Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mitigating Climate Change: Kangaroos, conservation management and sustainable harvesting at NMIT?

Could NMIT provide a model of kangaroo conservation management and sustainable harvesting? Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) is in financial trouble and needs to innovate and focus on it's educational strengths. I outline one modest innovative proposal which utilises the expertise from several academic and vocational disciplines and could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions for climate mitigation through conservation management, while utilising our unique Australian food resources for a more healthy lifestyle.
The issue of how we deal with our native fauna, particularly kangaroos, has been raised by the announcement on 19 March 2014 by the Victorian Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh that kangaroos culled under Wildlife control permits in certain areas of the state will now be supplied to the commercial pet food market. Formerly, kangaroos shot had to be buried by landowners.

Some animal welfare activists and conservationists have criticised the measure, and queried the ethical necessity for animal culls, even raising that this may impinge on the income of traditional beef and sheep farming.(Barber 2014) Over recent decades animal welfare and prevention of cruelty to animals have become important public debates. Standards for ethical treatment of animals - both wild and domesticated - have increased due to this debate, as exemplified in the public sentiment expressed over the live animal export trade.

Harvesting kangaroos for both human consumption and the pet food market has been carried out extensively since 1993. It is currently regulated and permitted in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. Export of meat and other products from kangaroos is controlled by the Australian Government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which requires management plans in place to ensure the harvest is ecologically sustainable without detrimental impact on each harvested species or their ecosystems. About seventy percent of kangaroo meat is exported, particularly to the European market.
In Victoria, to legally cull kangaroo numbers requires an Authority to Control Wildlife (ATCW) permit to be issued for licensed shooters to undertake the cull. Use of meat from culled animals has not been permitted until this current two year trial. Wildlife control permits are assessed on a case-by case basis by Department of Environment and Primary Industry officers who must be satisfied that lethal control methods are the most suitable.

Australia's variable climate and environment

Our primary food production processes are heavily westernised focusing on traditional cropping and the grazing of ruminants (predominantly sheep and cattle) for meat, wool and leather. But these farming practices do not fit snugly into Australia's highly variable climate and have had to be adapted to periods of flooding rains and years of drought causing fluctuations in meat and general agricultural production. With climate change increasing energy in the hydrologic cycle we are likely to see more frequent and more intense extreme weather including intensification of impacts from El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).
Overstocking of ruminants with their cloven hooves has contributed to substantial erosion damage, environmental degradation and changes to the composition of native pastures and grasslands, and native species suffering reduced population ranges or extinction.
Across rural Australia kangaroos are widely seen as in competition with domesticated stock for pasture, especially during drought times, and their free roaming often results in damage to farm fences.
Kangaroo population numbers change in association with variations in rainfall: when there is plentiful food after periods of good rain populations increase, but suffer a decrease with the onset of drought conditions. They have biologically adapted to the extreme variability of Australia's climate consuming much less energy and water than cattle and sheep. Their padded feet cause much less erosion damage to rangelands and pastures than cattle and sheep.
Indigenous Australians have hunted kangaroos for food and fur for tens of thousands of years. In fact, aborigines modified the landscape through selective burning to create grasslands and forested areas more conducive to kangaroo hunting.(Bowman 1998) When Europeans arrived they found grassland clearings they thought were ideal for grazing sheep and cattle, little realizing the landscape was already being subtly farmed.
The sheep and cattle industry has extracted a huge cost on Australia's biodiversity. A 2001 study outlined how the development of the sheep industry on the western plains of New South Wales during the Nineteenth century caused 24 native, mostly medium sized, mammal species with a dependence on grassland plants to suffer extinction. Daniel Lunney called this the "greatest period of mammal extinction in Australia in modern times." (Lunney 2001)
Woinarski and Fisher (2003) also say there has been substantial loss of biodiversity in the Australian rangelands attributable to ruminants, and that this loss is continuing.
The present policies on sustainable harvesting of kangaroo have come about since the 1970s from the argument that incorporating native species more fully into our economic life may ensure their widespread conservation, and give some income to farmers, provide benefits in tackling climate change, and maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems and levels of native species biodiversity.

