Animal agriculture: Innovation or alternatives?


By Sean McGee on Unsplash

Greenhouse gas produced by meat and dairy cattle has reduced by 60 per cent since the 1960s, but growth in developing markets for meat means sector emissions remain significant.

The push to reduce greenhouse emissions from animal-based agriculture has been knocking at the farm gate for some time.

Food production accounts for an estimated 16-27 per cent of global greenhouse gas emission within the farm-gate, according to a 2019 report from the International Panel on Climate Change, with another 5-10 per cent generated outside of it.

Although estimates vary, in 2016 the United States’ National Academy of Sciences attributed 18 per cent of these global emissions to animal-based agriculture alone.

But if you think eating less meat is the first and best step in reducing those emissions, apparently “you’ve got it all wrong,” according to Lorraine Gordon.

As Southern Cross University’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, Ms Gordon thinks industry innovation and changing the way we farm is the more productive path to take.

Ms Gordon, a beef farmer from Ebor in the NSW Northern Tablelands, headed the university’s award-winning Farming Together agricultural cooperatives pilot program and now runs its Regenerative Agricultural Alliance, which launched in 2019.

Farmers contribute what Ms Gordon sees as “a small per cent” of emissions to the climate crisis but believes they will end up “playing a large part in the solution”.

Lorraine Gordon SCU University’s Director of Strategic Partnerships
Southern Cross University Director of Strategic Partnerships, Lorraine Gordon. (By Southern Cross University)

This solution, as she sees it, will come from regenerative farming innovations within the agricultural industry that improve soil health, producing a carbon-storing effect.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming practices that improve or restore soil health, bio-diversity and water retention by increasing soil organic carbon and drawing carbon from the atmosphere.

“This is agriculture’s exciting future,” Ms Gordon says.

Australian farmers have already used a range of  regenerative agricultural practices to revitalise the health of their soil, producing both higher carbon levels and higher profit margins.

John Kane’s cattle breeding operation in Coleraine, Western Victoria, has used a combination of heavy-duty soil aeration, mineral fertilisers and rotational grazing across its 242-hectare operation.

“It’s all about education,” Mr Kane told Soils For Life. “I go to field days and read a lot and just ask a lot of questions.”

The Kane family also introduced a southern European dung beetle to improve both their soil health and economic viability.

Northern NSW sugar cane and cattle farmer Robert Quirk decided to improve his soil health after a fish kill in the Tweed River during the late 1980s.

“Over the next fifteen years there was 12 PhDs done here … to reduce the effects of acidity on aquatic life,” Mr Quirk said in an interview with Soils For Life.

“We have been very successful. We developed the practices then that have now become the world’s best in growing sugar cane in acid-sulphate soils.”

Quirk achieved this by letting sugar cane trash ferment in the fields, installing an automatic water pump to remove flood water, and increasing the aeration of his soil with a bed renovator.

As a result, Mr Quirk increased the carbon in his soil from 2.5 per cent in the late 1980s to 8.8 per cent in 2018.

Southern Cross University’s Environmental Analysis Laboratory director Graham Lancaster says there is a push in “all forms of agriculture” to bring carbon back into the soil.

“Rotating crops, intercrop planning, [planting a] diversity of species outside the crops, rotational grazing, there are so many regenerative agricultural practices,” Dr Lancaster says.

But UK-based energy and environment researcher Christopher Rhodes notes it is important to  draw a distinction between “regenerative” and “sustainable” farming practices.

Sustainable practices can only maintain the health of a natural system, Professor Rhodes says, while regenerative practices can go beyond this to improve the environment “at every stage of production”.

Regenerative farming could be central to mitigating land degradation, according to Volkert Engelsman, an activist with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture.

Mr Engelsman says the world is losing “30 soccer fields of soil every minute”, and this is mostly attributed to intensive farming.

If current rates of soil degradation continue, the world’s topsoil could be gone in 60 years, as a senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization official told a World Soil Day gathering in 2014.

So, make that 54 years now.

Can regenerative agriculture halt these losses in time?

Vegan Australia director Greg McFarlane does not think so and says animal agriculture is also “an inefficient form of calorie production”.

Research from the National Academy of Sciences in the United States reports that both pork and poultry require around 10 calories of feed to return each single human calorie consumed, while the cost of beef is closer to 40 calories.

The Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems found that vegan and vegetarian diets are “associated with the greatest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and land use”.

Drawing on systematic reviews and meta analyses, the commission found that diets that include more plant-based foods, and move away from beef, lamb and goat, bring improved health outcomes on top of the environmental benefits.

But Ms Gordon believes the path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions lies in edging away from intensive “industrial farming to premium animal products farmed with regenerative practices”.

She is not alone either in believing animals can play an integral role in these regenerative practices.

Allan Savory has been credited with introducing holistic planned grazing, a method of farming which moves large herds of cattle or sheep across a charted sequence of pastures.

This allows the pastures to recover before being exposed to the herd again, while the dung and urine of the animals fertilise the soil with the help of insects and micro-organisms.

The result is improved soil health and increased carbon dioxide held in the soil.

Mr Savory argues widespread implementation of holistic planned grazing could potentially return CO2 to pre-industrial levels.

Agroforestry researchers Craig Elevitch, Niki Mazaroli and Diane Ragone also highlight the practice of silvopasture, where trees and pasture lands are combined in an integrated system for grazing livestock that improves soil health.

Project Drawdown, a research organisation that identifies viable climate change solutions, places silvopasture in the top 10 for potential solutions that could have a carbon-reversing effect.

Meanwhile, the number of Australian consumers turning to plant-based food alternatives is growing.

Australia is now the third-fastest growing market for plant-based products and was expected to hit $215 million in 2019, according to a Euromonitor International report.

Stop Eating Animals graffiti
Australia is a growth market for plant-based alternatives to meat. (By Simon Berger on Unsplash)

The push to invest in plant-based alternatives as a means to reduce emissions, as opposed to agriculture industry innovation, has gained some traction in Australian politics.

The Animal Justice Party now has three members elected to state legislative councils in Australia: two in NSW and one in Victoria.

Victorian Legislative Council member for the Animal Justice Party Andy Meddick has been pushing to make Victoria a ground-breaking state for plant-based food innovations.

“In my own electorate of Horsham, Australian Plant Protein are leading a consortium of companies investing $20m and bringing new technology to food production,” Mr Meddick says.

Wodonga, on the Victorian-NSW border, will receive a $20 million dollar Australian-first factory supplying plant-based patties to fast food giant Hungry Jacks.

“Plant-based meat is currently an emerging sector in Australia, generating approximately $150 million in Australian retail sales, almost $30 million in manufacturing and supporting 265 jobs in 2018-2019,” Mr Meddick says.

“We will always need farmers, even if what they farm changes over time.”

Mr Meddick says his party supports packages to assist farmers transition to more sustainable practices.

“Similarly to how we want to see a just transition for coal workers as we change our energy generation infrastructure, it is our responsibility to ensure a future for people working and living on the land, our agricultural workers and their families.”

His hope is, perhaps optimistically, that despite the challenges “parliament can find a way through”.