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Australia's dairy industry and gas emissions: Impact and future options

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As research suggests that greenhouse gas emissions have had an impact on climate change and extreme weather, Australia's dairy industry has felt the effects on the ground level.

The past summer in Australia was one of the hottest on record, according to a Climate Council report, with a number of extreme weather events and bushfires striking across the country. 

The report stated that the record-breaking heat across the country was "part of a long-term warming trend from the burning of fossil fuels and land clearing", and was "an example of the consequences of climate change".

Australia's greenhouse emissions are at their highest level since 2011, and despite being adversely affected by the extreme weather, the meat and dairy sectors accounted for a large part of emissions.

On the home front

According to Agriculture Victoria, emissions produced from dairy farms account for 3 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry in Australia is working on different ways to make the dairy production process more energy-efficient.

Victorian dairy farmer Ron Paynter was one of them. 

“If we manage cows well and make sure we are feeding them properly with lots of light food, they actually become more greenhouse gas efficient,” he said.

“We’re looking at even energy capture of some of the waste products on farm…using that to generate energy for preparing and feeding back in the system.”

Mr Paynter’s farm business in West Gippsland, south-east Victoria, has been frequently challenged by extreme summer conditions.

Ron Paynter with his cows on his farm, a 450-acre family business he has run for 25 years in Ellinbank, Victoria
Ron Paynter with his cows on his farm, a 450-acre family business he has run for 25 years in Ellinbank, Victoria.
Ron Paynter; supplied

He has also been highly active in securing his farm as bushfires swept across the state this week.

Although not being affected this time, previous drought conditions have caused him a lot of stress.

When the feed supply is insufficient to feed his animals, he must rely on external grain and hay.

“The grass just doesn’t grow, and what we've got to do is fall back on the reserves of surplus feed that we put away, when we've got some extra feed in spring, or we have to buy in feed,” he said.

“All of the input costs into our business to do with feeding the cows are pushed up and that really cuts into profitability.”

A CFA crew is seen on the Bunyip side of the Princes Highway.
Bushfires raging across Victoria last weekend has been linked to climate change.

Primary industries climate change expert Professor Richard Eckard said Australia's inland dairy industry was more likely to be affected during periods of extreme weather, which farmers have already become more accustomed to.

Prof Eckard noted that during the drought of 2014, some individual farms were losing three or four thousand dollars in revenue per day, but many managed climate change impacts better than expected.

“The potential for this event is for a 40 per cent reduction in production across the state [Victoria]," he said.

"We only saw about a 10 per cent reduction in milk production as a result, which would mean a lot of farmers are out there doing the right thing.”

Last month, Woolworths announced it would stop selling milk for $1 a litre, bumping up the price by 10 cents with the increase to go to struggling dairy farmers. 

Other supermarket chains such as Coles and Aldi did not immediately follow the move.

Facing double stress from worsening climate and price competition, margins are shrinking in the dairy business, said Mr Paul Mumford, president of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV).

“Woolworths has made the first step,” Mr Mumford said. “I call on all other retailers to follow suit by stop making dairy products a loss leader and showing farmers the true value of the products that they supply.”

 

Are plant-based milk options the answer?

As experts suggest that plant-based food consumption would help to reduce carbon footprints, the dairy industry has to compete against alternative milk options such as almond and soy.

A recent report of the British medical journal, The Lancet, called for more vigorous adoption of plant-based diets, noting the pressure meat and dairy production exerts on the planet. 

Dutch nutritionist Dr Stephan Peters argued that although milk alternatives produced about 50 per cent fewer carbon emissions per kilogram product than milk, replacing milk with an alternative in the diet didn't always equal a healthier diet.

“Most of these drinks do not contain the nutrients that are present in milk. Some products are enriched with calcium and some [with] B-vitamins, but they still do not contain the same nutrients. Milk cannot be 100 per cent mimicked,” Dr Peters wrote in an email.

In February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion extension of Tony Abbott's Direct Action fund, as the centrepiece of his climate change policy

The Climate Solutions Fund pledged to help farmers to overcome severe climate effects, to make farms drought-proof and revegetate degraded land.

Mr Mumford: “We really need to make sure that we have the mechanism to assist agriculture to try to achieve that. We got to make sure that it’s a whole industry approach if we try to tackle the energy emissions.”


 

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