with our own children as they are full of innocence and life.
Sheep have a deep bond with their young, and lambs are known to form very close relationships with their mothers. Sheep, like all maternal parents (human and non-human), get distressed when they can’t find their children. So the sheep whose children are used for lamb ‘production’ suffer huge amounts of grief and turmoil when their babies are taken from them year after year. We eat babies in the name of tradition, and we destroy families in the name of peace. This isn’t in our nature, as we would never take a child to a slaughterhouse to witness how a ‘leg of lamb’ arrived at the family dinner table.
Easter is a celebration of life, so why must so many suffer and die? Blood does not need to be shed in order for us to celebrate. The foundations of so many of our traditions come from the idea of unity and togetherness, so indeed today and everyday let us live by those values and pledge to not only live in unity with our own species, but all species.”
Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the environment and contributes to climate change.
“Methane is kind of complicated because it’s a global problem,” said Rainer Volkamer, an associate professor of chemistry at CU Boulder. “We want to be able to keep track of it and what are the important sources.”
Methane lives in the atmosphere for about ten years, traveling from the North Pole to the South Pole before eventually being destroyed in the tropics.
Colorado has two main sources of methane emissions: natural gas production and livestock.
“Methane is the same whether it’s emitted from oil and gas or whether it’s emitted from a cow.” Volkamer said.
For years, it has been difficult for industries to determine whether livestock or natural gas production emits more methane.
“They need to know what their impact is on the environment,” Volkamer said.
In the past, methane emissions were measured by an airplane.
However, Volkamer and others created the CU mobile Solar Occultation Flux to help measure methane emissions from the ground and determine exactly where they are coming from. It was developed as part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).
“With our technique, we could show that the majority is produced from oil and gas and that the agricultural sources are a significant minor source for methane in the region,” Volkamer said.
The conclusion camefrom data Volkamer and study co-author Natalie Kille, a PhD student at CU Boulder, gathered over a five-day period in 2015 and have been working to analyze.
The researchers measurednot only methane, but also ethane emissions, which is co-emitted from oil and gas producers. On the livestock side, the box measures ammonia that is co-emitted from the cows. By measuring all three, researchers can determine who is emitting what.
The machine is tiny compared to its predecessors; it’s about the size of a car engine. It’s also a much more cost-effective way to measure methane.
“This instrument is a tenth of the cost of another instrument that fills an entire room and it’s mobile, so it’s cost-effective for that reason,” Volkamer said.
It is also, in principle, able to perform the same functions inside of an airplane if researchers want to use that method.
Beyond that, the technique can determine exactly what methane was created in Colorado and which emissions were created elsewhere to give the state a better idea of its contributions to climate change.
Eventually, this data could help natural gas producers, cattle farmers and state regulators figure out how to mitigate air pollution. The researchers are hoping to build on this data with a long-term study over several seasons to see how methane emissions change over time.
A new analysis found that the burger also uses 87% less water than beef, uses 96% less land, and cuts water contamination by 92%. Those numbers are improvements on the last iteration of the burger, in part because the company has become more efficient as it grows and because it switched from wheat to soy as a key ingredient, because soy also yields more acres on a farm. But the majority of the impact simply comes from the fact that the product isn’t made from an animal.
“The best, fastest, easiest way to make meat more sustainable is to avoid the cow,” says Rebekah Moses, senior manager of impact strategy at Impossible Foods. “By making the Impossible Burger directly from plants, we have the luxury of bypassing the most inefficient stage in the entire food system.” Cows are known for their greenhouse gas-producing burps–the largest source of methane emissions in agriculture–but also require cattle feed that takes large amounts of land, water, fertilizer to grow, and often leads to deforestation. The cow’s manure is also another major of source of pollution.
The life-cycle analysis, which was verified by the sustainability consulting group Quantis, looked at each part of the plant-based burger’s production, from the water and energy used to produce heme, the ingredient that gives the flavor a blood-like taste, to the resources used to grow other ingredients like soy and potatoes, and produce the packaging. The product uses 4% of the land needed to produce beef. “That’s a very, very conservative estimate on our part–most cattle globally require far more land than that estimate,”Moses says. “It’s completely inefficient, and it’s why beef is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. If most of the land that’s used for cattle feed were to be left alone, without the gassy animals, to re-vegetate and actually store carbon in trees and grasslands, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we could set the clock back on climate change through food choice alone.”
For an individual, the company calculated, swapping Impossible “meat” for a pound of ground beef saves seven pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, 90 gallons of water, and 290 square feet of land. Still, while some consumers might be choosing plant-based meat for environmental reasons, the startup isn’t relying on sustainability to sell the product. “What we really wanted was to create a delicious product that can compete with beef on taste and craveability,” she says. “That’s the primary motivator for most people, and that’s who we want to empower by providing a more planet-friendly option. Sustainability attributes are, for most consumers, a ‘nice to have’ in food choice, rather than the driving force of purchasing.”
