A Modest Proposal

Tony Abbott
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Dear Tony Abbott,

Your new climate change policy for the Liberal Party is certainly interesting: a 5% reduction in national emission levels from those of the year 2000 by the year 2020, but without implementing an energy trading scheme or carbon tax. Although it doesn’t sound like you’ve quite settled how you’ll achieve this yet, you are looking at options such more regulations and new government subsidies. You are clearly open to options which the Labor Party is traditionally closed to.

However, as someone who might be willing to take on radical yet reasonable policy positions, I would like you to consider a simple measure that will cost the government nothing, yet easily achieve your target. Pass a law that makes it illegal to eat meat.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” found that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock sector, which is more than the emissions from all the cars in the world. We have been looking for emission savings in all the wrong places.

Having Australia become the first country to go vegetarian would demonstrate global leadership and really show those United Nations guys that we can do without their pesky energy trading scheme. If China can introduce a one child policy, then surely we can introduce a one food policy. Almost a third of Indian people are vegetarian, which is like if seventeen entire Australias were vegetarian. The global thinking is consistent: I have been assured by a very knowing fellow in London (author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) that people ought to go vegetarian for the climate’s sake.

According to the Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change, “Tracking to Kyoto and 2020” report, our emission levels in the year 2000 were 553 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent gasses. A 5% reduction is a reduction of 27.7 million tonnes. Vegetarianism will easily achieve this.

As the Garnaut Climate Change Review notes, “Australia’s per capita emissions arising from agriculture are more than six times the world average, more than four times the OECD average” and the Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing industry is the largest industrial contributor to emissions, accounting for 29.3% of industrial emissions. Garnaut attributes 123.7 million tonnes of emissions to beef cattle alone.

Meat & Livestock Australia estimates that “50.7kg of red meat was available for consumption by each person in Australia in 2006-07” while a Japanese study estimates that each kilo of beef “generates the equivalent of 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide”. At a population of 20 million, that is an equivalent of about 37 million tonnes of greenhouse gas from meat eating.

Even more dramatically, an analysis by the Vegetarian Network Victoria forecasts Australia becoming completely carbon neutral within 3-5 decades of adopting vegetarianism if land currently used by cattle was reforested. Ask the Labor Party if their tax is able to achieve that.

There is also the opportunity to snooker your colleague Mr Turnbull, who seems to be positioning himself as a sort of Australian Al Gore. By adopting vegetarianism, you can occupy the highest of moral ground, while also being against taxation and climate change. High ground is the safest position to be in these troubled times.

Your role-model and mentor John Howard took strong measures in 1996 to ban all the dangerous guns (thank goodness we got to keep the safe guns). This type of bold leadership is what we need in the climate crisis of 2009.

Yours faithfully,


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17 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal”

  1. Excellent point, which is why I feel almost ashamed to point out some spurious use of statistics. Sadly, the pedantic nerd in me just can’t help it.

    “Australia’s per capita emissions arising from agriculture are more than six times the world average, more than four times the OECD average.” Aussie emissions are higher per capita not just because we are a mammoth consumer (which may well be true) but also because we’re a mammoth exporter. According to DFAT, two thirds of our production feeds other nationalities.

    Emissions should be pegged against consumption, not production. (Unless you claim it’s our moral duty not to sell produce to humans of other nationalities — an interesting philosphy that Mr. Abbott could choose to embrace.)

    Well, regardless, you’ve convinced me to cut meat out of several meals a week. (Shamefully, and I mean truly shamefully, I’m just not ready to go cold tofurkey.)

  2. By the way, do you know what the statistics on eggs & dairy are like? I couldn’t find anything easily. I’m trying to calibrate my decisions here.

  3. I meant to put up a comment earlier with the Australia red meat industry’s own view about its contribution to climate change, to provide at least some semblance of balance. Anyway, here is the link.. http://www.mla.com.au/NR/rdonlyres/FC3888A5-F857-4B78-B770-AE230D0FD8E7/0/RedmeatintheAustralianenvironment.pdf

    @Bob, yes, you’re absolutely right about the export vs. domestic consumption. This is why I also included the 50.7kg / person consumption figure. If I was being more rigorous I would try to link emissions to head of cattle (or square kms of cattle land) rather than kg of beef, but I was more interested in making extreme statements than considered ones in this post. :)

    According to the Garnaut report, Dairy cattle is responsible for 10.7 million tonnes. I read somewhere that although there are much fewer of them, there’s more methane produced. Don’t know about eggs specifically, but the whole poultry industry comes to 1.0 million tonnes according to Garnaut.

    I’d expect fish and game (roo, etc.) to be pretty light in terms of their impacts.

