Why beef isn’t all bad

If you are an omnivore with a conscience, you might have been feeling a little guilty of late. A couple of big data papers were released recently showing that beef production produced more emissions and used more resources than other livestock production systems. The study that received the most coverage looked at land, water and nitrogen impacts of cattle production. The authors note in the article (and clearly state in the title) that the data and results are only relevant to the US livestock industry. They only considered land, irrigation water and nitrogen fertilisers used for feed production (e.g. corn, soybean, grain etc.), mostly in the US Midwest and they do not include pastured beef in analyses. So with these results, we can only talk about industrially-farmed beef, dairy, pork and poultry in the United States (i.e. feedlots and factory farms), but few media reports acknowledged this.

Industrial livestock production is bad for livestock, farmers, the environment and the people that eat the produce – to a lot of people, that won’t be news. So it is great that studies like these can show how much industrial livestock also affects the bottom line and national accounts, as these are the things that might effect change where it needs to happen. In an ideal world, there would be no supermarket shelves stocked with faceless beef. So here are a few positive facts to make that ideal seem possible.

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Data, not just for scientists

Early last year I wrote a post on ecology and mathematics that was inspired by an online discussion happening at the time. Although comprehensive advanced maths skills are not essential to being an influential or inspiring ecologist, a good level of mathematical knowledge and understanding of statistical analysis is definitely necessary to create honest science and communicate the importance of your work to others.

But it’s not just ecologists who need mathematical common sense. Anyone who deals with, or is interested in science needs to understand the ambiguity of an average, or the difference between a regression and a correlation. In fact, anyone who cares about the society they live in should be aware how deeply statistics and data now influence the way we live – policies and decisions on anything from what product choices you find in retail stores to how much tax you pay are all based on data.

Why does this matter to us? Well, if those data are a bit dodgy, or haven’t been analysed and presented appropriately, problems arise. And when these kinds of data misrepresentations are used to fuel public opinion or inform government policy, there can be serious impacts on communities, individuals and ecosystems. Continue reading

Pollution and Profit

Finally, some great news for those trying to keep their backyards free of coal seam gas wells. In world-first research, two scientists from Southern Cross University, Dr Isaac Santos & Dr Damien Maher, have found evidence of extremely high levels of atmospheric methane near coal seam gas (CSG) fields. Using a high-precision methane detector, Santos & Maher took thousands of air samples between Lismore (in northern New South Wales) and Tara (in southern Queensland), creating a pretty clear picture of methane levels across the region.

Tara is the largest CSG field in Australia and has been a hub of gas production for a few years now, whereas the Northern Rivers region (near Lismore) has lots of ‘natural’ or non-CSG methane producers, such as natural wetlands, sewage treatment plants, an airport and plenty of cattle. In northern New South Wales, the scientists found atmospheric methane concentration never rose higher than 2.1 ppm (natural background levels are around 1.8 ppm). However, around Tara, the methane levels went up as high as 6.9 ppm, with no recorded values below 2 ppm in this region. Continue reading

Zen and the Art of Progress Trapping

I watched a very thought-provoking film the other night called Surviving Progress – it is loosely based on a book called A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. I recommend it to absolutely every person, particularly those under the age of 25. The film lays a very convincing case for the idea of ‘progress traps’. To quote from the film’s website, progress traps are “alluring technologies [that] serve immediate needs, but ransom the future”.

An example is given of a Neanderthal man who learns to hunt and kill a mammoth. Then he works out that with 2 or 3 mates, they can hunt 2 or 3 mammoths at once, which equals more food. Then, as human populations increase, they realise that a whole bunch of them can hunt a whole herd of mammoths and drive them over a cliff, killing them all at once…and that’s the progress trap. Continue reading

She will have Her way…

In news just in, climate change is real, and we caused it. Fancy that.

There’s also more food-for-thought on the environmental-selfishness of conventional electricity. Even though we still think there’s plenty of coal, oil and related substances lying around just waiting to be plundered, it seems Nature has other ideas.

A study published recently in Nature Climate Change looked at the water usage of thermoelectric power plants (those that are run on coal, gas or nuclear power) in the United States and Europe.  Together, these two continents/countries are responsible for 86% of global thermoelectric water withdrawals!! Continue reading

Our fractured future

This post started as an embryonic thought in my mind nearly a year ago. It’s about coal seam gas (CSG) mining and hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ – terms that are even more of a conversation-killer than the topic of my last post.

There is still a great deal of vagueness around the CSG industry, and I think the exploration companies prefer it that way.

Yet there is enough information out there if you look for it. I won’t list all the (reputable and rational) discussions of evidence that fracking or CSG mining is bad for the environment and bad for people – if you’re interested, they’re not hard to find. DeSmogBlog, Yale environment360 and Mother Jones are a good start. Also a must-see is the movie Gasland, by Josh Fox. Continue reading

Mining: Need or Want?

Mining is one of those topics that heightens emotions on all sides. When it appears in a conversation people either flee by segue or physical exit, or they launch in, guns blazing. You’re either for or against – there is no tolerance for a middle ground. Yet, when it’s not being talked about, most people tend to forget it’s even happening.

Recent events have moved mining a little bit closer to the forefront of people’s consciousness, especially anything associated with coal. In many environmental arenas, there’s a general notion that mining is bad; it can only wreck, contaminate, destroy and displace. But without it, we would not have the civilisation and lifestyles that we do today.

Can mining actually be conducted with environmental respect, or is all that mining company publicity about environmental responsibility just a waste of greenwashing? Continue reading