From burping cows to grazing sheep, when it comes to global warming the finger of blame is invariably pointed at the livestock farming industry these days.
Animal agriculture is causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to raise, say critics, and if we’re serious about tackling climate change then we need to cut red meat from our diets and switch from cow’s milk to alternatives such as soy or oat milk for our tea or coffee.
It’s an argument that’s gained a significant amount of traction, with more and more people adopting vegan diets in response to repeated reports that livestock are a major contributor to the world’s environmental problems.
But while animal agriculture is by no means blameless in the global warming debate, it seems the industry’s impact on the environment is not as significant as critics suggest.
The government has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture as part of its overall effort to reduce New Zealand’s emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
What kind of madness is this? With all of the economic issues affecting our country, why is the government putting in place policies and IPCC-driven mandates that will seriously affect the food producing sector that provides food security for us and is also our primary income earner?
The worst part about this is that we now know that all of our government’s agricultural policies are based on science that is wrong as proven by the UNFCCC declaration in November 2022 which stated that their predictions around climate change were in fact wrong and that they were reducing their predicted climate warming numbers by 50%.
“The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has announced that it now accepts research showing climate change is expected to reach just 2.5°C – only half as much as the mainstream media has long assumed.
In a formal statement, the UNFCCC said the world is “on track for around 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century”.
Our Prime Minister at the time (December 2020), Jacinda Ardern, declared a climate emergency and since that time the Labour government has been making decisions, based on the UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014 fifth assessment report.
These decisions around lowering our greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sectors have been based on facts that we now find were actually wrong. The UN has now stated that the figures need to be cut in half.
As a result of this change to the science, there should be an urgent rethinking of methane to acknowledge the true impact of livestock production on the planet.
Livestock’s impact has been hugely overstated, while the major culprit — the use of fossil fuels, particularly for transportation — has largely been allowed to slip under the radar.
But perhaps more significant, however, is the lack of understanding about the methane famously emitted in cows’ burps, and how it acts in the environment.
While methane has been said to be 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, the UNFCCC declaration in November 2022 also stated that this figure was wrong.
The IPCC admitted the mistake in their Sixth Assessment Report, explaining at page 1016 of Chapter 7, “…expressing methane emissions as CO2 equivalent of 28, overstates the effect on global surface temperature by a factor of 3-4”.
After ten years, methane is broken down in a process called hydroxyl oxidation into CO2, entering a biogenic carbon cycle which sees the gas absorbed by plants, converted into cellulose, and eaten by livestock.
To put that into context, each year 558m tons of methane is produced globally, with 188m tons coming from agriculture. Almost that entire quantity — 548m tons — is broken down through oxidation and absorbed by plants and soils.
That means that provided no new animals are added to the system, then the same amount of carbon dioxide produced by livestock is actually used by plants during photosynthesis.
That’s not to say livestock has no impact on climate, but we are not adding additional warming.Declining stock numbers
In fact, with stock numbers decreasing thanks to increased production efficiencies and improved genetics we are reducing our emissions.
The Dairy herd has shrunk from Peak Dairy cows @ 6.7 million stock units in 2014 down to 6,140,000 stock units in the 2023/24 season;
Beef stock units have reduced from a peak of 6.3million in 1975 to 3.9 million.
There were 25.14 million sheep in New Zealand as of June 2022 down from a high in the 1980’s of approximately 70 million sheep
We have got smaller flocks and herds today, but we are producing the same amount of meat as we did when we had larger numbers.
There are many who claim that agricultural land used to raise livestock should be converted to arable land, but the problem with that argument is that two thirds of the world’s agricultural land is marginal, which means it cannot be used to grow crops because the soil is not sufficient or there’s not enough water.
We have to use that land for livestock farming, because it’s the only way to use it.
Those who say stop animal agriculture because it’s better for the environment and humankind are effectively saying let’s get rid of two thirds of all agricultural land.
When they the government says we need to reduce the national herd by 20% to meet our climate commitments haven’t we done that already?
Aside from just the reduction in the total stock units in NZ there is also the fact that the science used to calculate the emissions from livestock farming does not take into account the carbon sequestration from the grass pasture land itself.
If all forms of carbon sequestration on farms was taken into account when calculating our GHG emissions it would be seen that farming is in fact reducing our emissions overall.
With our open pasture methods of livestock farming we are acknowledged as one of the world’s most environmentally sound producers of agricultural products.
Why aren’t our negotiators pointing this out to the climate commissioners and our markets?