  4. And yet another reason we have vegetarian or fish meals at least half of the week. In fact our red meat consumption is seriously low. Although free range chicken features quite highly. Anyone know about the impact of poultry farming?

  5. So dairy cattle fart more than beef cattle?

    I guess they’re older.

    The meat industry pamphlet seems to be mostly full of the usual vague qualified statements and feel-good greenwashing, but there’s one interesting stat in their defense. They say that red-meat emissions are down 12% since 1990. That’s actually pretty impressive (assuming true) compared to other industries.

    I’m amazed at how much more efficient chicken is. Given what you say, we could slash by well more than 50%, just by becoming chickentarian.

    All this has made me wonder why the ecoterrorists are still firebombing housing developments, rather than working on bovine bioweaponry.

  6. Sorry, missed your chicken stats earlier.

    I heard on ABC news radio the other day about an interesting study in Australia at the moment where they are finding out which specific cows and sheep fart the least (not which breed, but which individuals), and are then using the less farting ones in breeding in the hope of breeding a less flatulent population for the future.

  7. Oh and yes, dairy cattle would produce more than beef cattle because beef cattle are slaughtered when young and tender, while dairy cattle go on producing babies and milk for as long as they can.

    So, if we cut out dairy too, we’re helping more, which is good, but sadly many things that replace dairy have palm oil in them, which is also a Very Bad Thing.

    I might move to Pemberton, grow my own organic veggies and raise free range chooks.

  8. For someone who claimed to be writing satire, you’re taking this discussion remarkably seriously Andrew! While I haven’t spent much time looking into the science of this, I submit a few hypotheses for consideration:

    It is a little bit useless to look at the environmental life cycle of a product (red meat) in isolation, without also looking at what will replace it. People have evolved over a very long time to eat an omnivorous diet, and our bodies are far better at extracting certain nutrients from meat than from any other food source. Iron is the most obvious example, but also zinc, vitamin B12, certain lipids and other nutrients are either not found in plant based foods, or else broken down and absorbed much more easily from meat than from other sources. Thus, if you remove meat from the diet, you have to eat a lot more of other foodstuffs to absorb the same level of nutrients. This means that you have to produce more to feed the same number of people, so you need more land clearing, more energy use etc. You will shift the greenhouse emissions from one type of farming to another.

    It is also not useful to compare the diets of people in a developed country with that of a third world nation, unless you also compare their overall health and lifespan as well. I suggest that instead of trying to bring Australia’s standard of living down to that of India, it would be more useful to look for ways of raising India’s standard of living to that of Australia. Before anyone gets on their high horse, I am well aware that many Indian people are vegetarian for religious reasons, but many are also vegetarian out of necessity, as clean fresh meat supplies are virtually non-existent in many parts of the country.

    Then of course, if Australians were legally forced into vegetarianism, have you considered the black market meat trade that would inevitably arise? Would you really force honest farmers out of business to give preference to the mafia?? Like the mafioso really care about climate change, or animal welfare?

    Furthermore, the consumption rates you mention of red meat in Australia (50.7kg per year) are hardly excessive as part of a well balanced nutritious diet. That works out to 139g per day, or just under 70g per meal, assuming you eat your meat at lunch and dinner only. The CSIRO total wellbeing for life diet recommends a meat &/or fish &/or eggs intake of 300g per day, so in that context, 139g of red meat per day as an average is certainly not more than is recommended for good health.

    Lastly, I should add that I have heard colloquially that vegetarians fart far more than meat eating humans. Thus, if you get rid of the red meat, you may be raising the gas levels in a much more local environment!

    P.S.: Andrew, have I made Jonathan Swift proud yet??

  9. I think this would be a false economy. If we follow your argument through to its full conclusion, and we go all vegetarian, that means the elimination of all cows, chickens, sheep, tofupedes etc. These engineered creatures are symbiotically dependent on our need for tasty steak for their own survival. Why are we not culling polar bears or orangutans for farting? Is the distinction between natural methane emissions and man made emissions really dictated by which particular animals we prefer to eat? This seems spurious to me. When you consider the methane emissions of all terrestrial bacteria, I don’t think that my giving up ham is really going to matter.

  10. @Graham, it’s as real an economy as any other shaped by government regulation. However, you are reframing my argument. I was not proposing elimination of all animals; simply that we shouldn’t eat them here: removal of demand rather than supply, so to speak. If farmers wished to export them, to put them in a zoo, or train them to dance the tango then that would be entirely up to them.

    I’ve recently come across a report that claims total vegetarianism isn’t necessary – just cut back a bit on the meat. Worth linking to in this discussion..

