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“I have beef cattle that I keep out on grass all year, and eating grass the way they do, I do not believe the published figures for methane production are true at all. I think (those opposed to meat and leather) estimate them from laboratory studies and then multiply them up by weight, so the numbers are totally inaccurate.” It was Tuesday, and I was talking to the owner of a small European tannery. Not someone to be fooled with lightly, but someone whose decisions on leather making were markedly deliberate and well thought through. He was clear that attacks being made against leather lacked proper scientific evidence. Too much was based on small studies that were generalised and misquoted.
Certainly, as long ago as the IULTCS Asian conference in Taiwan in 2012, Dr Raymond Desjardins from Canada, explained how diverse the results from different cattle would be around the world as husbandry and breeds were so varied. Most of the truly negative data come originally from 2006, when the FAO published Livestock's Long Shadow written by Dr Henning Steinfield. This put environmental emissions from livestock at 18% of the global total. Subsequent studies such as by the USDA and Cranfield University appear to build on this and are usually the numbers used to fit into carbon footprint estimates.
Yet the Steinfield study was pretty quickly discredited. It is astonishing how more than ten years on it remains on the Internet and is still one of the most often quoted to prove that all cows are destroying the planet. At a stroke the report condemned millions of subsistence farmers who have never used an ounce of fertiliser nor an inch of extracted water in looking after their animals and created and moved the battle for climate change away from the true problem which began and continues with our use of fossil fuels.
Reductions in methane from cattle
Even if my colleague was a bit optimistic about his grass-fed beef, we do know that slight adjustments in diet can reduce methane emissions dramatically. For grain fed cattle methane can in the future be collected from both the sheds and the waste lagoons and used to produce power. So, his view is clear that there is no substantive long term environmental argument against rearing livestock. And even if you do not quite accept his methane free view of grass fed cattle it is now accepted that big, possibly almost total, reductions can be had with minor adjustments in diet.
All of a sudden, thinking about these issues has become serious. For a while many in the industry argued that this was stuff for pseudo intellectuals that would never be relevant to tanners who expect to carry on unhindered making beautiful leather. But at the start of this decade, some seven years ago Leather Naturally was arguing that the business environment was changing as both trade customers and final consumers were evolving with the impact of growing up in a digital, urbanised world.
Anti-leather not based on accurate science
Our initial worries were not wrong; we should have made them louder. The reality is proving more harmful for leather than we expected. Yet what our tanner colleague is really saying is as soon as you look below the surface at the science you recognise that the anti-leather comments have no foundation and the alternate solutions are loaded with hidden issues that are always avoided.
That is exactly why we are happy to quote David Fairlie once again:
“The emphasis on the alleged four or five per cent of GHGs emitted by cattle, and the mendacious rhetoric about cows causing more global warming than cars, look suspiciously like an attempt to shift some of the blame for global warming from below ground to above ground, from fossil fuels to the natural biosphere, from the town to the country and from the rich nations to the poor”
Many of those opposing leather are being tricked, and sadly this includes many trusted journalists and commentators whose scientific knowledge is lacking and willingness to dig below the surface is weak.
Dr Mike Redwood
17th October 2017
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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