Carbon neutral livestock production — consumers want it and farmers say it is achievable

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) believes a zero carbon footprint nationally — considered by some the holy grail for the red meat industry — is possible by 2030.

Key points:

  • Carbon farming projects are on the rise with 700 projects on the go Australia-wide
  • Globally, livestock production contributes about 14 per cent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions
  • Since 2005 the beef industry has reduced its emissions by around 60 per cent, so getting it to zero by 2030 is achievable, the meat industry says

It is a target that has the backing of some of the industry’s leading farmers, and the demand for projects is on the rise.

Climate Friendly, a carbon farming project developer, said the policy was a “hotbed of action”.

Globally, the livestock industry is believed to contribute about 14 per cent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions.

But good progress has already been made.

From 2005 to 2016, the beef industry reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 57.6 per cent.

Despite saying that carbon neutrality by 2030 is possible, MLA’s managing director, Jason Strong, admitted it would not be easy.

“To take emissions from 20 per cent of the total national contribution in 2005 down to zero by 2030 is a very ambitious target,” he said.

Carbon neutral for almost a decade

On Mark Wootton’s farm near Hamilton, in western Victoria, carbon neutrality is not just a goal — it is a reality.

Despite the massive scale of his operation — 550 cows and 25,000 ewes running across more than 3,300 hectares — Mr Wootton and his wife Eve Kantor achieved carbon neutrality in 2010.

They did it by planting trees, 600 hectares of them, half native revegetation and half saw log timber.

Mr Wootton said the co-benefits of having trees on farms were immense — carbon neutrality aside.

“We have amazing biodiversity gains here. We started with 47 species of birds, we now have 159, so there are a lot of good reasons to do it beyond the carbon neutrality.

“The saw logs themselves will net us something like $19,000 per hectare when we harvest them in 10 to 15 years.”

But Mr Wootton said there needed to be market incentives to produce carbon neutral meat to encourage more farmers to take it up.

“We just need some market signals there to reward people like us for doing things like that,” he said.

Different feed, lower emissions

An alternative to planting trees to offset methane emissions is changing the feed source to products such as seaweed and algae, which produce lower methane emissions.

That’s something being investigated by the North Australian Pastoral Company — the first corporate cattle company in Australia to be accredited by the Federal Government as carbon neutral.

It has achieved neutrality by purchasing carbon offsets, but commercial general manager, Stephen Moore, said that was just a starting point.

“It is ultimately the animal that we need to focus on, so is there something that we can feed the animal over time that is going to decrease that methane emission?” he said.

Is it achievable?

In Western Australia’s south-west, which has been recognised as one of the most susceptible areas in the world to climate change, moves are also being made at cattle operations to become carbon neutral.

Boyup Brook grass-fed beef producer, Warren Pensini, has been “moving down the path” for 12 to 18 months with the idea that it will help keep the environmentally conscious consumer onside.

“So if we can give them a reason to eat beef then I think we’re on a winner.”

While the goal by MLA has been welcomed, it has been met with some scepticism on its achievability.

“I think it’s great to have goals but I suppose you’ve got to back that up with actions and really clearly explain to the industry how that’s going to be done,” Mr Pensini said.

To help with the shift, Mr Pensini has hired the help of carbon consultant Kent Broad.

The co-founder of Outback Carbon said MLA’s goal was, in theory, “very achievable” but agreed it would require a lot of education as there was still very little interest in becoming carbon neutral.

“I think education is a big part, and fear as well,” he said.

“I think farmers think it’s going to stop them from doing what they’ve always done, and while under certain methodologies they have to change their management, it actually is the opposite.”

It’s not just about livestock producers

The industry’s efforts to reduce emissions are also happening further down the supply chain.

The Oakey Beef abattoir in southern Queensland invested more than $5 million in a biogas plant five years ago, reducing the company’s natural gas bill by about 40 per cent.

The company’s general manager, Pat Gleeson, said it had been a worthwhile investment.

“I think it’s been extremely successful,” Mr Gleeson said.

“You know energy costs are only going to go one way going forward, so the more efficient we can make this the better off we are.

“But it sells a good story too that we are focused on the environment and reducing our carbon footprint.”

At the very end of the supply chain, there are some restaurants aiming to only serve meat that comes without a carbon footprint.

Ash Martin, head chef at Spicers Balfour, said consumers were increasingly demanding a more environmentally friendly product.

“People are really educated and they want to know where the food is from,” he said.

Concerns about impact on rural communities

Wool producer Peter Lucas lives at Cliffdale Station, near Wyandra in western Queensland, and said he agreed that projects could help graziers who continued to battle the elements to earn a living.

However Mr Lucas was cautious of the initiative, and believed large corporations buying up land for carbon offsetting projects were contributing to declining populations.

“The population decline in the Paroo Shire has been drastic. It’s been a massive turnaround and this is just adding to that,” he said.

“I don’t have any problems with graziers who live in the area locking up part of their properties for carbon.

“I have problems with the corporates coming out and purchasing whole properties and locking them up.”