Can our red meat sector really go green?

An Australian beef farm has declared its operations “carbon neutral,” claiming it is the first to do so naturally by sequestering carbon in the soil and without resorting to carbon offsets.

The claim comes amid a nationwide move by the red meat industry to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, and while the process of certifying carbon neutrality is itself coming under fire for claims of “greenwashing”.

Beef growers are nonetheless jockeying for the coveted accreditation as supply chains attract increased scrutiny and new brands of “carbon neutral beef” appear on supermarket shelves.

About 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are from the red meat and livestock industry, a figure that has halved since 2005, according to the industry. The CSIRO says the fall is due to reduction in herd sizes and land clearing and some from lowering methane emissions.

Professor Richard Eckard of University of Melbourne’s Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, says farms already had the potential to “capture carbon from the atmosphere and to store it in carbon sinks like trees and soils”.

Two farm workers set up monitoring equipment.
Credit: Macka’s Australian Black Angus Beef.

“Now we have technologies that can result in about an 80 per cent reduction in methane from livestock and we can achieve at least a 50 to 60 per cent reduction in emissions from fertiliser use,” Eckard says, “so it is feasible for us to achieve a 50 to 80 per cent reduction in actual emissions from agriculture.

“In terms of soil carbon, a lot of our soils have been degraded over time; so there is opportunity to improve our management of soils, to improve soil health, to improve the soil microbial diversity, through better grazing management, through better nutrient management, through better, deeper-rooted pasture perennial crops or pasture species.”

The reduction of beef’s carbon footprint has been aided through feed supplements that mitigate the production of methane, including a feed ingredient developed by CSIRO from seaweed.

In May, a beef property at Gloucester NSW declared itself carbon neutral, while maintaining satisfactory productivity and without relying on widespread tree planting or offsets.

At Macka’s Australian Black Angus Beef, managing director Robert Mackenzie oversees the management of 7500 head across 5362ha, of which 1387ha are dedicated conservation areas.

“We believe we are among the first beef producers to achieve measured carbon neutrality not by purchasing offsets, but by sequestering carbon into our soils through best practice farm management,” says Mackenzie.

Mackenzie reports improvements to animal wellbeing and production, with animals registering increased weight gains.

“What we have achieved so far has given us the confidence to take the next step, which is to calculate the carbon balances of the post-farm gate enterprises, including emissions from animals entering backgrounding, lot feeding, transport, processing and to the plate.”

Mackenzie says the property’s carbon neutrality was calculated according to the Australian National Inventory (2021), ISO 14060, an international standard for quantifying and reporting greenhouse gas emissions; and under PAS 2060, also an internationally recognised specification.

But the property has not had its claim verified by Climate Active, the Australian Government’s carbon neutral certification body, which says it provides third-party vetting of the carbon calculations that determine neutrality.

Smart phone being used to track carbon neutrality of the red meat production.
Macka’s Australian Black Angus Beef in Gloucester, NSW, has declared itself carbon neutral. Source: Macka’s Australian Black Angus Beef.

While not a mandatory requirement, the imprimatur of Climate Active is attractive because it validates environmental credentials in the eyes of consumers, and a branded “carbon neutral” beef industry has been emerging.

The prize is clear: Market research published last year from MLA found that one in four West Australian beef consumers were willing to pay 15% more for carbon neutral beef, down to one in five at a price premium of 30%.

In April 2022, Coles supermarkets launched a line of “certified carbon neutral beef” offering seven cuts from farmers across Victoria and New South Wales.

The beef is certified carbon neutral by Climate Active.

Mackenzie, however, says he is biding his time on further certification.

“We’re the first to become carbon neutral naturally by sequestering carbon into the soil, by best practice pasture management,” he says.

“We’re using multiple species that have different root structures that are driving carbon deep into the soil.”

So why not sign up to Climate Active?

“I still believe the (certification) space here in Australia is so green, we’re still cutting our teeth – flying the plane and building it at the same time.

“We will be branding with a certification in the near future, but we want to work out what the best is for us and our customer; we have so many customers internationally; our focus was to become carbon neutral sustainably and make sure it is rock solid.”

In February, the Environmental Defenders Office, acting for public policy think tank The Australia Institute, lodged a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission requesting it investigate whether the Climate Active trademark program and its carbon neutral claims, is misleading or deceptive under the Australian Consumer Law.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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