Saturday, December 2, 2023

Barn-fed cow theory running out of gas

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We should keep doing what we’re doing and leave the Europeans to their own GHG systems, says Alan Emerson.
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The Climate Change Commission head, Rod Carr, recently told me that Europe’s barn-fed livestock will increasingly have a lower carbon footprint than meat produced in New Zealand.

He went on to add that “because they [Europe] have a different farming practice – that is, animals in barns – they have the potential to have much lower emissions per kilo of meat and milk protein than NZ”.

He had previously referred to feed supplements that had reduced methane emissions in the order of 80%. Those supplements have to be administered daily so the livestock have to be accessible as in barns.

While I have respect for Dr Carr, I had some difficulty with his approach.

I’m sure that if you do house cows and feed them methane-reducing supplements then they will be burping less methane than cows on pasture, but I’d respectfully suggest it isn’t that simple.

For a start there’s the building of the cow barn, and the Economist tells me that “buildings are responsible for almost 40% of global energy related carbon emissions”.

We know how carbon intensive steel making is, as witnessed by our $140 million subsidy to NZ Steel.

The North American website run by the large HMC architects claimed that it is “understood by 2050 the embodied carbon of material in buildings will account for 60% of GHGs”.

So while I personally know nothing about the carbon profile of buildings, the experts tell me that housing cows has a carbon footprint all of its own.

In addition, the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) website contains an article assessing whether grass-fed beef is better for the planet.

Feedlot beef is, according to NPR’s The Salt science podcast, finished on corn, which can give the animals “liver abscesses”, necessitating the regular feeding of antibiotics.

Grass-fed beef also provides multiple benefits, including “restoring soil microbial diversity and making land more resistant to flooding and drought”, again according to NPR. It then suggests that “because grasses trap atmosphere carbon dioxide, the grass-fed system can also help fight climate change”.

In addition, according to the website CarbonCloud, 1kg of cornmeal has a carbon footprint of .79kg  of CO2. A cow eating 2kg of cornmeal daily is responsible for over 1.5kg of CO2.

It gets better. In the Netherlands the government is worried about its GHGs and is buying out 20% of its farms and a further 30% will have to cut production.

They’re worried about nitrogen and ammonia from the excrement of housed animals.

Then there’s the water use. Housed cattle require considerably more water than those on grass.

Where I’m getting to is the fact that the Europeans can reduce methane emissions by giving their cows daily supplements is largely irrelevant and we shouldn’t let them get away with claiming they’re more environmentally friendly than we are. They’re not.

Further, why the Climate Change Commission (CCC) wants to remind us of the fact is surprising.

The debate needs to be changed from simply the analysis of a cow’s burps and farts to one of total carbon footprint.

If we did that, NZ agriculture would look even better than we currently do.

For a start we don’t house cows, so we don’t have the continual carbon footprint that a building does.

We feed grass so there is no requirement for tractors to plough paddocks and then sow and harvest corn before transporting it to housed animals.

Our grass-fed animals don’t need daily doses of antibiotics to just ward off abscesses caused by corn consumption.

They need a lot less water to produce a kilogram of beef, which is vitally important in a world short of water.

Finally, we don’t have excrement ponds exuding nitrogen and ammonia.

Europe has the world’s most intensive livestock production. Conversely, we have a natural and healthy system with world-class animal welfare.

My firm belief is we keep doing what we are and leave the Europeans to their own GHG systems. I’d suggest our CCC should congratulate us on what we’re doing.

Another story that had massive international coverage but surprisingly none in NZ involved electric vehicles. Norwegian shipping giant Havila Kystruten has banned all electric, hybrid and hydrogen cars from its ships as “the risks are significant”. 

This was after the giant vessel Felicity Ace sank off the Azores earlier this year because of fires caused by an electric car. Apparently a single vehicle fire caused by an electric car battery can be “catastrophic”.

I wonder what will happen here. Surely the Cook Strait ferries will need to ban electric cars in the interests of the safety of the rest of us Strait-travelling Kiwis?

Someone should tell Worksafe and get them mobilised, in the interests of public safety of course. 

Another thought would be to encourage diesel utes on the ferries. Their batteries are safe. The government should be encouraging their purchase.

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