The Turnbull Government has once again prioritised growing the economy over human lives, writes Dr Kris Barnden.
ACTION TO PROTECT AUSTRALIA from climate change was a policy free zone in the 2017 Budget. Despite strong scientific and economic consensus on the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels, our government has prioritized efforts to grow the economy using a business as usual approach.
Doctors have been speaking out about the adverse health effects of climate change, as well as the health co-benefits of policies aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change. In Australia, air pollution from coal fired power stations contributes a significant proportion of the over 3000 deaths per annum from pollution and a plea has been made by doctors for a rapid transition away from coal fired power.
Agriculture is another area where actions to reduce green house gas emissions are likely to be associated with multiple benefits, including health. In last week’s Budget, agriculture and regional Australia are seen as winners only from expenditure on rail. However, we need to recognize that agriculture is an important contributor to greenhouse emissions and also extremely vulnerable to their effects as recognized by the farming industry. These factors are budgetary items and need to be built into national financial policy. Indeed as President Obama has noted, food security is a world issue and we carry responsibility as a food exporter.
Agriculture and related land clearing together account for over 20 per cent of Australia’s green house gas emissions. Unsustainable agricultural practices are also a major driver of land degradation and biodiversity loss, with further negative effects on our health, our economy and our ability to produce food.
In its issues paper ‘Action on the Land‘, the Climate Council recently explored potential changes that can be made to agricultural practices that result in a win-win-win situation for the climate, the natural environment and productivity.
In a submission to the Climate Council, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) argues for consideration of the missing link, human health. The relationship between agriculture and health is complex, ranging from the effects of specific agricultural practices, such as the use of pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics, to the health consequences of the types of food we choose to produce.
Climate change and degradation of natural ecosystems both represent major threats to human health. The health consequences of climate change include an increase in deaths from extreme weather events, such as heat waves, floods and fires; increased air pollution, infectious diseases and allergies; and an increase in mental illness. In many parts of the world, changes in climate have already been implicated in a loss of access to secure food and clean water, and the resulting traumas of conflict and mass migration.
Ecosystems support life on the planet by filtering our air, providing fresh water and food, regulating our climate, and protecting against the spread of disease and pests. All of these services are vital for our health.
Farming techniques that preserve or restore the health of soil promise to achieve multiple gains. Soil health is an important component of reducing the negative environmental impact of agriculture, storing carbon and making our food production more resistant to future climate events. To reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, we need to move away from intensive models of agriculture that rely on huge inputs of pesticides and fertilisers, and towards land management practices that enhance the health of the soil and the organisms that live within it.
The human health benefits of healthy soil are numerous. Healthy soil means healthier and more nutritious plants, and cleaner water. It means less erosion, less windblown dust and respiratory complaints. Exposure to the organisms that naturally exist in healthy soil has also been shown to improve immunity in humans.
The area where the greatest gains for both reducing green house emissions, and improving human health, are to be made, is in the production and consumption of red meat. The links between red meat consumption and disease are well established. The most recent study, published in the British Medical Journal this month, followed over 500,000 Americans for 16 years, and showed that increased red meat consumption was associated with an increased risk of dying from all causes, but particularly heart disease, diabetes, cancer, liver and kidney disease.
The livestock industry accounts for the vast majority of agricultural green house gas emissions, largely in the form of methane, which is belched by cows and sheep, and is also released from manure. Land clearing in Australia is another significant contributor to the carbon footprint of agriculture and the majority of this is for cattle. Overgrazing livestock is a major cause of land degradation.
Excellent progress has been made in the meat industry. Techniques are being developed that reduce the amounts of methane belched by cows and capture the methane from manure. Careful rotational grazing can help regenerate degraded land.
When health and environmental effects of the meat industry are taken into account, however, there is a strong imperative for a policy discussion around the quantities of meat that Australia should be producing and consuming. Australians are amongst the world’s biggest meat eaters, according to OECD figures, averaging 93 grams per year per person, or three times the world average. Our expectation of being able to readily consume large amounts of meat cheaply harms both human health and the environment.
A reduction in overall quantity of livestock would allow us to focus on ensuring the meat that is produced is of good quality, and associated with minimal environmental impact.
Agriculture, the environment, the economy and human health interact at many levels, and we face significant difficulties on all fronts. All will be affected by climate change, and we cannot afford to consider each in isolation. We need strong leadership, and the ability to look beyond short term political and ideological considerations to longer term gains.
Dr Kristine Barnden is a member of the management committee of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
First published in The Independent on 19 May 2017