Climate change remains a big (albeit sadly often an “armchair”) debate here in Australia, with false facts being flung around, truths being misconstrued and genuine evidence being overlooked or mistrusted – you all remember the “stats” about how much a cow farting contributes to climate change. It’s difficult to know what’s actually going on.
So I decided to go back to the laboratories and find some bona fide scientists to clear up some of the rumours. I tracked down some very official-looking people (they had lab coats and letters after their names – what’s not to trust?) at CSIRO to ask them what the deal is.
According to the Australian Greenhouse Office (2007) agriculture contributes 16% of Australia’s GHG emissions, with 10% of Australia’s emissions attributed to ruminant (that’s cows, goats and sheep) livestock.
But CSIRO Principal Research Scientist Dean Revell says that statistics like this only tell part of the story. He says there are three things beyond the stats that are often over-looked:
1. We need food.
“The relevant question is about emissions per unit of food produced,” Dr Revell explains. “So the interactions to consider are GHG emissions x food demand x land capability x social capacity (i.e. the social structures that support, or are supported by, different production systems).”
2. GHG emissions are just one side of the ledger.
Dr Revell points out that, depending on the production system, there may be considerable scope to store carbon from the atmosphere (for example, in plants and soil). “Often the debate focuses on emissions only or in other cases, of storage only. It’s the net difference between storage and emissions that we need to think about; i.e. carbon balance,” he says.
“A small improvement in carbon storage coupled with a small reduction in carbon emissions can have a bigger effect that we’d think if we only considered one side of the ledger.”
3. Not all animals are equal.
Dr Revell explains that cows don’t produce the same amount of GHG as each other – it depends on what we feed them or what they choose to eat, their genetics and other factors too.
This last point Dr Revell describes as an opportunity. Industrious researchers aren’t just focusing on the problems; projects like the UWA Future Farm 2050 and Future Farm Industries CRC are giving scientists the chance to explore solutions. Dr Revell works primarily on a project called Enrich with the latter, in which a team investigated the effects on animals grazing on different forages – looking at the impact on things such as emissions, animal health, production costs and crop sustainability. One of the main findings this project unearthed (pardon the pun) was that Australian native shrubs can have a role to play in resilient and versatile grazing systems. That’s right – our shrubs are awesome.
Dr Revell says these sorts of investigations are vital.
“We should always be exploring new options, to give flexibility and choice in the face of variability and change. As is often said, the only constant is change. And I think the interesting – and exciting – thing is that we don’t have to start from scratch and completely redesign production systems (that won’t happen), but we can add resilience and adaptability into existing systems. It’s not always about how high we can fly (in good times/seasons), but also how little we fall (in poorer times/seasons).”
Photo Credit: Close up Cow by Paul Stevenson via flickr
Scientist by US Army RDECOM via flickr
Caution Cow by Stanze via flickr