Eat Kangaroos to Save Climate?
IPS, 21 October 2008 - Representations of kangaroos are used on everything from Australia's coat of arms to the national airline, military markings and sporting teams. But the nation's iconic marsupial may also be able to make significant contributions to reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
"For most of Australia's human history -- around 60,000 years -- kangaroo was the main source of meat. It could again become important," says the final report of the Garnaut Climate Change Review, released on Sep.30.
Professor Ross Garnaut, an economist, was commissioned by Australian governments last year to study the impacts of climate change on the country's economy. His latest offering argues that with cattle and sheep being large emitters of methane -- a greenhouse gas (GhG) -- a shift in diet to a less polluting source of meat remains an option to help reduce emissions.
Not including land clearing, cattle for meat -- as opposed to cattle for dairy produce -- is responsible for 58.1 percent of Australia's agricultural emissions, while emissions from sheep account for a further 22 percent, according to figures from the federal government's department of climate change.
Kangaroos, in contrast, are negligible emitters of methane. Despite a similar diet -- kangaroos, like sheep and cattle, mostly eat grass -- kangaroos produce acetate, which assists in digestion, instead of methane.
While not a new idea, the proposal for an increase in kangaroo consumption has been given new impetus by the need to reduce GhG emissions.
John Kelly, executive officer of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA), says that kangaroos' lack of methane production "is simply another endorsement of the product's environmental credentials."
He argues that "exotic, big, hard-footed cattle and sheep" do not belong in Australia's arid rangelands, which cover about two-thirds of the country. A more sustainable use, Kelly says, would be to use the rangelands for kangaroo harvesting.
"Many of our native pastures are dependent on grazing by kangaroo for their propagation," Kelly told IPS.
In an essay published this year by Australasian Science magazine, Dr George Wilson and Melanie Edwards from wildlife management consultants, Australian Wildlife Services, were also critical of the environmental impact of cattle and sheep.
Besides contributing to the extinction of 20 or more mammal species -- as well as the ongoing threat to endangered plant species -- hard-hoofed livestock grazing also adversely affects river environments, soil, and the capacity of vegetation to respond after drought, according to the scientists. They argue that improvements in these areas may come with more kangaroos and less sheep and cattle.
In economic modelling conducted by Wilson and Edwards, cattle and sheep for meat could be dramatically reduced in Australia's rangelands by 2020, with cattle dropping from 7.5 million to 500,000 and sheep from 38.7 million to 2.7 million.
This would enable kangaroos to increase from 34 million up to 200 million by 2020, with the scientists estimating that 175 million kangaroos would be sufficient to replace meat production from the foregone cattle and sheep.
The scientists conclude that this would allow for a net carbon saving of 16 megatonnes of GhG emissions by 2020, around 28 percent of Australia's agricultural emissions.
But while this scenario seems to make environmental sense as the world looks for ways to mitigate dangerous climate change, Australian farmers appear reluctant to switch their focus.
The National Famers Federation (NFF) says that consumers, both domestic and international, are the ultimate harbingers of change. "The fact of the matter is that, as it stands, there is a very limited market for kangaroo meat," says NFF economist Charlie McElhone.
He told IPS that even if agriculture is included in Australia's emissions trading scheme -- expected to be introduced in 2010, the scheme is unlikely to include agriculture from its inception due to difficulties associated with measuring agricultural GhG emissions -- the resulting increase in cost will not turn people away from beef and sheep meat.
"Even with a significant price signal, we don't believe that there is the international and domestic demand for that form of production," says McElhone.
He adds that "we export the vast majority of what we produce in terms of beef and sheep meat."
The NFF spokesman argues that a change in production by farmers from beef and sheep meat to kangaroo would see international consumers choosing beef and lamb from elsewhere rather than embracing a dietary change.
Australia is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of red meat. According to Meat and Livestock Australia, the nation's beef and sheep meat industry is valued at AUD 15.6 billion (10.8 billion US dollars). Figures from the department of trade show that in 2007, beef exports alone were worth almost AUD 4.5 million (3.1 billion US dollars).
The kangaroo industry -- which directly employs some 4,000 people -- is valued at AUD 270 million (188.5 million US dollars).
The KIAA's John Kelly says that significant investment in marketing kangaroo meat as a viable alternative to beef and sheep would require government assistance.
"The industry only has a certain amount of funds available for market development. From its current scale, for any industry to increase its productivity six or seven-fold, would obviously require outside investment," he says.
But an increase in kangaroo meat production is not necessarily a zero-sum game.
Dr Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales argues that kangaroo consumption can play a role in reducing agricultural emissions, but "it's a modest role."
Among his concerns are difficulties associated with harvesting kangaroos.
But Kelly told IPS that with the infrastructure and mechanisms already in place to increase the harvest of kangaroos, "we just need to do more of what we're currently doing."
And with kangaroo meat becoming more popular, such an increase may be required.
Diesendorf says that a moderate transition to kangaroo meat is already taking place in Australia, "now that it's no longer a specialty food and you can buy it in the big supermarkets."
"Not all Australians have tried kangaroo or like kangaroo, but increasingly more are. It's a healthy meat and it's low in fat" he says.