Dramatic rises in atmospheric methane are threatening to derail plans to hold global temperature rises to 2C, scientists have warned.
In a paper published this month by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say sharp rises in levels of methane – which is a powerful greenhouse gas – have strengthened over the past four years. Urgent action is now required to halt further increases in methane in the atmosphere, to avoid triggering enhanced global warming and temperature rises well beyond 2C.
“What we are now witnessing is extremely worrying,” said one of the paper’s lead authors, Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London. “It is particularly alarming because we are still not sure why atmospheric methane levels are rising across the planet.”
Methane is produced by cattle, and also comes from decaying vegetation, fires, coal mines and natural gas plants. It is many times more potent as a cause of atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it breaks down much more quickly than CO2 and is found at much lower levels in the atmosphere.
During much of the 20th century, levels of methane, mostly from fossil fuel sources, increased in the atmosphere but, by the beginning of the 21st century, it had stabilised, said Nisbet. “Then, to our surprise, levels starting rising in 2007. That increase began to accelerate after 2014 and fast growth has continued.”
Studies suggest these increases are more likely to be mainly biological in origin. However, the exact cause remains unclear. Some researchers believe the spread of intense farming in Africa may be involved, in particular in tropical regions where conditions are becoming warmer and wetter because of climate change. Rising numbers of cattle – as well as wetter and warmer swamps – are producing more and more methane, it is argued.
This idea is now being studied in detail by a consortium led by Nisbet, whose work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. This month the consortium completed a series of flights over Uganda and Zambia to collect samples of the air above these countries.
“We have only just started analysing our data but have already found evidence that a great plume of methane now rises above the wetland swamps of Lake Bangweul in Zambia,” added Nisbet.
However, other scientists warn that there could be a more sinister factor at work. Natural chemicals in the atmosphere – which help to break down methane – may be changing because of temperature rises, causing it to lose its ability to deal with the gas.
Our world could therefore be losing its power to cleanse pollutants because it is heating up, a climate feedback in which warming allows more greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere and so trigger even more warming.
This point was backed by Martin Manning of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “Methane is the gas … that keeps us to a 2C rise in global temperatures. And even more significantly, we do not really know why.”
If nothing can be done about this, he added, then even more cuts will have to be made in CO2 emissions. Continued increases in methane levels will only make this situation worse, he said.
This point was backed by Nisbet. “It was assumed, at the time of the Paris, agreement, that reducing the amount of methane in the atmosphere would be relatively easy and that the hard work would involve cutting CO2emissions.
“However, that does not look so simple any more. We don’t know exactly what is happening.
“Perhaps emissions are growing or perhaps the problem is due to the fact that our atmosphere is losing its ability to break down methane.
“Either way we are facing a very worrying problem. That is why it is so important that we unravel what is going on – as soon as possible.”
When high-flying global entrepreneur Richard Branson announced in 2014 he was giving up beef for the good of the planet, Australian Farm Institute director Mick Keogh couldn’t resist having a dig at his integrity and mental competence.
“Is Mr Branson a knave or a fool?” asked Keogh, now deputy commissioner of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, wondering whether the Virgin Airlines founder was perhaps deliberately deflecting public attention away from his own commercial activities by demonising meat and cattle production.
“If Mr Branson is truly concerned about this issue and not just seeking publicity, he should look at his own business first rather than pointing a finger at beef,” Keogh said.
Branson said he had been forced into vegetarianism by his concern that meat consumption — and so livestock farming — was causing global warming, environmental degradation, Amazonian jungle deforestation and water wastage. He also said keeping cattle in barns and intensive systems such as feedlots where they are fed grain were wasteful and worsening global warming.
Keogh pointed out that greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock production contribute between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of total human-related carbon emissions, which are leading to harmful global warming and climate change.
In contrast, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found the transport sector worldwide — planes, cars and trucks combined — contributes a massive 22 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions (second only to power generation), a figure growing at the rate of 2.5 per cent a year.
Keogh also noted that a one-way flight between London and Sydney added 3500kg of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases per person to the atmosphere, while CO2-equivalent emissions associated with producing a 100g beef hamburger were 1kg.
“The IPCC itself has stated that reducing travel distances, moving to energy-efficient vehicles and non-fossil fuels and avoiding unnecessary travel are (among) the most promising mitigation strategies to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Keogh, querying why Branson’s evangelism for reducing greenhouse gases did not extend this far.
This week, when the latest IPCC report came out on how the world could limit damaging global temperature increases to less than an average 1.5C — a target that needs to be achieved by 2050 if irreparable and lasting climate change is to be prevented — abandoning or limiting meat consumption was again listed as a top-10 mitigation strategy
It is also, worryingly for Australia’s $18.5 billion red meat industry and 82,500 sheep and cattle farmers, becoming a refrain that is accepted without question within the wider community: that eating meat is damaging the environment.
