New Internationalist

Too much hot air

Beware of cows sign in Australia

Photo: Mr Toaster

According to the Australian Government’s population clock, as I write these words Australia has a population of 21,495,596. By the time you finish reading this piece, however, the figure will have grown (unless you are a very fast reader) since there is: ‘one birth every 1 minute and 51 seconds, one death every 3 minutes and 48 seconds, a net gain of one international migrant every 2 minutes and 55 seconds leading to an overall total population increase of one person every 1 minute and 37 seconds’. So, unlike in some Western countries, the population of Australia is slowly increasing. And it is set to increase further. Government projections suggest that, by 2056, the population will have reached at least 30.9 million and, possibly, 42.5 million, whilst, by 2101 it will have reached at least 33.7 million and, possibly, 62.2 million. It is hard enough to imagine a sustainable future in Australia for a population of 21.5 million people never mind 62 million, however, because, as things stand, Australians are, collectively, some of the worst greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

One reason for this is that the electricity in most Australian homes and businesses is generated by coal-fired power stations (only 8% of electricity comes from renewable sources). A second and, perhaps, less obvious reason is that national emission levels are boosted alarmingly by the breeding of livestock. It came as a surprise to me to discover that the human population in Australia is considerably outnumbered by that of cattle. In June 2006 (the latest available figures), there were 28.8 million cows in Australia. And cows, as most people know, emit a considerable amount of methane – in Australia around 500 litres a day (making a total of well over 14 million litres a day at 2006 population levels). Given that methane is a greenhouse gas which is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland chose well to use the slogan: ‘Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist? Think again!’

It is not just the amount of methane emitted during the production of beef which is environmentally hazardous. As Professor Ian Lowe, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation has pointed out: ‘Producing meat turns vegetable protein very inefficiently into animal protein, using large amounts of energy and water in the process.’

Regarding the use of energy, a study by David Pimentel of Cornell University’s Ecology Department has shown that the production of animal protein demands the expenditure of about eight times as much fossil-fuel energy as a comparable amount of plant protein.

Pimentel has also calculated that that it takes 500 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of potatoes, 900 litres per kilo of wheat, 3,500 litres per kilo of digestible chicken flesh and a massive 100,000 litres for 1 kilo of beef. Given that Australasia is the driest continent, Australia can ill afford agricultural practices which overuse water. Yet, this is clearly what is happening.

And it is not just the meat industry which is the culprit. The dairy industry also requires considerable water use. According to CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization) expansion of the dairy industry in the Murray Darling Basin between 1990 and 2000 resulted in an increase in water use from 2,400 billion litres to 4,200 billion litres, contributing significantly to the water crisis which has been dominating news here over the past two years.

Then there is the problem of land clearance. Between 1990 and 2004, the cattle industry in Australia cleared around 400,000 hectares a year in what has been described as ‘one of the most devastating attacks on biodiversity in our country’s history – a higher per capita rate of clearing than in the Amazon’.

Oh. And did I mention the problem of disposing of the waste produced by 28.8 million cows?

All in all, it does not make sense environmentally to have a population of cows which exceeds the human population. But it does make sense economically. In 2006, 26 million of these cows were bred for meat whilst just 2.8 million were bred for milk. And the main reason why so many cows were bred for meat was to feed the export market. In 2006-07, the three main buyers were Japan, the USA and South Korea. Together, these three countries bought nearly 1 million tons of Australian beef and veal. This illustrates both the globalized nature of the meat industry and the complex nature of the task facing those of us who have ethical and/or environmental objections to it.

Campaigning within national boundaries and making individual lifestyle choices can and will make an impact in the long term. But, by then, it will probably be too late. What is needed is an (enforceable) international agreement to curb or end the production of and trade in animal products. As outlined above, the environmental arguments in favour of this are compelling and so, I believe, are the ethical arguments. There are even some signs that the tide is turning this way. Recently, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization admitted that livestock contribute more to global warming than transport and, earlier this year, Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) said in January 2008: ‘Please eat less meat – meat is a very carbon intensive commodity…This is something the IPCC was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it.’ These are fine words, but, unless they are accompanied by action, they will simply amount to hot air. And, as we know, there is already too much hot air in the world. That is the problem.

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