Kangaroos and climate change

Kangaroos embody a substantive saving in embodied water use and energy up to a third more efficient than sheep or cattle, suitable for a continent with large areas with limited and scarce water resources.
In Queensland, information from ABARE modelling (2007) shows Beef production in Queensland is forecast to decline due to climate change by 19 per cent by 2030 and 33.5 per cent by 2050. Sustainable harvesting of Kangaroo meat could be a substantial substitute with environmental and agricultural emission reduction benefits.
On a global level, reducing ruminant numbers could make a substantial contribution to climate change mitigation goals and yield important social and environmental co-benefits according to recent studies (Ripple et al 2014, Hedenus et al 2014)
Professor of Soils & Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, Pete Smith commented in a media release:
"We need to scale back livestock production, but whilst the demand for meat is there, this will be difficult, so demand for meat needs to be tackled at the same time. Most people are unwilling to give up meat altogether, but demand would be reduced if people ate less, which would also yield significant health benefits.

"Most people are simply not aware of the link between food and climate, so we need to raise public awareness that the foods we choose to put on our plates have consequences for climate change."

Graph: Average carbon equivalent footprint of protein-rich solid foods per kilogram of product. Source: Ripple et al (2014)

Graph: Comparison of annual methane production from different sectors, and global ruminant numbers. Source: Ripple et al (2014)

In Australia we have the potential and opportunity to change from eating beef and lamb to one more environmentally sound and healthy: kangaroo. A study in 2009 addressed the possibilities and benefits for replacing sheep and cattle on rangelands with kangaroo harvesting. The study by George Wilson and Melanie Edwards, published in Conservation Letters, calculated that:
"Methane from the foregut of cattle and sheep constitutes 11% of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Kangaroos, on the other hand, are nonruminant forestomach fermenters that produce negligible amounts of methane."(Wilson and Edwards 2009)
They argue that reducing cattle and sheep and increasing kangaroos just on the rangelands of Australia could lower Australia's GHG emissions by 16 megatonnes, or 3% of Australia's annual emissions or 28% of agricultural emissions. But changing production would involve complex cultural and social change involving a change in stocking rates and substantial behavioural changes for meat consumers.
Reduced stocking of sheep and cattle would lower grazing impact with better outcomes for both biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
Wilson and Edwards comment in their study:
“We believe it is likely that the kangaroos' adaptations to Australia's erratic, variable climate, and recurring droughts will bring a range of biodiversity and conservation benefits. Monitoring the effects on biodiversity would be an essential part of such a transition and would indicate the extent of the side benefits of the change.”
Even University of Sussex Economics Professor Richard Tol, who was critical of the IPCC 5th climate assessment report, made a passing comment on kangaroos as one alternative to traditional beef in reducing methane emissions from agricultural production.
"If you are serious about cutting methane emissions, it means giving up cows' milk and giving up cow meat. What are the alternatives? Kangaroo is a good alternative, but the problem is these animals tend to jump," said Tol in a Guardian report.

