Agriculture accounts for about 15% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Livestock have been scapegoated for all agricultural greenhouse emissions. But, properly managed, their contribution is negligible for methane, and is key to storing considerable carbon in grasslands and eliminating the huge nitrous oxide greenhouse emissions of industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture is a type of farming dominated by a handful of agrochemical corporations. Huge fields of monocultures are worked by heavy machinery. The dependence on synthetic chemical inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides kills crucial soil microbiota and causes highly potent emissions of nitrous oxide.
Most Australian farmers are family farmers, not corporations. But they are corporation-controlled by: branded chemicals that must be applied to achieve maximum crop production for patented seeds; contractual end-products specified by supermarket corporations; or farm-gate prices that are so low — because profits go to the supermarkets, processors and exporters — that regenerative organic alternatives that need more farm workers cannot compete.
Industrial-scale agricultural practices consume huge quantities of fossil fuels and degrade land and water. This is because they are extremely energy and water intensive, and use chemical fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides that destroy the ability of the soil to store carbon and absorb methane. These chemicals must be mined, processed and transported to farms, with high costs to both farmers and total agricultural emissions.
This contrasts with regenerative agroecological methods, which reuse or recycle wastes and inputs by using animals for weed control, waste recycling and fertiliser production and distribution. Inputs are minimised by utilising the ability of soil microorganisms to maintain soil fertility, and biodiversity to provide habitat for natural pest controllers.
Methanotrophic bacteria in the soil play a crucial role in recycling methane emissions from livestock, using them as food and neutralising them. Industrial farming agricultural practices suppress methanotrophic bacteria, which are very sensitive to chemical fertilisers and herbicides.
Mixed perennial pasture also has the ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil by colonies of symbiotic mycorrhizal root fungi, which greatly increases carbon in soil. These fungi are also suppressed by superphosphate, nitrate fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides.
Properly managed, grass-eating ruminants help build and cool soil, get water into the soil to maintain moisture levels, and sequester carbon.
Factory farming is industrialised animal production, where animals are treated as just another product. Costs are cut by feeding them and breeding them for faster growth in maximum numbers, and pumping them with routine antibiotics to stop them getting diseased in overcrowded conditions. The rapid growth breaks soft juvenile bones.
The focus on weight alone means aggressive behaviour is no longer bred out, with consequent major damage to animal-to-animal social interactions, particularly in overcrowded conditions.
Feeding cheap genetically modified (GM) grains, soy oil by-products and meat wastes produce a toxic product.
The intensive crowding also produces piles of concentrated nitrogen- and phosphate-rich manure and waste water that, instead of fertilising soil via direct contact over large areas of pasture, is accumulated into piles of toxic wastes that poison waterways and soil, emitting methane and nitrous oxide.
Factory farming and industrial agriculture practices, as well as the use of synthetic fertilisers on lawns, golf courses and sports fields, contribute to phosphate and nitrate nutrient accumulation. Run-off into waterways causes eutrophication and toxic blue-green algae.
To seriously address climate change, Australia needs to phase out industrial and factory farming. We also need to improve environmental and animal welfare standards of farming and protect biodiversity by subsidising the costs of the transition to agroecology.
Animals must be integrated into methods of crop rotation, land preparation, fertilising and pest control. Livestock can also be used to manage marginal country, wildfires and weeds.
Most of the emissions and water usage attributed to livestock are, in fact, made by growing grain to feed them. The practice of feeding grain to put fat on cattle and sheep should be ended, as should the use of cereals for biofuel production.
Rather, we should be processing environmental weeds into biofuels, which would help preserve or increase carbon storage in soils and ecosystems, while maintaining food supplies and biodiversity and keeping waterways clean.
Old-growth logging, which accounts for 2% of national emissions, must end. Native forests that have not been logged store up to three times more carbon than forests that have been logged. Farm forestry and plantation forestry can supply timber and fibre needs sustainably.
Holistically grazed grasslands can store huge amounts of carbon while producing food. Degraded soil releases carbon and holds much less water.
Existing farming communities should be encouraged with financial support, resources and training to make the transition away from chemical inputs and into low-input regenerative agroecological farm and land management.
Well-managed pasture grasses with ruminants can build 500 kilograms of carbon/hectare/year by pumping carbohydrates they make from atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil to feed microbiota.
To establish these pastures, farmers need help with fencing to assist rotating pasture and to prevent overgrazing. They can reduce erosion through smart-burning practices and replace microbiota-destructive pesticide, herbicide and nitrate fertiliser use with integrated pest management and livestock manures.
Subsidised fencing and water troughs or dams for stock will help end overgrazing and assist in fire management.
Fencing out livestock from catchments and waterways is also important, as well as building water troughs away from fragile water sources. Landholders also need help with feral animal control, stabilising river banks, removing environmental weeds, replanting native vegetation and expanding floodplain areas.
As 46.3% of Australia is marginal country unsuited to crop production, livestock plays a key role, not only in converting marginal land vegetation into human food products, but also in removing that vegetation from becoming a fire hazard, particularly in forests.
One third of Australia’s greenhouse emissions are from wildfires, even if they are not included in the official emissions count.
Managing marginal land
For at least 80,000 years, Australia was actively managed by Aboriginal peoples using cool burns in appropriate seasons to create grasslands and open woodlands for grazing animals that were hunted, and to manage food-producing plants.
Now, these marginal lands are managed by graziers in a similar fashion to produce mostly organic free-range cattle. Much is seasonal grasslands with native grasses on poor soil with little water.
Left unmanaged, the vegetation grows vigorously when it rains, then dies and feeds huge bushfires, particularly as increasing heatwaves and drought dry out the soil and vegetation.
The lack of management also encourages dense sucker growth on previously cleared land, which becomes an even worse fire risk. Rotational holistic grazing is the best way to manage marginal country and produce food from it with minimal water use and minimal use of fire, while allowing considerable carbon storage in the soil.
The underfunding of National Parks and State Forests also means their pristine nature and uniqueness are destroyed by weeds and feral animals such as deer, goats, pigs, rabbits, horses, camels, foxes, dogs, cats and buffalo.
Introduced feral animals, particularly cats, are driving native animals and plants to extinction.
The cost of controlling any of these animal species on its own is prohibitive. Their meat resource is presently left to rot and emit carbon. With less clean farmland available globally, we need to take full advantage of all food sources available, particularly if using them helps protect our environment.
We can integrate livestock, wild and feral animals with sustainable grasslands and marginal country management, wildfire hazard reduction, food and resource production, and carbon storage.
Farmers can raise productivity by allowing co-grazing of native wildlife and some feral animals, like brumbies and donkeys, in controlled areas, if they can harvest them to manage the land in times of drought and control animal population growth beyond the land’s ability to sustain them.
A humane feral animal and sustainable kangaroo harvest industry could minimise the damage done to native wildlife and the environment and make use of a wasted resource for food and fertiliser, instead of leaving it to add to greenhouse gas emissions.
To best reduce emissions, farmers need to be supported to move from industrial agriculture to regenerative agroecology and integrated pest management, rather than having their best land management tool — grass-fed animal agriculture — barred to them.
[Elena Garcia is a regenerative marginal country grazier in the Condamine catchment, Queensland. Alan Broughton is active with the Organic Agriculture Association.]