by Greg McFarlane
In Part 1 of “Moving to a Vegan Australia” we highlighted the principles that would support a just transition to an animal free agricultural system and the huge benefits this would have on food security and land use in Australia. This transition would allow over 30% of the land area of Australia to recover from the impact of animal agriculture allowing reafforestation and major increases in freshwater and biodiversity. In Part 2 of the series we showed how animal agriculture is about 1% of the Australian economy and employment and we discussed how any potential losses could be offset by increases in employment in ecosystem services. In Part 3 of this article we focus on how this transition would impact the environment, what human health benefits it would bring as well as how to promote and plan for this vital transition. As this report is a work in progress by Vegan Australia, some of the sections will simply highlight questions that will be addressed by further research.
Health and other social impacts
This section will be based on the following questions.
- What would be the impact of a vegan diet on population health and health care costs? The incidence of diseases such as diabetes 2, heart disease, some cancers, etc, are known to be reduced on a vegan diet. This should result in less demand for medical services.
- What would the impact be of the reduced risk of antibiotic-resistant infections, caused by the elimination of giving antibiotics to farmed animals? (Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that at least 2 million Americans fall ill from antibiotic-resistant pathogens every year and declared that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”)
- How would the changes in agriculture impact food security?
- How would a vegan agricultural system produce adequate nutrients for the Australian population, including calories, protein, fats, iron and calcium?
- What impact would a vegan agricultural system in Australia have on exports of food to other countries?
The Impact of a vegan agricultural system on the environment
The Impact on biodiversity and species extinction
A report by the CSIRO states that “Land clearing, primarily for agriculture, is perhaps the single most important cause of environmental degradation, loss of species and depletion of ecological communities.” Revegetating land cleared for animal agriculture and then continually grazed will allow endangered species to recover and may prevent possible extinctions in the future. This is already happening on a small scale in Australia. A good example is the regeneration of grazing land by the owners of Wooleen Station in Western Australia. Just a few years after regeneration started an endangered bird, the Australian Painted Snipe, was discovered at Wooleen with a full clutch of fledgling chicks. As the owners said, this is confirmation “that the rehabilitation of Wooleen and other pastoral land in Western Australia is certainly necessary if we are going to save species like the Snipe from extinction.”
Impact on global warming
The current situation
Australia’s climate is warming. The Bureau of Meteorology reports that “air and ocean temperatures across Australia are now, on average, almost a degree Celsius warmer than they were in 1910, with most of the warming occurring since 1950. This warming has seen Australia experiencing more warm weather and extreme heat, and fewer cool extremes. There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia.” For decades we have been warned of the possibility of these serious problems. In his 2005 book “Living in the hothouse: how global warming effects Australia”, Professor Ian Lowe, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation warns that global warming will result in more severe bushfires, reduced water availability in Southern Australia, more intense heat during summers, a greater risk of insect-borne diseases and a greater incidence of extreme weather, including rainfalls of flood proportions, longer and more intense droughts and frequent, severe and widespread tropical cyclones. The Bureau of Meteorology continues, “Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise and continued emissions will cause further warming over this century. Limiting the magnitude of future climate change requires large and sustained net global reductions in greenhouse gases.”
One of the major sources of greenhouse gases is animal agriculture. According to Lowe in 2005, “Producing meat turns vegetable protein very inefficiently into animal protein, using large amounts of energy and water in the process. … Ruminant animals also produce large amounts of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in the process of digesting grass. So overall, meat production in general and beef and sheep production (both ruminants) in particular are a serious contribution to greenhouse gas pollution and hence global warming.”
By 2015, climate science now understands in greater detail the effects of animal agriculture on global warming, with a number of reports, and papers in peer reviewed journals stating that livestock production is responsible for 50% of worldwide and Australian greenhouse gas emissions. See also the BZE Zero Carbon Australia Land Use report (p68-69). This fact is worth emphasising: half of Australia’s global warming gas emissions comes from animal agriculture – more than all the fossil fuels used to run the transport systems and electricity generators combined. The movie Cowspiracy has tried to popularise this fact, but it is still not well known by the general public.
This information is not being reported more widely because of two arbitrary conventions used by climate scientists to allow comparisons to be made more easily between different areas and different times. The conventions are used by the UN and governments when reporting emissions.
- One convention is that the basis for most greenhouse reporting is Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 100 years, but a GWP of 20 better captures both the greenhouse potency of methane in its relatively short atmospheric lifetime (8-12 years), and the timeframe available to humankind in which to make serious cuts to emissions before reaching various climatic tipping points. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that there is no scientific basis for the decision to use the 100 year time frame. We need to set a stabilisation target of 20 years (2037). Any later and we risk increases in global mean surface temperature of 4 degrees celsius or more. New insights also emerge when this approach is used. “For example, for a 2060 target, reducing global methane emissions by 46% would have the same impact as entirely stopping CO2 emissions.”
- The other convention is to ignore the warming effect of emissions of short lived gases. It is now realised that these short lived gases have a very significant impact on global warming and should be included when measuring greenhouse gases. By looking at climate change using these more relevant conventions, we see that animal agriculture is a much more significant source of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, going from being the source of about 20% of greenhouse gases under the old conventions to 50% under the more relevant reporting conventions. For a full analysis of this issue see the paper “Neglected Transformational Responses: Implications of Excluding Short Lived Emissions and Near Term Projections in Greenhouse Gas Accounting”, published in The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition of countries, with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), are pursuing urgent abatement of methane, tropospheric ozone and Black Carbon (ash produced by deliberately clearing land by burning the vegetation).
Effect on global warming of removing animals from agriculture
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the animal agriculture sector are methane production through enteric fermentation, land clearing for grazing, and savanna burning in the north west of Australia. If animals were removed from Australian agriculture, these emissions would quickly reduce. We would soon see climate benefits as methane is removed from the atmosphere in only 12 years, much less time than most other greenhouse gases. We would also see carbon being sequestered in vegetation regrowing on the previous grazing lands. According to research by Australia’s Chief Scientist on storing carbon in plants “forests are typically more than 10 times as effective as grasslands at storing carbon”.
If this reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by revegetation occurred on a global scale, as well as in Australia, this may result in a slowing and eventual reversal of the warming of the planet, a reduction of the current negative effects of global warming and a reduction in the risk of future catastrophe. This would mean less frequent and less intense floods, droughts, bushfires, and cyclones, amongst other effects.
The positive impacts on the environment include;
- restoring habitat, increasing biodiversity and reducing species extinctions
- revegetation of large areas, including forest regrowth
- reducing and reversing Australia’s contribution to global warming
- reducing water use, making more water available for crops and allowing river systems to recover
- reducing soil loss and degradation
- reducing pollution from intensive feeding operations
- reducing pressure on native forests
- restoration of marine environment
- helping save the Great Barrier Reef by preventing excess nutrients and bleaching being caused by rising ocean temperatures
This section will be based on the following questions.
- How long would it take to change to a vegan agricultural system?
- What steps would it need to go through?
- How can we mitigate any negative issues, such as job losses?
- What measures can be taken to reduce the harm caused indirectly to animals due to plant-based agriculture?
- What legal reforms are needed to make this change? Examples include changes to pastoral leases which require the land to be grazed.
Numerous management options are available at local and regional level in order to implement a transition to a vegan Australia. As well as mitigating climate change, these have the potential to maintain or improve rural productivity and livelihoods. “Such a transformation will require some changes to the way land use change is encouraged and rewarded. In some cases, we will have to pay to get carbon into landscapes and keep it there. In others, leaving ecosystem carbon intact will save money.”