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Does “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” apply to Australia?*

*Updated 24 November 2014

Target 100 is glad to see the discussion that our response to the Cowspiracy movie has generated. 

Following on from our initial post below, there are a few additional points we wanted to clarify.

  • Most importantly the Australian industry agrees that we all live on the same planet and that we have an important role to play in reducing emissions.  That is why the Australian industry invests in research to understand how we can continue to reduce emissions associated with beef production. If people would like to understand the research underway please visit our emissions page.
  • That said, emissions are one aspect of environmental management and while enormous focus is placed on how to reduce methane production this needs to be done with consideration for impacts on other important environmental factors such as  biodiversity
  • It is incorrect to suggest there is little room for improvement in reducing emissions associated with beef production. Recent research by CSIRO, State Departments and Universities through the National Livestock Methane Program has demonstrated a number of ways to reduce methane emissions.  These include genetic selection for lower emitting bulls and sires, forages selected for lower methane emissions, novel supplements that can be used for lot feeding and investigating of rumen microbes that may be able to be manipulated to reduce emissions
  • The Australian industry accepts its role, along with other agricultural industries including sugar and horticulture to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef.  A grazing best management practices (BMP) program which is backed by the Queensland Government, Agforce and catchment management authorities from reef catchments works with landholders on improving environmental performance, with one benefit being a reduction of run-off onto the reef
  • The percentage of emissions attributable to the beef industry in Australia has been challenged with various figures presented.  The figures that we use are aligned with the Australian Government National Inventory figures, which are built on internationally agreed standards for calculating emissions.  Other calculations are not aligned with current international scientific standards used for emissions reporting
  • While historically deforestation was a major part of the northern industry’s emission contributions, since 2006 there has been a dramatic reduction in emissions from deforestation.  It is incorrect to assume all deforestation occurs for beef production.  Emissions related to deforestation has gone from 140MT CO2 to 40MT CO2 between 1990-2014

Original post from 28 October 2014 below:

What is “Cowspiracy”?

Cowspiracy is a documentary produced by filmmaker Kip Anderson in 2014 that claims to uncover an environmental conspiracy. The film is set in the United States and makes many claims about beef production there that do not apply to the beef industry in Australia.

Cowspiracy does not examine Australian production systems, which are quite different from those in the US. 

Why is Australian beef different?

  • Cowspiracy focuses on the amount of land cleared in the Amazon to produce grain for cattle.  Australian farmers do not buy grain from the Amazon.
  • In Australia, most cattle graze on grass.  Even "grain fed" cattle spend most of their lives grazing grass.  At any one time, only around 2% of Australia’s cattle population is in feedlots.
  • In Australia, grain fed to livestock is either ‘feed grain’ quality, or grown solely for livestock consumption. Cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat.
  • Australia's livestock industry produces approximately 10 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this is methane produced by the natural digestion process of cattle and sheep. Find out what the Australian industry is doing to research emissions reduction here.
  • Using arid land for grazing cattle may actually be positive in Australia. See conservationist Dr Barry Trail TEDxSydney talk about this here.
  • The Australian cattle and sheep industry invests around $13 million annually in research, development and extension programs to improve environmental performance. Find out more here.
  • Australian production efficiencies have delivered a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef produced since 1990 (Calculated using 2010 beef production data from MLA and from the 2009 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory).
  • Life Cycle Assessment on Australian beef and lamb production systems showed that Australia has one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat-producing country.  The research was undertaken by the University of New South Wales in 2009.

What are the other problems with Cowspiracy?

  • Cowspiracy bases its arguments on the 2006 FAO Livestocks Long Shadow report, which claimed the sector contributes more greenhouse gas (GHG) than the entire transport sector. This statement has been retracted by the paper authors who have since accepted that the paper used two different methodologies to calculate greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in an unfair comparison to the beef industry. FAO  livestock policy officer Pierre Gerber told BBC News he accepted the criticism: “I must say honestly that he [Professor Mitloehner, UC Davis] has a point; we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport”. In Australia, energy generation represents 37 per cent of Australia’s emissions, compared to 10 per cent for livestock.
  • Cowspiracy deals only with beef production in the United States. The grain-fed system in the US is quite different from the grass and grain-fed industry in Australia, where cattle that are grain fed spend only 10-15 per cent of their lives in feedlots.
  • Cowspiracy alleges that no environmental group is looking at the beef industry due to the political power of the industry. This is the “conspiracy” of the movie. In fact, there are a number of groups that are focussed on the beef industry globally, including WWF who are members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.  The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef comprises of members including peak beef industry bodies such as, Cattle Council of Australia, National Cattleman’s Association and Canadian Cattleman’s Association, along with major retailers and other environment and welfare groups

You can find out more at about what Australian researchers and farmers are working on together to: