For Jon Wright, discovering that the cattle he was breeding produced less methane than others was at first a happy coincidence – his “Blue E” breed were already revolutionary because they’re far more food efficient than others.
However, 10 years on and it’s the low emission aspect that has become vitally important to the Cowra farmer – his cattle produce significantly lower levels of the climate-changing gas as a by-product of eating 30 percent less food. With the beef cattle industry responsible for nearly 10 percent of Australia’s emissions, this finding is pretty significant, and Jon is focussed on proving that the lower emissions can come with higher profits, lower costs and fewer environmental impacts for farmers.
Jon, who appears in the documentary Alone Out Here – about his life as an out and proud single man who has chosen to put farming and family ahead of love -- is busy working on the farming communities’ attitude to climate change, one cow at a time...
First question – you’ve been involved with cattle and climate change for a while now, can you tell me how that came about?
“We’re a seed stock producer, our job is to try and make a cow and a bull that makes our clients or commercial producers profitable. Twenty-three years ago, we decided to start breeding this line of cattle that happened to also include selecting them for feed efficiency, which was quite a difficult thing to do. It was about 10 years ago that we realised the animals that are better feed converters also produce less methane. Now, after 23 years we're feeling like not only have we got pretty damn good animal, but there's this other story that we feel strong enough to talk about now.
“I genuinely believe in climate change and I genuinely believe that cattle are contributors to it, because that's just what the science says. The beef industry is responsible for the same amount of emissions as the whole transport industry in Australia and the industry needs to take responsibility for its emissions and move forward in a really positive and transparent sort of a way.”
When you say that your cows are better feed converters, can you explain that?
“There is a big range with cattle, just like there is in humans, in relation to feed conversion. Some people can eat all day and not put any weight on, and other people can take a sniff of a chocolate cake and put on a pound. It's the same in cattle. In cattle, we want to find those that don't take much food to put lots of weight on -- they're really desirable -- but what they also found out is that how much methane an animal produces is directly related to how much they eat. So, if we can find those animals that put lots of weight on and don't each much, their footprint per unit of product will be a lot less.”
Are you finding any pushback from farmers on this climate change journey?
“Sometimes. It's a bit funny. I always say it’s a bit of like the gay thing. There are people out there that don't like it and don't agree with what we're doing and that sort of stuff. I know there's lots of people in the rural community who are not as far down the track in relation to the issue of climate change and how, one, it's affecting us as farmers and two how it's affecting us as a globe, but they'll get there.
“It's challenging. It's really, really challenging for farmers to be told [about climate change]. One of the things that we as farmers know the best is how to deal with the climate, how to adapt to it, and how to work with it, and then somebody else comes and says, "Oh, you don't understand. It's changing.
“I empathise with the doubters in the rural community, because it's really difficult to get your head around that there's going to be something else that's beyond our control.”
With the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, what else have you noticed about the beef industry in the last year or two?
“As an industry, we have to look at veganism, climate change, animal welfare and health as four really different things and approach them very differently. Ethically, those people who do not agree with animals being used for human advantage... I respect them and they're entirely justified in their thoughts, but that's their set of values and there's a lot of people who don't have those sets of values.
“I'm not sure that the number of vegans is going to increase over time, but I'm dead sure that the number of people choosing not to eat beef for climate change reasons is going to increase, and that's the greatest risk that we have, because it's the easiest thing to do. Out of all the suggestions for what to do for the average person in the world, drive less, fly less, use less energy, access your energy from a renewable source, and eat less red meat, the easiest one of those five to do is eat less red meat.”
So how do you get your message out there to farmers – and consumers -- that there is a viable option to change this?
“By talking, by being confident enough to talk in this space, to have the scientifically based knowledge in the space to be able to communicate that it's a win-win for the industry. I don't think anybody expects the beef industry to solve climate change. But they expect us to take responsibility for our small part. We can do that by getting a product on the shelf and saying, if you support this product, you're supporting farmers who are trying to make a difference because we've audited the whole process and we can genuinely tell you that this is a low-emissions beef product. You can eat beef that's of low emissions and you're contributing to the process.
“There's a little bit of enlightening to come within the industry and a little bit of a refocus. But we need to make the changes and need to make them relatively quickly because I don't know the timeframe it's going to take for people to shift.
“Also, if we as an industry can put climate change first and the beef industry second, then we'll probably do the right thing by the beef industry in the long run. If whatever we do is about fixing climate change and reducing our emissions, then we'll have a much longer future, probably, as an industry.”
I read a quote from you: “Traditional conservationists had an opinion of what farmers were like and farmers had an opinion of what conservationists were like. Now we realise there’s a lot of common ground [in what they want to achieve]” – can you expand on that a little for us?
“I think it goes to breaking down that us-and-them mentality. Really, a lot of the people who own the land are so passionate about the patch that they have responsibility for and genuinely care about... My father always said, ‘I feel such an obligation to try and hand over a piece of land to you that's in a better state than I found it. If I'm not adding to it and making it better or making it more sustainable, then I haven't really done my job as a farmer.’ He heard a talk, somebody said, ‘Look around your farm each day, and you realize that every tree that you see, in 50 years’ time probably won't be there. The only trees you'll see in 50 years are the ones that you plant now.’
“A lot of farming concepts now are starting to meld with conservation, and there are people also talking in that regenerative agriculture space about how to best run a farm with the least amount of chemicals, the least amount of fertilizer, in the most sustainable way and in the most profitable way.”
You’re a single man, who has essentially given up on a love life and a family for this journey, how is that sitting with you now?
“I think it’s been a journey of two halves, in the past 23 years. I spent the first 10 or 12 years after coming out on this sort of mad hunt to get to know myself, get to know the gay world, try and find a husband, try and find happiness, all of that sort of thing. Then I had sort of a major incident, which involved my mum getting cancer and dying within three or four months, breaking up with my partner, and then being in a drought.
“You get to that point where you're going, ‘I actually can't do the behaviour of jumping in a car and driving to Sydney and partying all weekend and then coming back and trying to do my job, because it just exhausts me too much.’ You sort of have an emotional shift within yourself to go, ‘I've got to start having a conversation with little old Jonny inside, just going, We need to look after each other, mate. We need to get on with this, buckle down, and keep going.'"
“I stayed here, it was my choice, I love what I'm doing, I'm very lucky. Sure, there's been some dark times and there's some sacrifices that I've had to make, but it's no one else's responsibility except mine."
Anything else you think we need to know?
“Oh, well, despite what you may think, 93% or 95% of the methane gas comes when cows chew their cud and they belch it. It's all burps. It's nothing to do with farts!”
Dell and 10 play are bringing you inspiring stories of Change Makers at work across Australia, celebrating the people who are doing the little things to make a big impact. Because we know that every little thing is everything.