SCIENCE is promising to deliver the red meat industry its holy grail of environmental sustainability, a methane-free animal, but the appetite for the type of research investment required is not yet there.
That’s the word from those at the forefront of work on greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural systems.
Livestock production systems professor Richard Eckard, who heads up the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne, believes the beef and sheepmeat industries’ plan to be carbon neutral is possible.
But it’s a tall order within the 2030 deadline because the research is not moving at the rate needed, he says.
A multitude of pathways have emerged from the ambitious goal, announced by research and development body Meat and Livestock Australia in late 2017, ranging from improvements in feeding practices to genetics, animal management and storing carbon in the land.
However, as Prof Eckard explains it, the strategy relies heavily on carbon offsets initially with the plan that one day a low-methane animal will be available.
Offsets will only suffice for so long and every other industry is wanting the same ones, he says, so the science needs to be moving now on the end goal.
A zero carbon footprint is really no longer a choice for the red meat industry, Prof Eckard believes.
“The ball is rolling on anti-meat sentiment and worldwide environmental policy is fast emerging saying methane is part of global warming,” he said.
“Prominent commentary has labelled livestock a high risk investment if you don’t get onto this issue.”
Australia’s red meat industry contributes 10 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and has one of the lowest carbon emissions profiles of any major meat producing country, according to MLA.
That 10pc compares to the electricity business at 33pc and transport at 17pc.
The CSIRO reports that between 2005 and 2015, there was a 45pc reduction in GHG emissions associated with Australia’s red meat industry.
However, beef industry leaders say Australia can’t afford to be stagnant on the issue.
They want to be the first to claim a zero carbon footprint.
Prof Eckard said it doesn’t make sense for MLA to ‘go it alone’ on carbon neutrality.
“Australia is not alone in this problem - it’s a global livestock problem and the better strategy is to make sure we are connected into global networks of scientists who are addressing the problem,” he said.
Why isn’t that happening?
“A lack of engagement at government level. Industry can play a part but it comes down to the politics of the current government in terms of its stance on climate change,” Prof Eckard said.
The capacity generated from now-slashed carbon tax schemes, which pumped revenue into bringing together top researchers into all aspects of reducing methane, had now waned, he said.
Achieving a 90pc methane-free animal was feasible but would require a concerted funding effort over a much longer length of time than the typical three-year projects that were today the norm, he said.
Most research has a 10 to 15 year timeline from conception to adoption.
As far as the current science goes, commercial viability appears to be a massive challenge.
There were already products available, such as feed additives, which could deliver up to 40pc reductions but that were just not cost effective for farmers, Prof Eckard said.
Genetics has potential but at the moment low methane emission traits are not compatible with other valuable production traits.
The area with the most promising potential is early life programming.
“If you raise animals in an environment where their parents have low methanogen numbers in their rumen, there is evidence showing the subsequent generation can also have low methanogen numbers,” Prof Eckard explained.
That is, removing non-essential microbes in ruminants can create a rumen in future generations which naturally does not have those methane-producing microbes.
“It has been shown to work but there are limitations in our knowledge. I am confident science can get there if the long-term commitment to the research is made.”