The climate change conference in Katowice, Poland (COP24) didn’t achieve the agreements or results that many were clamouring for. However, it did shine a little light on those deemed responsible for the ongoing demise of our world. During and after the conference a flurry of articles appeared on websites concerning the key drivers of climate change. Farming and agriculture often got a mention.
Climate change and agriculture
The conference certainly reignited a number of debates and some of these centre around the food choices that we make. Subsequently, the dairy and beef industries have been on the receiving end of some negative press.
It is important to keep things in perspective and to delve a little deeper into the facts behind some of the headlines. Compared to many ‘polluters’ farming is making huge strides forward, but more of that a little later.
The impact of beef & dairy farming
Changing your diet can undoubtedly make a big difference to the environment. However, headlines in the Irish and British press have often mainly focused on the detrimental effect that choosing beef and dairy products can have on the world.
Various studies have been commissioned and the published findings have often centred on the amount of greenhouse gases generated by grazing cattle or the land and water that are used by livestock. It’s very interesting to note that more often than not, the impact by region or country isn’t broken down. A great deal more land is used by beef cattle in say, Latin America than in Europe. Also, there will obviously be a far higher drain on water resources in hot regions such as Asia than here in Ireland. As usual, there are two sides to every story.
How to reduce climate change in agriculture – The power of waste
It’s also worth remembering that there are farms in the UK and Ireland which have been using anaerobic digesters for many years. These turn waste into energy. This fantastic technology uses natural processes (bacteria) to convert food waste and manure into methane gas. (The material from the digester also makes an excellent organic fertilizer.)
Some farms in England have embraced this technology so successfully that they are selling gas back to the National Grid. While recent research in Scotland concluded that existing bio-methane sites in the country already produced enough gas to supply the equivalent of 85,000 homes. Forget carbon neutral, farms that use this technology can be carbon negative!
Making the right food choices
Nobody enjoys being berated for the food choices that they make. The most innocent selections can have deep lasting consequences. Enjoy a cup of coffee and/or a bar of chocolate? Well, it’s not unusual for coffee bean and cocoa bean crops to be grown on deforested rainforest. If so, the carbon footprint for these commodities can be high particularly when it comes to the amount of greenhouses gases produced. Indeed, research this year by Poore & Nemecek concluded that a chocolate bar from a deforested rainforest emits more kilograms of greenhouse gas than a serving of low impact beef.
It clearly makes good environmental sense to buy locally sourced produce. You may like to eat salad leaves in November, but they will probably have been grown several thousand miles away.
Closer to home, a recent documentary by Simon Reeve highlighted the devastating environmental impact that the growing of fruit and vegetables has had on the Mediterranean. The swathes of plastic greenhouses in Almeria in Spain can be seen from space! Thousands of tonnes of plastic has been discarded from old greenhouses in the least environmentally friendly ways possible. The plastic sheeting has been allowed to wash into the sea or is simply buried in deep layers in the soil. Workers are often little more than slaves. They operate in appalling conditions for very little money. How do you measure the effect that this is having on the planet?
The three Cs
Away from food, most of us appreciate the devastating impact that burning coal has. The biggest user of coal is China. In 2018, the country’s coal consumption seems to be on an upward trajectory once again. This rising trend looks set to continue as building work has commenced at hundreds of coal-fired power stations. Criticising a vital player in the world economy is a little dangerous…
Now, while coal maybe an obvious polluter what about fashion? Stacey Dooley (she of Strictly Come Dancing fame) recently delved into the industry and looked at the consequences our appetite for cheap clothing is having on the planet. It is hard to believe that the fashion industry is up there with the oil industry as one of the most polluting.
One of the reasons for this is cotton. The production process involves pesticides, toxic dyes and a huge amount of water (15,000 litres to grow the cotton for a single pair of jeans). Lakes and rivers have been polluted and in Kazakhstan the Aral Sea has virtually dried up.
Another material we see all around us is cement. The earliest concrete was traded 8,000 years ago and the Romans used it to great effect. The cement industry produces a huge amount of carbon dioxide (more than air fuel) and cement is the second most consumed resource on the planet. (Water is in first place.) Where is the clamour for change in these areas?
Advancements in farming
It is great to report that there have been some huge technological leaps forward in farming. We recently delivered 160 dairy cows to a farm where the livestock are now supported with 5G technology.
Cows are robotically milked and feeding is automated. Wireless collars monitor the health of each animal and the data can be sent to a mobile phone or PC. These days, a farmer can send a vet a video of an unhealthy animal. This can save time, money and most importantly animal discomfort. Farmers want happy, healthy cows. The end result is usually more milk at less cost. More and more data is being effectively used in agriculture. Perhaps the industry actually deserves a little more credit?!
We all have a responsibility to look after this planet for future generations to come. It’s really important to know how and where your food is produced. The environmental impact of the same food stuffs can vary enormously and this is certainly the case in the beef and dairy industries.