The UK’s National Beef Association (NBA) has reacted with disappointment, and a weary lack of surprise, at the news that Dr Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is to make a speech tonight (September 8th) suggesting, yet again, that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.
He is expected to say that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.
“That 18% has been disproved many times since it was first invented in 2006 in a FOA report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” writes NBA chairman Christopher Thomas-Everard. “It has little to do with UK beef farming.
A third of the 18% was attributed in that report to the clearance of Amazonian rainforest, originally for cattle ranching and now, more commonly, for the growing of crops like soya. It was based on the peak 2004 figure of 26,000 sq km of rainforest burned.
In contrast, temperate grass in the UK grows freshly each Spring and has little connection to the usually suspected culprit for causing global warming – the burning of fossil fuels.
All the UK’s beef cows graze grass in the summer and are either fed hay, silage or straw in winter, or in many cases remain grazing throughout winter too.
“Concerned consumers should know that grass-fed UK beef has a lower carbon footprint than any alternative,” said Mr Thomas-Everard.
“An obvious, but sometimes ignored, feature of the UK’s topography is that 61% of ground cover is either grassland or moorland, only 22% is arable.”
“Humans cannot eat grass but ruminant livestock convert it into a food the British have been eating for thousands of years.”
“The NBA endorses remarks made by Alan Titchmarsh in the recent BBC series “The Nature of Britain”, when he described grazing cattle and sheep as “the unsung heroes of the British countryside” - a countryside of grazed upland habitats, a uniquely hedged landscape, and wide lowland biodiversity.”
“Even if it were possible to plough our grasslands and moorlands and grow vegan food, the carbon release would be far greater than centuries of the exhalations of cattle and sheep.”
According to the NBA the vegetarian alternatives of lentils, pulses and cereals all require tractor fuel for their production and it takes ten units of fossil fuel energy to produce every unit of this type of food.
“In contrast, grass-fed UK beef involves less food miles, has higher health giving omega 3 levels, provides otherwise unobtainable forms of iron and vitamins and reduces the use of fertiliser used in farming because of the organic matter co-product (dung) cows leave behind,” said Mr Thomas-Everard.
“It also offers an opportunity for sustainable organic farming (instead of tractor fossil fuel being used for tilling land) and huge environmental gains in a greater weight per square metre of earthworms for the birds and animals, like moles, shrews, and badgers, which follow where cattle graze.”
The NBA emphasises that the bones of the FAO report are about methane.
But methane (CH4) is produced by bacteria consuming vegetation - whether inside the bovine rumens or outside.
“It is the main component of well named natural gas. Its historic title was marsh or swamp gas. Ruminants eat grass and other crops produced by sunlight and therefore are intrinsically carbon neutral, “added Mr Thomas-Everard.
“Where there are no ruminants, all uneaten grass will decay and in wet conditions bacteria decomposing vegetation will give off swamp gas, methane. The only landscape that does not produce methane is a desert.”
“The National Beef Association feels that yet another unproven scare story is being devised to frighten consumers away from beef. We also suggest that Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), who have organised tonight’s (September 8th) meeting, should learn a little more about beef farming and methane.”
“CIWF’s stated reason for suggesting people lower their consumption of meat is to reduce the number of animals in factory farms. Cows for beef production live most of their lives in fields - not in so-called intensive factory units.”
The oft-repeated statement that cattle require 8 kgs of grain for every kg of beef grown is misleading. Poultry and pigs require grain; ruminants (other than bull calves from dairy cows) are usually not fed grain – bar a harvest like 2008 when a lot of grain will be unsalable for human consumption. The progeny of beef cows usually graze for most of the year, and are fed over the winter on grass silage, waste feeds such as straw, stock-feed potatoes (small, damaged, or misshapen) similar waste vegetables, brewers grains (after use), by-product molasses, breakfast cereals, bread and cakes past their sell-by-date, and sugar beet pulp.
Methane, and other forms of carbon
There are many little known facts and unanswered questions about this “swamp gas” (CH4).
Methane has a life of only 12 to 20 years in the atmosphere before reverting to other forms of carbon and hydrogen.
Anaerobic digestion is already available to deal with methane emissions from slurry. If there is a desire to reduce cattle flatulence, good manure / slurry management has the potential, if fuel prices rise further, to provide a source of income and low-carbon energy, displacing other fossil fuels.
Most people were taught a simplified version of the carbon cycle - that plants use chlorophyll to turn CO2 into oxygen and vegetative organic compounds and then usage or decay completes the circle. Fewer people are aware that the greater part of the carbon produced by mankind in the past 200 years has been absorbed in the world’s oceans by phytoplankton (also using chlorophyll).
The future potential sources which may cause carbon release are methane hydrates on the sea bed, bacterial decay of tundra if it unfreezes, volcanoes, warming of atmospheric water vapour, the burning of our dwindling reserves of oil, coal and natural gas and destruction of forests. Many questions remain unanswered and some answers imply the reverse of current beliefs.
A team led by Frank Keppler from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany has discovered that plants produce up to one-third of the second most important greenhouse gas - methane. It is unclear how this important fact has been missed, but Mr. Keppler is sure that plants worldwide produce millions of tonnes of methane each year, with the greatest share coming from the tropics, and that the plant contribution is likely to count for 10–30 per cent of annual methane emissions. The research could help explain why the build-up of methane in the atmosphere is slowing down — a trend that could be due to global deforestation.
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