'Climate friendly' farming could do more harm than good

CONVENTIONAL farming systems could be less harmful to the environment than so-called climate change friendly alternatives such as grass-fed beef, locally produced eggs and organic milk, according to a new study by scientists in the US.

The study, carried out by Dr Jude Caper, assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University calls for a ‘whole system approach’ when evaluating emissions rather than basing science on ‘naïve or incomplete misinformation’.

The paper said: “The environmental impact of livestock production is an issue that will remain high on the consumer, producer and political agendas for the foreseeable future.

“Environmental impact and options must therefore be evaluated using whole-system approaches based on productivity, rather than allowing ideological principles, based either on naïve or incomplete misinformation or a lack of understanding, to direct food production practices.

“All attempts to mitigate environmental impact are laudable in intent. However, attention should be focused on strategies that make a long-term, positive contribution to enhancing sustainability, rather than focusing on ‘quick-win’, low impact solutions.”

In particular, Dr Capper argues the focus should shift from the current impact per animal or per facility models, to assessing environmental impact per volume of meat or milk produced, compared to resources necessary for its production.

The paper admits while greenhouse gas emissions per cow have increased dramatically since 1944 – from 13.5kg CO2 equivalent to 27.8k - the emissions per kilogram of milk actually fell from 3.7kg in 1944 to 1.4kg in 2007.

Similarly with beef, the study claims cattle fed on pasture will not necessarily have a lower carbon footprint than corn-fed cattle, as environmental campaigners claim.

It argues the amount of energy used to produce each kilogram of animal protein is could be higher in grass-fed cattle as they have an extra energy requirement for grazing, grow more slowly and have a lower slaughter weight than those fed corn.

It also claims animals raised on pasture-based diets produce more ruminal acetic acid, and therefore more methane.

Readers' comments (5)

  • Presumably Dr Caper also takes into account the pharmaceutical inputs, the levels of E-Coli, the cull rate and the environmental clean-up costs of intensive production. Statistics can be made to show anything that vested interests want them to show. Let us have the full facts presented by TRULY INDEPENDENT bodies, the rest is just smoke and mirrors.

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  • Good call Anonymous.

    And have the researchers taken into account the CO_2 footprint of the feed ingredients?

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  • Agree with both comments above. Dr Caper also has direct links with agri-business. Read this interesting deconstruction of her article/research by Animal Welfare Approved:

    http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/2009/11/16/beware-of-bad-science/

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  • Rather unobjective reporting;
    ‘naïve or incomplete misinformation’ says it all!
    Obfuscation abounds, as always it depends on what and how you count and what you compare it to. Also - measures which purport to reduce carbon are not always sustainable...
    Examination of whole-farm energy flows and budgets are often very enlightening; the figures can be very different when you look at a mixed farm that grows its own feed and uses its own waste to fertilize (and/or produce energy), compared to a specialized enterprise which imports and exports almost everything. Huge differences arise depending on whether waste is stored in lagoons or sealed containers, and according to how it is disposed of, (note that the article/research is American)
    While grain-fed cattle fatten faster, they also produce more methane; but this may be offset by the difference in maturation time between grass-fed and grain-fed in meat production. (Note that energy/carbon budgets for imported feed are conveniently not counted)
    Grass-fed dairy has achieved similar milk yields to more intensive grain-fed management systems in the UK recently, defying the myth that high yields cannot be achieved this way.
    Increase in emission per cow is due to factors such as greater farm energy use and mechanization, changes in feeding regimen, selective breeding for stock which reaches market weight more swiftly, and greater dairy yields, the use of growth hormone etc...

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  • I share the incredulity of other posters. A recent (2012) USDA study indicates that well dairy farms using well managed pastures are net sinks of greenhouse gases, whereas confinement dairies are significant emiitters of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, research in Australia, Sweden and the UK indicates that the particular types of grasses used in pasture can substantially reduce methane emissions from cattle - contradicting the rather sweeping assumptions that seem to have informed the research that is the subject of this article.

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