Is carbon-neutral beef the future of Australia’s beef sector?

As beef consumption grows in Asia, a handful of Australian producers are trying out going carbon neutral. Is this the future of the industry?

Cow between two wind turbines
A cow standing between two wind turbines. Will there be such a thing as a beef industry in 50 years? Image: Ian Sanderson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Australian beef sector is pushing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, in what may be a race against time for an industry facing an existential crisis as its environmental impact becomes a focus globally.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cattle produce 62 per cent of the 8.1 gigatonnes of livestock-related emissions. This awareness has led to more consumers going vegetarian or cutting animal protein from their diets in the hopes of reducing emissions and deforestation from livestock farming, and is boosting the popularity of lab-grown meat products by companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

However, a spokesperson from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) points out that a major shift away from meat looks unlikely in the near future, based on what it’s seeing in Asia.

Ellen Rodgers, the industry body’s Southeast Asia business manager, says that while some economies may have reached ‘peak meat’, with declining per-person consumption and slowing population growth, beef is still firmly on the menu in most societies around the world.

“Across Asia in general, there’s still a huge increase in red meat consumption. And we’re pushing for quality over quantity for Australian products and encouraging consumers to be mindful of what they’re choosing.”

Growing middle classes across Southeast Asia are using their greater purchasing power and education to access higher-quality protein sources, which creates a window of opportunity for a more environmentally conscious beef industry, Rodgers tells Eco-Business.

Most researchers agree that cattle emissions are largely associated with land use—deforestation, pasture management and growing feed—or with the methane that the cow itself produces, which is vastly more potent than carbon dioxide but also significantly shorter-lived.

There’s also a small amount of energy used in production and transportation, and some downstream participants such as abattoirs and chilled warehouses. Although the Australian red meat industry had cut its emissions drastically by 57.6 per cent in the decade 2005 to 2016, direct livestock emissions still account for 10 per cent of the country’s carbon footprint.

Mark van Nieuwland, global program head at DSM, who works with the beef industry, comments: “You will always have people that eat beef. Lowering the footprint is a benefit to all of us, so we should really enable that as much as we can now.”

Ruminants, mainly cows, emit nearly 20 per cent of methane gases globally, says van Nieuwland. “This has a significant impact on the climate and it is going to be critical to reduce global methane emissions to help slow the pace of global warming over the next decade.”

That is why MLA is exploring several pathways to green the industry through its Carbon Neutral 2030 Initiative (CN30). The aim is to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock production through land-use practices, animal management and methane reduction while increasing offsets by 2030, and examine whether this is workable from a business point of view in the long term.  

Rodgers says MLA needs to move quickly on beef-related emissions, and is “not waiting for government or regulation, we’re actually doing this for our own industry”.

Earlier this year the North Australian Pastoral Company, one of Australia’s largest beef producers with a herd of about 200,000, was the first to get a certified carbon-neutral product to market. While this was mainly done by purchasing offsets, the company is also investigating solutions to reduce its emissions in day-to-day business.

At the moment, carbon-neutral beef remains a negligible percentage of Australia’s total beef output. The Land Down Under produces 3 per cent of the world’s beef, but exports more than a million tonnes a year, and controls 17 per cent of the global market, according to the MLA.

Says Rodgers: “This is not just a job for Australia to do; we think that all meat producers across the world need to ensure that they’re working together.”  

Carbon-light cows?

But is it enough, or even sustainable, for cattle farmers to be offsetting emissions to get to carbon neutrality?

Speaking about MLA’s Carbon Neutral 2030 initiative, Australian cattle producer and sustainable farming advocate Jon Wright tells Eco-Business that offsets are a huge cost burden to farmers.

“The best thing that you can do for your business now is try to reduce your emissions, so you won’t have to buy as many offsets,” he says. Wright breeds and sells bulls to other farmers, including his Blue-E line of cattle that grow quickly and require less feed.

The FAO says that the vast majority of cattle GHG emissions are associated with feed (41 per cent) or enteric emissions (44 per cent), the latter referring to the methane produced by cows and other ruminants through their digestive process, which is then burped out into the atmosphere.

Because of its potency, tackling methane will have a powerful and speedy impact, says van Nieuwland.

Called Bovaer, DSM’s new feed additive can reduce a cattle’s enteric emissions by about a third. The additive suppresses the enzyme that triggers methane production in a cow’s rumen. It’s expected to be commercially available in several markets as of late 2020.

Van Nieuwland points out that GHG emissions are going to become a growing business concern for the future. “We are seeing a higher consumer demand for lower carbon and more sustainable products, retailers and processors are reacting, and in response, in some cases governments are setting emissions targets. That market is shaping up, and the price on carbon is starting to increase.”

Furthermore, he urges governments to use their influence to establish clear guidelines to track methane and other GHGs savings to accelerate the industry’s advancement towards carbon-neutral beef.

“The question is how to enable methane reduction to be successful. A large part of that comes from accounting rules. If I want to have zero-carbon beef, how can farmers demonstrate this and how does this count towards Australia’s national inventory?” van Nieuwland remarks. “Getting clarity on these rules quickly, making them easy to apply and to track, will be the key enabler to make carbon neutrality in beef successful.”

Drawing a parallel with the tobacco farming sector that collapsed in Australia in 2006 through a combination of consumer sentiment, government policy and economic reality, Wright says a global moratorium on methane in the future is not an impossible scenario.

“If we want to retain even a quarter of our industry, we better get on with this, or we’re stuffed. Get a low-emissions product onto a shelf, and people will still have permission to have a steak. The challenge is how do you do that quickly and responsibly,” he says.

But van Nieuwland is more optimistic, arguing both a healthy beef industry and a healthy climate are achievable but we need to act now. 

“The industry is already making great strides to tackle issues as it relates to carbon neutrality and reducing emissions.  The drive to address methane, which has an enormous effect on global warming, is extremely energising and we’re moving forward to make this a success.”

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