Biodiversity management soars and emissions plunge in latest beef sustainability scorecard

Key points:

  • Net CO2e emissions in 2021 of the beef industry hit fresh low of 78.2% below 2005 levels
  • Carbon sequestration through on-farm vegetation increases to 31.31Mt CO2e
  • 58% of beef producers generating or purchasing renewable energy
  • Almost 160m hectares of grazing land managed for biodiversity
  • 13% increase in live cattle exports with a mortality rate remaining at record low 0.05%
  • Number of cattle exported live increased by 13% while maintaining the record low 0.05% mortality rate.

The amount of Australian grazing land being managed for biodiversity has surpassed the entire farmed area of the European Union, with record rates of carbon sequestration and emissions reduction, according to the 2024 Annual Update of the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework (ABSF).

The annual snapshot of the sustainability performance of the Australian beef industry reports the latest results of more than 50 separate metrics that have been selected to represent the key themes of the ABSF: Best Animal Care, Environmental Stewardship, Economic Resilience, and People and the Community.

The latest edition reports almost 160 million hectares, or 55.07% of Australia’s cattle-producing land, was managed for biodiversity outcomes in 2023. This management was in line with recommendations from government agencies, regional natural resource management (NRM) organisations and other land management groups. The figure is up from the 43.7% reported in last year’s Annual Update, with typical measures including weed and pest management, revegetation, soil remedy works, and fencing riparian areas.

In 2021, net CO2e emissions of the beef industry were reported to have fallen 78.2% since the baseline year of 2005, a significant improvement on the 64.1% reported for 2020.

ABSF Sustainability Steering Group chair, Mark Davie, said the reduction was both immensely positive and extremely complicated as the industry strives towards the target of being carbon neutral by 2030 (CN30).

“The beef industry has been working hard for many years to avoid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so this is a testament to everyone in the beef value chain who has been implementing practical solutions while continuing to produce the highest quality product for consumers,” Mr Davie said.

“But this figure represents a single point in time in 2021 when carbon sequestered through vegetation was very high as the landscape responded to drought-breaking rain. The picture is made more complex by the fact that methane emissions rose in line with a rebounding national herd and that soil carbon sequestration is not accounted for in the current methodology even though it may have increased markedly in 2021.

“If we are to achieve bold carbon reduction targets, we need more accurate, cheaper and timely carbon reporting.”

While the industry is making clear progress, there were also challenges in the form of weather, disease risk and security issues for trading partners.

These included an El Nino weather event that affected parts of eastern Australia and triggered a drop of almost 40% in the Eastern Young Cattle Indicator (EYCI) in three months. Drier conditions also reduced grass and pasture coverage, which led to a drop in the percentage of NRM regions achieving healthy groundcover thresholds to 57.41%.

The ongoing biosecurity risk of animal disease in near-neighbour countries created further uncertainty, and deteriorating security in the Middle East caused delays and logistical issues in key shipping routes, affecting Australian exports of beef and cattle.

Red Meat Advisory Council Independent Chair, Mr John McKillop, said the continuing development of the ABSF and the metrics reported in the Annual Update demonstrated Australia’s unwavering commitment to leadership in the sector.

“As global leaders in sustainable beef production, sharing our learning and best practices helps to inspire and empower others across the world to join us in the pursuit of a more sustainable future for the beef industry,” Mr McKillop said.

“These Annual Updates by the ABSF are critical in ensuring transparency and accountability across the beef supply chain,” Mr McKillop said.

However, Mr Davie sounded a note of caution over initiatives such as the European Union Deforestation (EUDR) reporting requirements and the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which he said were driving activity and investment to respond to methods and definitions which had not been developed through a peer-reviewed scientific process.

“These requirements, which include definitions of forest height and canopy, do not relate to bioregions and they ignore extensive environmental research undertaken in an Australian context,” Mr Davie said.

“Nature preservation can and does go hand in hand with beef production. But sustainability intent must extend beyond corporate reporting to appease global standards or simply to achieve executive performance targets.

“The most important aspect of sustainability is outcomes.”

The 2024 Annual Update of the Australian Sustainability Framework can be downloaded here

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