The biting truth: red meat’s sustainability success story
02 February 2023
By Jason Strong, Managing Director, Meat & Livestock Australia
If you want an example of an industry that is improving the environment and providing highly nutritious food to the world, then check out red meat.
The Australian red meat industry prides itself as being a world leader in sustainability of our environment, livestock, people and climate.
This has been the case for generations but in recent years our journey has accelerated. Our sustainability story is vastly different to the rhetoric that occasionally arises in the media denigrating our industry, not the least of which is the misconception that if we all stop eating meat, we will prevent climate change. If we all stop eating animal products, it will result in catastrophic impacts from malnutrition, and will not reduce the amount of CO2 and N2O released into the atmosphere.
Since 2005, our industry has reduced emissions by almost 60 percent, and halved our contribution to national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This represents the greatest reduction by any sector in Australia’s economy. For an industry that only contributes 10 percent of the country’s total emissions, this is some serious heavy lifting and sets a gold standard for climate sustainability.
We plan to go further. In 2017 our industry set a target to be carbon neutral by 2030 (CN30) and we are making big steps forward to achieve that. Australian lamb production is already climate neutral, which means lamb no longer contributes to global warming. We are close to being climate neutral for beef.
The industry’s CN30 plan is targeted to achieve an ambitious goal without compromising livestock numbers, while accelerating the productivity and profitability of our industry.
Like many sectors of the economy, our industry has embraced sustainability and seen that it goes hand-in-hand with productivity and profitability.
This commitment to sustainability means we can demonstrate to our domestic and international markets that we are committed to best practice and continuous improvement.
The industry has worked hard at achieving our sustainability goals, through a suite of measures spanning research into new technologies and innovations through to application of best practice and tools inside the farm gate.
It is well known that livestock produce methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Only a few years ago, if I had suggested that it would be possible to feed livestock a supplement that could reduce their methane output by more than 80 percent, no one would have believed me.
But through research and innovation, reductions of this magnitude are a reality thanks to a range of innovative technologies in the pipeline. The first of these, a natural red seaweed product and a synthetic compound known as Bovaer®, are now being commercialised.
These additives are one tool in the mix of other emissions reducing measures such as better genetics, improved pasture and animal management, storing carbon and improving our handling of manure.
The truth is that the red meat on your plate was already produced in an incredibly sustainable environment – but new technology and innovation are taking things to a new level.
It’s also important to remember where most of our livestock production takes place.
Around half of Australia's land is used for red meat production, yet less than eight percent of Australia’s land is suitable for producing crops.
It is not possible to convert significant areas of grazing land to grow vegetables or grains. The soils and climate simply aren’t suitable.
Grazing this land ensures it is managed sustainably, feeding the world, and part of the climate solution.
Livestock have the unique ability to convert plants with low nutrient value into high quality protein.
Grazing those plants then stimulates more plant growth, which accelerates the absorption of CO2 from the air into plants and soils as carbon.
So, we’re looking at an industry that offers a major carbon storage solution for Australia and provides sustainable stewardship of a very large part of the country.
That means not only potential carbon credits that can be used to offset, or actually “inset”, our industry’s emissions, but better water holding capacity, better management of weeds and feral animals, enhanced biodiversity and, most importantly, improved productivity.
Since 2017, MLA has invested about $200m to reach this CN30 goal. We will be looking to invest a further $150m over the next few years with a focus on the development and subsequent adoption of new technology. For investors wanting to contribute to this important goal, there are opportunities to partner with the red meat industry so that we can bring some of these technologies to market even faster.
The journey from here is challenging but exciting. It is a vision we are absolutely committed to.
I also hope that as we talk more about the great work the industry is doing, that others will help us tell the stories that demonstrate our important contribution to a sustainable global climate, and how the red meat and livestock industry really is part of the climate solution.