Kangaroo harvesting and animal welfare debate

But the kangaroo harvesting issue gets complicated. In recent years there has been a substantial debate and argument between conservation biologists and animal welfare activists around perspectives of animal welfare and managing species, especially as it applies to kangaroos. Much of this debate has an ethical and philosophical dimension about how we relate to wildlife. There is also an urban/rural divide on the issue with farmers and rural people more sympathetic to harvesting than city based conservationists who stress the animal welfare and ethics in the debate.
Conservation biologists have put forward since the 1970s arguments for conservation through sustainable use (CSU) that were instrumental in the introduction of commercial harvesting of kangaroos in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland in the 1990s. They argue that commercial harvesting guarantees kangaroo species continued conservation value and importance while providing consumers with an environmentally friendly and healthy red meat alternative.
The importance of animal welfare issues applied to kangaroo harvesting has been emphasised in recent years by a team of multi-disciplinary researchers in THINKK, the think tank for kangaroos based at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. This organisation receives funding and support from Voiceless, an animal activist organisation vocal in opposition to the commercial Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia. They raise concerns to do with ecology, animal welfare, hygiene and social impacts of animal harvesting, and question whether 20 years of kangaroo harvesting has brought a measureable drop in ruminant grazing regimes for delivery of the environmental benefits claimed.
Several reports and papers have been published giving opposing views. Coming from a lengthy career in Conservation and wildlife management in NSW, Daniel Lunney, in two papers published in Pacific Conservation Biology during 2012, attempted to provide background and the arguments in this debate on the ethics of animal use. (Lunney 2012a, 2012b) The debate continues in academic journals, as for example a debate in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry in 2012 which attracted a number of responses critical of the ethics of sustainable harvesting of kangaroos.
The issue of kangaroo culls is currently under the spotlight in Canberra where Animal Liberation lost an appeal in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal to stop the 2014 winter cull of 1600 eastern grey kangaroos. Scientific evidence from both sides of the debate (see this Canberra Times report) was presented. After the decision ACT Parks and Conservation director Daniel Iglesias compared the opponents to climate change deniers, according to this Canberra Times report :
“What we have is a situation not unlike the climate change deniers, where we have clear scientific evidence that suggests that a course of action should be taken and for whatever reason there’s a small group of people that just refuse to accept it. We’re talking about ideology with this group," he said. "As a land manager we have to act not on ideology but on what the best science is telling us.”

What role for an educational organisation?

The issue of management and conservation of kangaroos came up at NMIT a few years ago when a Wildlife permit was granted to cull eastern grey kangaroo numbers on the NMIT Northern Lodge Eden Park rural training campus. NMIT has invested a great deal of time, effort and resources into building up this property for its agriculture and equine studies programs. Land that was eroded and degraded has been restored with much care and attention producing a multi-million dollar educational asset featuring a horse stud with training track facilities and vineyards.

Photo: NMIT's Northern Lodge at Eden Park with Melbourne city on the horizon

There was concern at the time that eastern grey kangaroo over-population was causing damage to the property. NMIT commissioned wildlife management group Ecoplan to do an independent assessment which recommended a cull of 300 kangaroos each year for three years. A wildlife control permit was issued. The subsequent licensing of professional shooters was met by protests and opposition from some local residents, Whittlesea Council and the Australian Society for Kangaroos.
A number of kangaroos were shot, although there have been no details published about exactly how many kangaroos were actually culled on the Eden Park property. The Wildlife Control Permit has long since expired, with no attempt to renew the permit.
Recent reports I have heard from staff who work at Eden Park Lodge report kangaroos are still in over-abundance on the property with some being observed in an emaciated state. Kangaroos are regularly killed on the roads in the Whittlesea area, causing damage to vehicles and risking injuries to people.
After the vociferous conservation campaign in 2010 there is a clear institutional reticence within the NMIT bureaucracy to apply for another wildlife control permit. Local residents in Eden Park are still sensitive to the issue.
So what should be the role of an educational institution in the management of kangaroos on its property?
I believe that NMIT should use the resources and skills at hand for management of the wildlife, biodiversity and habitat and for educating the community in associated issues. The debates around climate change, food production and species conservation are important ones which educational institutions need to play an active part in. NMIT's focus is in teaching applied skills for industry ready graduates in both vocational education and higher education, and the skills with managing kangaroo conservation and harvesting I would think would fall well within that ambit. 
NMIT runs various agriculture courses in cropping, beef and lamb production, conservation and land management, and in animal science including veterinary nursing. NMIT prides itself on it's range of courses on sustainability. I suggest there are the skills at NMIT to undertake ongoing assessments for conservation and management of the kangaroo population at Eden Park.
Environmental assessments could be made over time to see what impact a limited kangaroo cull had on the targeted species and the local ecology and land management.
I would argue that when kangaroos are in abundance at Eden Park, culling should be employed using humane methods as stipulated in the appropriate Department of Environment regulations to ensure animal welfare measures are fully concurred with.
I would go a step further than the Minister's announcement. The Kangaroo carcasses should be prepared for human consumption using best hygienic practices. NMIT have state of the art meat processing facilities 20 minutes away on the Epping Campus which could be utilised to process kangaroo meat.
From paddock to plate, NMIT have the skills and resources to put quality kangaroo meat on the table. It would be an opportunity for Cookery students at St Georges Restaurant at Preston Campus to serve kangaroo providing innovative and authentic Australian cuisine. The meat could also be sold to staff and the community, similar to existing lamb and beef sales that are undertaken each year.
Sustainable harvesting of Eastern Kangaroos on NMIT's Eden Park Property could be tightly managed and done with appropriate independent supervision to ensure minimal ecological impact, hygienic standards were enforced and standards of animal welfare were met. It would entail NMIT being granted a special wildlife control permit and special permission to process the meat for human consumption.

