New publication: What’s your beef? Global solutions for a more sustainable agriculture.

October 27th, 2018

How to reduce the global environmental footprint of meat and dairy consumption.

Many people love their beef, lamb and dairy products, but our dietary choices sometimes come at a cost.  And it’s not just the cost to our wallets, but the cost to our health if we eat like there’s no tomorrow, and to the environment if we farm like there’s no tomorrow.

In the increasingly globalised world we live in, it’s not just Australian food choices that affect Australians. Choices made in distant parts of the world can also have large impacts on our environment. This is because most of the growth in meat and dairy consumption is happening in developing countries like China, fuelled extensively by trade in meat and dairy products grown right here in Australia. While the economy benefits from this trade, we have to be aware that this could come at the expense of damaging our own environment.

In a study recently published in Nature Communications, Professor Raphael Didham from the Ecosystem Change Ecology team and a team led by Zhejiang University in eastern China discovered that beef, lamb and dairy consumption in developing countries, such as China, is set to double by 2050, leading to large increases in greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen pollution if effective global strategies are not put in place to reduce the environmental footprint of agricultural production.

Professor Didham, said this is an issue of global concern.

“Greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions from increasing meat and dairy consumption in China are not just going to be a local environmental problem for China to face. China is the world’s largest importer of beef, lamb and dairy products, and these trade goods effectively ‘transfer’ environmental impacts to the rest of the world.”

China’s consumption, production and trade of ruminant products, and the associated local and global transfer of environmental impacts.

“While the economy benefits from trade, we have to be aware of both the local and global environmental footprint of consumption if we are to manage agricultural systems for a more sustainable future,” Professor Didham said.

The researchers compared six scenarios to meet consumer demand by 2050, while minimising the impact on the environment, both in China and across the world.

Professor Didham said they found an extraordinary difference in global environmental impacts between scenarios, based on how they balanced local technological improvement in China versus varying trade with more environmentally-sustainable trading partners.

“When we combined a long-term strategy of improving sustainable ‘green’ technology within China, with a short-term strategy of increasing ‘green-source’ trade with countries that have global best-practice in emissions control (like Australia and New Zealand), we found that we could reduce local and global emissions by as much as 40% by 2050,” Professor Didham said.

The researchers suggest that their findings will shift the conversation away from just intensifying agriculture, toward greater sustainability and efficiency of production so that we have a lighter footprint on the planet.

Read more by downloading the paper here.

Du, Y., Ge, Y., Ren, Y., Fan, X., Pan, K., Lin, L., Wu, X., Min, Y., Meyerson, L.A., Heino, M., Chang, S.X., Liu, X., Mao, F., Yang, G., Peng, C., Qu, Z., Chang, J. & Didham, R.K. (2018) A global strategy to mitigate the environmental impact of China’s ruminant consumption boom. Nature Communications, 9, 4133.

This research was carried out by an international team, led by Zhejiang University and CSIRO/UWA, in collaboration with Zhejiang Economic Information Center, Zhejiang University of Technology, University of Rhode Island (USA), University of Bergen (Norway), National Taiwan University, University of Alberta (Canada), Academia Sinica (Taiwan), University of Birmingham (UK), and University of Quebec (Canada).