Pastoral nations object to cattle cutbacks recommended for greenhouse gas emissions based on factory farm data
GLASGOW, Scotland––“Cutting methane,” specifically methane emitted by cattle, “is the biggest opportunity to slow [global] warming between now and 2040,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead reviewer Durwood Zaelke suggested in August 2021, during the run-up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
A week into the two-week conference, called COP26 as shorthand for the 26th Conference of the Parties, Zaelke appears to have set the agenda.
Yet it is not clear that cutting global methane emissions as sharply as climate change scientists recommend is either doable or politically viable without achieving simultaneous global acceptance of the necessity of adopting a plant-based diet.
Going veg is not on the COP26 agenda
Accomplishing that, unfortunately, is not on the COP26 agenda.
And neither are some other potentially effective and relatively inexpensive ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which also would hit the livestock industry, including producers of pigs and chickens as well as cattle and dairy farmers.
Summarized Vanderbilt University professor of journalism and science writing Amanda Little in a guest opinion column for Bloomberg News, “More than 100 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge advanced by the [Joseph] Biden administration, which calls for slashing this potent greenhouse gas by 30% in less than a decade.
“President Biden’s focus on voluntary reductions is a creative way to get big results fast with little economic impact,” Little conceded, “and it brings agriculture to the table in an important way for the first time at a United Nations Climate Change Conference.
“War on methane is missing key components”
“Yet Biden’s war on methane is missing key components — most notably, nitrous oxide, another overlooked greenhouse gas that’s as much as 15 times more potent than methane.
Methane accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., while nitrous oxide accounts for nearly as much — about 7%,” Little wrote.
“In both cases,” Little explained, “agriculture––not the energy industry, which comes in second––is the biggest culprit. Livestock production practices and the overuse of agrochemicals derived from fossil fuels produce the lion’s share of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
“The U.S has one of the most livestock-centered and petrochemically intensive food systems in the world,” Little continued. “As the Biden administration helms a global campaign for countries to voluntarily reduce methane, it should expand the effort to include nitrous oxide [emitted by nitrogen fertilizers] and mount a mandatory push at home. Livestock producers must be required to ratchet down their methane emissions and crop producers to rein in their use of fertilizers that are fueling climate change.”
About 70% of U.S. crop production goes toward feeding pigs, poultry, and cattle in confinement systems, better known as factory farming.
“No country has a real target to reduce meat consumption”
“No country has a real target to reduce its livestock-related emissions or meat consumption,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung head of agricultural policy Christine Chemnitz told Tom Levitt of The Guardian.
Named after the post-World War II writer Heinrich Boll (1917-1985), Heinrich Böll Stiftung is an environmental policy “think tank” affiliated with the German Green Party.
Observed Levitt, “Despite the absence of climate-specific targets for livestock farming in Europe, there are environmental policies that could restrict the meat and dairy sectors. The Netherlands, for example, has recently been forced to propose radical plans to cut livestock numbers by almost a third to help lower ammonia pollution.”
As Ireland goes, so might the world
The Global Methane Pledge challenges Ireland in particular to drastically cut livestock production to reduce methane emissions––and as Ireland goes, so might the world.
On the one hand, surveys indicate that anywhere from 4.3% to 8.4% of the Irish population are already vegetarians; about half are vegan.
On the other, more than 100,000 Irish farms keep approximately a million cows used to produce and nurse calves for eventual slaughter, plus 1.3 million dairy cows, whose offspring are also sold for beef.
Nearly 90% of Irish beef, butter, and cheese production is exported, mostly to continental Europe. Only malt extract, used in beer-making, even distantly rivals commodities derived from cattle as a source of export revenue, in a nation whose dramatic rise from perennial dire poverty since 1995 has been fueled almost entirely by expanding exports.
“Up to 1.3 million cattle would have to be culled”
Projected Lisa O’Carroll of The Guardian on November 7, 2021, from information included in a report commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal weekly, “Up to 1.3 million cattle,” equivalent to the entire national dairy herd, “would have to be culled in Ireland to reach anticipated government targets for reducing greenhouse gases in the agriculture sector.
“35% of national greenhouse gases come from the sector, the highest level in Europe, where the average is 11%,” O’Carroll wrote. “More than 60% of that comes from methane associated with belching by ruminant animals.
The report commissioned by Irish Farmers Journal “warned that a 30% cut [in methane emissions] would require a 20% cut in cattle numbers, 22% of the beef herd and 18% of the dairy herd,” O’Carroll continued.
“Ireland has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030,” O’Carroll explained. Details of how this is to be achieved are to be worked out at a November 10, 2021 cabinet subcommittee meeting, for release to the public the following day.
Powerful farm lobby
Offered Irish correspondents Peter Flanagan and Morwenna Coniam for Bloomberg News earlier, on September 13, 2021, “The cattle that roam Ireland’s fields are a charming part of its stunning landscapes. They’re also the reason the country is Europe’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per person.
“Shrinking that herd though means the government will have to take on a powerful farm lobby that has the support of rural communities who are loathe to have anyone tell them how to use their land, in a political environment in which “the two ruling parties — Fianna Fail and Fine Gael — can’t afford to lose rural support: about 58% of their lawmakers come from constituencies outside Ireland’s biggest cities.”
The 130,000 working farms in Ireland, about three-quarters of them raising cattle, are on average only about two-thirds the size of French and German farms, keep fewer than 100 cows apiece, and on average are “only sold about once every 400 years,” otherwise tending to remain within families, Flanagan and Coniam wrote.
The Irish government has long tried to encourage farmers to replant the dense forests that once covered the nation. Meeting the government target for tree-planting would offset about 80% of agricultural emissions. But the bureaucracy associated with joining the subsidized tree-planting program is such that fewer trees were reportedly planted in 2020 than in any previous years since World War II, and before that, 1935.