Wilson and Edwards at the end of their 2009 study call for a range of experimental trials to test a range of economic and management strategies associated with integrating kangaroo management with conventional livestock:
"The trials seek to bring kangaroo production onto landholder’s balance sheets as contributing enterprises. After 3 years, progress is being made but continuing research support is needed, particularly to advise and monitor the establishment of cooperatives and marketing, economic, ecological, and social issues. An expansion of the SWE trials to include low-emission meat production as modeled here would require a larger investment, including a need to monitor kangaroo population size and performance, regional harvesting quotas, and to measure the effects on biodiversity of maintaining high densities in the face of density-dependent feedback that could occur through responses to rainfall, predation, reductions in livestock, or all of the above. It would also be prudent to remeasure greenhouse gas emissions from kangaroos under a range of diets."

A kangaroo management and harvest program at NMIT could well be of valued assistance in this regard, providing a sustainable model of kangaroo management and harvesting in Victoria, while providing a source for practical training in a number of disciplines and extra revenue for the Institute.
At the moment you can walk into any major Coles or Woolworths supermarket and buy kanga bangers and fillets of kangaroo. But none of that meat is produced in Victoria. It all comes packaged with carbon food miles from interstate.

It could be an opportunity to explore changing community behaviour in reducing the quantity of meat consumption, and changing from meats with high embedded carbon involved in producing traditional beef and lamb, to more lean and healthy meat from kangaroo.
There are substantial benefits in reducing methane emissions for climate change: eating healthier, less environmental damage and more sustainable and suitable food for Australia's environmental conditions.
This is a way to acknowledge as Australians the value and connection with kangaroos in our variable climate and environment and bring a healthy low fat meat into the mainstream kitchens of our cities and restaurants.

The backstory to this article:
This article was originally written in March 2014 with the intention of being published on the Talking about NMIT blog which I contribute to. A few slight changes have been made in this version.

NMIT is a multi-campus TAFE college in Melbourne's northern suburbs delivering a wide range of vocational education and training courses and several applied higher education bachelor degree programs including in agriculture and land management, aquaculture and equine studies.

The changes to TAFE fees and reduction in State government funding since 2009 have caused student enrolments to slowly decline affecting it's ongoing financial stability. In the latest annual report for 2013 it reported a $30 million deficit (See report in The Age). The Institute is currently in the process of business introspection and restructuring which will mean significant changes including possible staff and course reductions. Innovation and working to the Institute's areas of strength will be important for NMIT to move forward.

The original article was forwarded to a number of senior people at NMIT, but no comment was forthcoming, whether they were too busy dealing with the process of restructure presently underway or that this was too difficult a subject is anyone's guess.

This article argues that sustainable kangaroo harvesting at NMIT's Northern Lodge property at Eden Park could provide an innovative opportunity across several key academic departments and disciplines. Implementing this idea may not be straightforward and would meet with protests from animal rights activists, but it would demonstrate leadership on tackling the complex intertwined issues of climate change, conservation, agriculture and food. An educational institution is exactly where this should be undertaken in Victoria where adequate expert supervision and control is available either in-house or through business and academic links.

Sadly, the issue of kangaroo harvesting is probably too hot a topic for NMIT to deal with at this point in time, while the challenge of adapting to climate change and heatwaves in Melbourne continues to grow.

Note: Updated 15 June 2014: Graphs from Ripple et al (2014) added.


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Note: All photos by John Englart (CC By-SA 2.0)