Livestock and ecology

It is convenient for the fossil fuel industry to blame ruminants.

People can be vegans for ethical reasons — not wanting to harm animals — or for perceived health reasons, though humans have been omnivorous throughout history. But veganism for ecological reasons has a very weak basis.

Just as there is a huge difference in the ecological footprint of different methods of crop production, the same applies to livestock.

In well-managed animal farming operations, livestock, particularly ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, alpacas, buffalos), are net carbon sequesters. By rotational grazing — allowing pasture recovery before regrazing — grasses are able to pump carbohydrates into the soil.

When synthetic fertilisers and herbicides are not used, the mycorrhizal fungi that convert carbohydrates to humus and the methanotrophic bacteria that process the methane belched out by ruminants flourish, as they have for millions of years.

There are not that many extra ruminants in the world than at any time in the past.

During the decade from 1999 to 2008, methane emissions were stable, despite a 70% rise in ruminant numbers.

Since then, methane emissions have accelerated. United States researchers have determined methane escaping from gas mining is the main source of methane emissions.

A billion people across the globe depend on livestock for their livelihood. A large proportion of the world is not suitable for cropping, but can sustain animal grazing.

What to do with that land: return it to wild ruminant animals? Leave it to wildfires?

What to do with the displaced people?

And where will the plant products be grown to replace livestock-produced food, with vast tracts of marginal country removed from food production?

Feed lotting is unnatural and produces unhealthy meat. Cattle do not naturally eat grains. They have to be fed antibiotics. The manure is a pollutant.

To put this into perspective, 2% of Australia’s cattle are in feed lots at any one time for about 50-120 days before slaughter. Calves are not born there — they live their first 6-9 months in open paddocks with their mothers. Dairy cattle in Australia are all free range.

Organic standards do not permit feed lotting. All livestock have to be free range, including poultry and pigs.

Consumers concerned about animal welfare can choose organically-produced meat, eggs and dairy produce.

If people are committed to veganism and ecology, then their grains, vegetables and fruit should also be sustainably and non-chemically produced.

Eliminating livestock farming is no solution to curb the production of greenhouse gases. However, supporting ecological agriculture and attacking the fossil fuel industry are.

It is convenient for the fossil fuel industry to blame ruminants.

Climate activists should be careful where their information comes from.

[Alan Broughton is active with the Organic Agriculture Association.]