“Ireland provides an interesting case study”
Perhaps the most authoritative examination of the Irish cattle industry relative to global warming is “Sustainability of ruminant livestock production in Ireland,” produced by scholars Frank O′Mara, Karl G. Richards, Laurence Shalloo, Trevor Donnellan, John A. Finn, and Gary Lanigan, published by the peer-reviewed journal Animal Frontiers in July 2021.
“Livestock are the main source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, accounting for about 90% of the total, reflecting their high share of agricultural activity in Ireland,” opened O’Mara et al. “Above 80% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions arise from bovines. Other livestock make up about 8% of the total.
“Ireland provides an interesting case study of a country,” O’Mara et al suggested, “where agriculture is dominated by relatively extensive grass-based ruminant production.”
Grass-based environmental advantages over factory farming
Being grass-based, the Irish cattle industry “confers some environmental advantages,” compared to the cattle industries of other developed nations, “in terms of manure recycling, soil organic carbon content, feed self-sufficiency (including protein), amount of human-edible food in the diet, greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of product, and landscape diversity,” O’Mara et al recognized.
“Agriculture in Ireland is dominated by livestock,” O’Mara et al continued, “with 88% of gross agricultural output coming from livestock products.”
“Crop production,” O’Mara et al observed, “is a less significant land use than in much of the European Union,” with only about a third of Irish agricultural land considered generally suitable for growing crops.
“Data from Eurostat,” wrote O’Mara et al, “show that Ireland has by far the highest percentage of utilized agricultural area under grassland at 90.4% in 2016, with Slovenia being the next highest at 58.4%.”
The diet of Irish dairy cattle is on average more than 80% grass forage and hay.
Since the average Irish pasture size is just six acres, approximately 2.6% of the total Irish agriculture land area is occupied by the hedgerows and stone walls typically used to divide fields. These constitute significant habitat for birds and small mammals.
Overall, O’Mara et al pointed out, Irish cattle production is far less environmentally damaging––and provides far more natural lives for the animals––than the intensive confinement methods used in most other developed nations.
Moreover, the Irish cattle industry has mostly avoided industrialization, O’Mara et al argued, even as “the Irish bovine herd increased by 8.6% from 2010 to 2019,” including “a 41% increase in the dairy cow herd facilitated by the relaxation and eventual removal of the EU milk quota system in 2015,” with “a concomitant but smaller reduction in beef cow numbers.”
“Livestock have become the villain of climate change”
Picked up Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies, in a November 2, 2021 contribution to The Conversation, “Livestock have become the villain of climate change. Some researchers claim that 14.5% of all human-derived emissions come from livestock, either directly or indirectly. There have been widespread calls for radical shifts in livestock production and diet globally to address climate chaos. But which livestock, where?”
In terms of environmental impact, Scoones explained, “Not all milk and meat is the same.
“Some types of livestock production, especially those using industrial systems, are certainly highly damaging to the environment,” Scoones wrote. “They generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and cause serious water pollution. They also add to deforestation through demand for feed and expanding grazing areas, for example. And, reducing the amount of animal-source foods in diets, whether in the global north or south, makes much sense, both for the environment and for people’s health.”
“Domestic livestock replace wildlife”
However, Scoones objected, “Global assessments are overwhelmingly based on data from industrial systems.
“Pastoral systems may not result in additional emissions from a ‘natural’ baseline,” Scoones continued. “For example,” in Africa, “domestic livestock replace wildlife,” such as buffalo, wildebeest, and zebra, who “emit comparable amounts of greenhouse gases.”
Concluded Scoones, “As countries commit to reducing methane emissions, a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, lest major injustices result. The danger is that, as regulations are developed, verification procedures approved and reporting systems initiated, livestock systems in Africa and elsewhere will be penalized, with major consequences for poor people’s livelihoods.”
Transition to plant-based diet would help the poorest the most
ANIMALS 24-7 has previously illustrated in depth and detail that most of the poor people in many of the most food-insecure parts of the world would be far better off if persuaded to transition away from pastoral forms of agriculture, which deplete water resources and further degrade already badly degraded topsoil.
The ANIMALS 24-7 critiques parallel the findings of many food security specialists.
(See Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, by Lester R. Brown, whose advice to then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson prevented what might have become the worst famine in India since World War II; Food Security & Farm Animal Welfare by Sofia Parente of the World Society for Animal Protection and Heleen van de Weerd of Compassion in World Farming; and Veg or Non-Veg? India at the Crossroads by Mia MacDonald & Sangamithra Iyer of Brighter Green.)
Indian government will not challenge cow culture
But ecological and economic reality are often at odds with cultural and political reality, and the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference is primarily a political event.
“Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest producers of beef products and animal feed crops in the world, are reported to have argued strongly against United Nations recommendations that reducing meat consumption is necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” reported Tom Levitt of The Guardian.
India, China and Russia meanwhile abstained from signing the Global Methane Pledge.
“India,” with the most cattle of any nation, “did not sign the COP26 pledge to stop deforestation and cut methane gas emissions by 2030,” explained Neha Arora and Mayank Bhardwaj of Reuters, “because of [the concerns of prime minister Narendra Modi and his administration] over the impact on trade, on the country’s vast farm sector, and the role of livestock in the rural economy.
“Agriculture accounts for over 15% of India’s $2.7 trillion economy and employs almost half of the country’s more than 1.3 billion people,” Arora and Bhardwaj noted.
“Around two-thirds of Indians live in the countryside and India’s large livestock population is central to the country’s agriculture and its village economy,” as well as to a Hindu culture which reveres cows as “the mothers of India,” strongest among the rural Hindu nationalists who are the base of Modi’s political power.