  11. Wow, vegetarians are a threat to biodiversity? To think that my son might only be able to see veal cattle in a museum!

    I suppose you could argue that the best way to save the dugong is to start eating it. But that’s not exactly the point here.

    The point is that succulent farm-fresh dugong steaks would still be an order of magnitude more resource-intensive than bread, or say, lentil and chickpea lasagna. (1 calorie from red meat causes about 30 times the CO2 emissions of 1 calorie from veg, according to a report from U Chicago.)

    That one order of magnitude seems to be the difference between sustaining 1 billion meat eating humans, which seems just possible, and 10 billion meat eating humans, which is impossible. So the key is: eat dugong in very small amounts.

    Incidentally, we are killing native fauna for our agriculture, just not in so direct a manner. So while you’re unlikely to find filet d’orangutan or numbat nuggets on your plate any time soon, you can rest assured that their methane footprint is being well taken care of.


  12. Actually, Andrew I think it is you who is reframing your argument. You started out by talking about legislatively imposed vegetarianism for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I think we all agree that if we impose enforced vegetarianism on the population, putting the hapless cows in a zoo or teaching them to tango won’t reduce emissions one jot. You don’t want to use such a dirty word, but you are really talking about a mass cull. Otherwise there is no actual reduction in emissions. Having said that, I’d pay good money to see cows tango!

  13. @T.A., my meat-eating friend, I think the proposal as it stands would affect lifestock numbers. Perhaps we would both agree that the number of cows and sheep required to satisfy the domestic demand of pretty much anything but eating them is lower than the numbers today. Australia Zoo has ~1,000 animals while there are currently about 120 million sheep. Although, that’s not really the point.

    It was more useful to phrase the proposal in terms of a change to the behaviour of individuals. I don’t believe that Tony Abbott could, or should, make meat-eating illegal. However, the original post is intended to challenge the reader about their own behaviour, and highlight the sacrifice and difficulty required to pursue a truly “moral” life. Particularly, as people like Noel Pearson have pointed out, some responses to climate change advocated by the well-off can have a tendency to adversely affect the poor.

  14. Oh? So this is a discussion about morals now, is it?? I thought we were talking about policy and science… my bad!!

    In that case let me defend myself, since you are accusing me of vested interests. I do not agree that it is morally good to be vegetarian. However, for your information, whilst I am happy to hoe into a hearty T-bone every now and again, I eat vegetarian roughly one day per week. I don’t do this out of a need to feel morally superior, or any deep-seated religious belief that it will save the planet. Rather, I eat vegetarian meals because they are a) tasty, and b) cheap as chips. Now tell us all, honestly Andrew, have you become a vegetarian? I find people who try to impose standards on others that they don’t adhere to themselves to be rather morally questionable! (Just like all those dignitaries and politicians in Copenhagen at the moment who flew there by private jet!) At least commenter Bron shows that she stands by her convictions with her actions… Not that I am agreeing that vegetarianism is in itself moral behaviour, but that it is morally wrong to dictate action to others whilst doing something different yourself.

    I totally agree that your proposal will affect livestock numbers. What I am trying to find out from you is what you are proposing to do with the extras? So far you’ve suggested:
    – putting them in zoos
    – teaching them to dance tango, or
    – exporting them, so other countries can continue to use them to make greenhouse emissions, which won’t help your goal.

    None of these suggestions actually cut livestock numbers. What I want to know is what you propose to do with those 120 million sheep which farmers will suddenly be unable to afford to keep? The only real answers which will cut emissions are to either let them loose to slowly die, which will destroy Australia’s native habitats even more by creating a huge feral sheep problem, or else a large scale cull. Which option is more moral?!!!

    As for finding a ‘moral’ solution to climate change, are you seriously suggesting that enforced vegetarianism won’t affect the poor? If the whole population of Australia suddenly becomes vegetarian, the price of basic sustenance foodstuffs like grains, legumes and vegetables would go up dramatically – just as the prices of grains have increased with the competition from biofuels. There is nothing more certain to hurt the world’s poor than increasing the prices of basic foodstuffs! Then of course, there’s the question of whether it will really reduce Australia’s “arseprint” at all (thanks to commenter Bob for that wonderful addition to the vocab of climate change!!) – until you do a full accounting of methane emissions, including the methane emissions of different human populations on different diets, I think it is unsound to claim that vegetarianism will reduce methane emissions! (Has anyone actually captured and measured their own methane emissions? There’s something I’d love to see – a tax on human methane! While we’re getting all Big Brother, let’s have a compulsory farting tax!)

    If eating no meat makes you feel good about yourself, I am happy for you. But at what point did you change from believing God’s dictates about how to live your life to believing Greenpeace’s?

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