To western Victoria cattle and sheep farmer Mark Wootton, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Together with his partner Eve Kantor, Wootton farms 3500ha of lush green pastures in the western foothills of the Grampians north of Hamilton, where they run more than 25,000 merino sheep for their wool and meat lambs, and 800 cattle.
The couple, together with Kantor’s family, helped found the Climate Institute think tank and policy group — credited with encouraging changed business and community attitudes towards the urgent need to limit greenhouse gas emissions — and they believe climate change remains the biggest threat to their own, and Australia’s, agricultural activities.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it,” says Wootton. “For us, that meant testing the theory that Australian farmers can run their properties and businesses in a way that is carbon neutral — or even positive — in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but that is still about normal farming practices and highly productive.”
Since 2001, Wootton and Kantor have set about boosting the carbon stored on their Jigsaw Farms properties, while also working with Melbourne University professor Richard Eckard to measure — and endeavour to reduce — all the carbon emissions associated with their farming operations to the point where they became a zero carbon business.
For the couple, that meant planting thousands of trees on their farms while also investing in solar power, to offset the carbon emitted as methane by their livestock and their heavy use of pasture fertilisers and fuel.
Against expectations, Wootton says livestock-carrying capacity and returns have actually increased, while more than 37,000 tonnes of carbon was sequestrated in their growing trees in 14 years, putting the business well on the way to becoming carbon-neutral.
Such stories are music to the ears of Richard Norton, chief executive of Meat & Livestock Australia.
Rare among nations, industries or even agricultural producer groups, the MLA ambitiously decided more than a decade ago that it would commit Australia’s red meat industry to being carbon-neutral by 2030: a big ask given the large amounts of methane emitted daily by Australia’s 28 million cattle and 70 million sheep because of their rumen digestive systems.
“No one thought it was feasible but already we have reduced total emissions by the red meat industry by 45 per cent between 2005 and 2015, according to CSIRO, mainly by genetic improvements that mean the animals we farm today grow quicker and are more efficient converters of grass to meat,” Norton says.
There is no dispute in the academic and climate change world that livestock is one of the biggest contributors to carbon gas build-up in the atmosphere and total global greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a key driver of global warming.
The latest report by the IPCC attributes 14 per cent of all emissions to agriculture. The bulk — contributing 10 per cent of harmful emissions — come from livestock production, mostly dairy and beef cattle belching and farting methane (a harmful greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide).
While figures vary depending on farming systems and feed, numerous studies have shown beef cattle emit 50-90kg of methane a year, dairy cows 100-150kg a year and sheep about 8kg.
On the positive side, methane is a short-lived pollutant; it lasts in the atmosphere for 12 years after production while a kilogram of CO2 will linger for more than a century. But the harmful effect of 1kg of methane emissions on potential warming is 36 times worse than CO2 over a 100-year period.
Eckard, an animal production professor and director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, says the magnified impact of methane on short-term global warming is the reason the IPCC report suggests cutting meat intake would be one of the biggest and best changes individuals and society can make.
“It’s low-hanging fruit — a get-out-of-jail card free, if you like, as far as the IPCC report goes,” he says. “Livestock is the biggest single easiest way to reduce methane emissions; each kilogram of methane produced now has 86 times the impact of a kilogram of carbon dioxide on global warming, so if you immediately start to cut methane emissions from one major source, it’s going to have a quicker impact on the IPCC aim of limiting global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees by 2050.”
The big impact of animal farming on the warming atmosphere is made worse because, with estimates the world’s population will grow by nearly three billion by 2050, red meat consumption and demand is set to take off. Global meat production is projected to double from 229 million tonnes in 2000 to 465 million tonnes in 2050 to meet the new demand for red meat, while annual milk and dairy output is set to climb from 580 million to 1043 million tonnes.
The number of cattle needed to meet beef and dairy demand is expected to balloon from the present 1.5 billion to three billion, increasing calls for red meat consumption to be slashed to reduce the pace of climate change.
But Eckard argues that animal farming is being unfairly targeted.
“If, as an individual, you want to have an impact on climate change, do it in balance; there is no point in stopping eating red meat if you still drive a gas-guzzling 4WD and don’t have solar panels on your roof, because switching to a hybrid Prius and solar power will have just as big a benefit for the environment and world climate as turning vegetarian.”
Recent studies by Virginia Tech University also question whether plant-based diets equal sustainability and are the only route to reducing agriculture’s heavy global warming footprint.
As researcher Doug Liebe told this week’s BeefEx conference in Brisbane, it is easy for the impact of removing animals from the human food chain to be oversimplified and twisted.
The Virginia Tech studies show that if all animals were taken out of agricultural production — with the grain they had been fed directed to human consumption — the US could produce 23 per cent more human food. But the overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly less — cutting US emissions by just 2.6 per cent — because animal-produced fertilisers used in farming would need to be replaced by synthetic ones.