Climate change and livestock

The following is an exert from a thoughtfully researched paper written by Gippsland TAFE teacher Alan Broughton. Alan has taken an interest in the connection between climate change and livestock production. There are many who would advocate that livestock numbers must decline if we are to get on top of global CO2 levels, however Alan takes a different perspective as you will note below.

The following includes his Introduction and Conclusion, only. If you would like to read his paper in its entirety, please send an email to

Feedlot in South Africa

Introduction: Within the climate change action movement there is a stream that places priority on reduction in livestock numbers as the key strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. I believe this is mistaken. The choice to not eat meat or other animal products should be regarded as a personal choice, not an ecological choice. There is no ecological justification for advocating a drastic reduction in livestock numbers as part of climate change mitigation. Efforts would be better spent in focusing on the real issues: energy generation, transport and the sustainability of farming systems.

Livestock production can become an effective carbon sink with great potential to modify the greenhouse gas effect. The obstacle is not livestock but how the animals are managed. This essay addresses the ability of well managed grasslands to sequester the methane produced by grazing ruminant animals and some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by industry.

Conclusion: Effective action on any issue involves both personal decisions and political decisions, with political decision being of paramount importance. The cigarette smoking rate did not decrease because of personal decisions alone – it was because of a massive government-led campaign and a cessation of tobacco promotion. Ending the fossil fuel industry will not be due to people switching off their lights – government approval or non-approval of new coal mines and gas fields is what matters. Personal decisions can only have a marginal effect. Thus spending energy on promoting veganism is a diversion from the real campaign to reduce greenhouse gases, which is the substitution of fossil fuel energy by renewable energy. Focusing on livestock is misguided because livestock can and should be part of the solution to climate change. Fossil fuel phase-out is possible; ending the use of livestock is not.

Between 1970 and 2004 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels doubled, nitrous oxide emissions increased by 50% and methane by 40% (Fairlie 2010). Methane levels stopped increasing in 1999 and recommenced in about 2006 with increased coal and gas mining. Targeting ruminant methane shifts the focus away from fossil fuels, the main culprit.

Pasture based livestock can be, and often already is, carbon neutral, as methane emissions are offset by carbon sequestration in grasslands. To optimise carbon and methane sequestration it is necessary to adopt sound ecological farming systems that foster the production of glomalin, increase the ability of methanotrophic bacteria to function, allow pastures to recover after being grazed, minimise soil disturbance, maintain year-round soil cover, include animals in cropping systems, and include trees in both grassland and cropping land.

Many of the legitimate arguments against livestock – cruelty, poor conditions of life, waste of resources, carbon footprint – can be resolved with management and legislation changes. It is a myth that animal agriculture is the biggest cause of global warming, responsible for 51% – there is no scientific basis for that figure or anything like it.

Farmers are already bringing about management change. Government and public support would assist. Holistic planned grazing is a solution for ruminants. Pastured poultry and pigs is a viable option. Organic cropping using no-till can become normal. Nitrogenous fertilizers can be phased out.

Turning a personal moral opinion into an ecological issue is not legitimate when there is no sound basis. Those really concerned about global warming should be targeting the fossil fuel industry and campaigning for sustainable agriculture as an alternative to GHG producing chemical agriculture. Concentrating on ruminant livestock is a diversion from this task.

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