Research, reported in the New Scientist not long ago, suggests that producing a kilo of beef has the equivalent effect on the climate as driving 250 km and leaving all the lights on at home to boot. Meanwhile ministers have been on record as saying that if you really want to save the world (and your health), you should stop eating meat. There’s also a maxim that climate change is driven by the three Cs: combustion, chainsaws and cattle.
So, am I an arch climate villain? Is my carbon foot print so big that I leave tracks across the world like yeti? By my calculations, every time I sell a bullock, it’s like driving all the way from Devon to Timbuctoo. I’m told cattle produce huge quantities of methane, a gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects, from both ends. Even worse, on conventional farms, the grass and grain they eat requires tonnes of fertiliser which takes barrels and barrels of oil to make as well as releasing yet more greenhouse gases when it’s spread on the fields.
But there’s some hope for me. I may not have to sell up quite yet. Some Swedish research shows that organic beef raised on grass has a much lower carbon footprint, emitting forty percent less greenhouse gas and consuming eighty-five percent less energy. This figures since we don’t use artificial fertilisers, recycling nutrients (good, old-fashioned muck) from the farm, and keep far fewer cattle per hectare. What’s even better, there’s good reason to suspect that organic soil management actually results in carbon being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) rather than being released into it offsetting the methane produced by the animals. (It’s a little known fact that there’s far, far more carbon stored in England’s soils than in all its woodlands.)
But, I could be in danger of being complacent here. Unfortunately it’s still a fact that my Devons are belching and farting large quantities of a powerful greenhouse gas into the beleaguered stratosphere. So what I should try to aim for is to be carbon neutral, right the way from grass to plate. I wonder, by the way, what the term is for a negative footprint is? Someone who takes more carbon out of the air than they release into it?
I shall have to have one of these carbon audits done and see what I can do to reduce my footprint. Perhaps I can manage my soils differently, let my hedges get even bigger; reduce transport costs, put up solar panels on the barns and be energy self-sufficient, look into other means of collecting and storing water…fixing plastic bags onto the rear end of the cattle is an interesting prospect, perhaps my inventor friend can work out a way and we’ll get rich on the patent!
The other side of the coin is that Devon badly needs its cattle and sheep. Imagine Dartmoor without them. Our priceless historical landscape would be lost beneath a sea of bracken, gorse and trees. Think also of all our wonderful unique indigenous grasslands. They and their supporting habitat wouldn’t survive without grazing. I guess our challenge as farmers is to produce beef and lamb in a way that helps the climate. Far better for us to face the challenge now and take the matter into our own hands than to wait for the inevitable regulations down the road. I don’t know the answers, but suspect they may involve all of us who enjoy meat eating less of it, valuing it more, and being prepared to pay much more for it, so farmers can afford to farm in a way that is in tune with Mother Earth.
For now, I’ll keep my cows. Try to sleep soundly at night too…after all, there are things I can do.