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It’s not the cow, it’s the how: a case for sustainable beef production

In this month’s feature article, Lindsay Gaesser, EJ Johnson, and Nako Kobayashi make the case that cattle are not inherently bad for the planet. In fact, properly managed livestock can be a part of the solution to combat climate change.

“Eat less meat” seems to be a message on everyone’s mind and plate these days. From land-use change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to water pollution and biodiversity loss, beef receives most of the blame for livestock’s climate-related horrors. Worldwide, estimates attribute up to 18 percent of human-made GHG emissions to livestock. But the situation is not as dire as we think, and touting “eat less meat” as a planet-saving solution is a short-sighted, oversimplification of beef production. There are many ways to raise cattle, and while some of the arguments against beef are warranted when addressing industrialized feedlots, those same arguments fall apart when considering beef production as a whole. Because cattle provide ecosystem services too great to justify their complete removal from the landscape, the number of experts coming to the defense of beef is rising. If well managed, cattle can be a part of the solution to combat climate change.

But more on this later. First: how did we come to demonize beef?

Falsely villainizing beef

Let’s talk numbers: 18 percent and 41 percent. The former is most often cited as livestock’s contribution to global GHG emissions, and the latter is beef’s estimated contribution within the livestock sector. Ever since the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published the 18 percent figure in its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the impact of cattle on the climate has remained at the forefront of climate change discussions. But more recent estimates of livestock’s global warming contribution are far less alarming. By contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the whole of agriculture emitted 10 percent to 12 percent of GHGs, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture is responsible for only nine percent of U.S. global warming emissions. These inconsistent estimates from reputable organizations lead to the question: why the discrepancy?

There are several issues with the FAO’s estimate, but the most critical is that the calculations failed to account for carbon sequestration. In agriculture, carbon sequestration refers to taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil. Grazing influences carbon sequestration because it enhances soil health and ecological function. Simply put, the healthier the soil, the more carbon it can store. As soils are the largest store of terrestrial carbon, a change in soil carbon sequestration could have a significant impact on the global carbon cycle and climate change. And although the FAO acknowledged in its follow-up report in 2013 that “grassland carbon sequestration could significantly offset emissions,” FAO again omitted carbon sequestration when calculating its revised livestock emissions figure of 14.5 percent. Ultimately, these numbers overstate livestock’s contribution to global warming and, more importantly, they deepen misperceptions of the climate-cattle connection. It must be distinguished that livestock per se are not the problem, but rather the way we manage them.

Sustainable beef

There are several common misconceptions about the U.S. beef industry, many revolving around the ways in which cattle are fed and raised. While cattle confined in feedlots garner much of the attention in anti-beef rhetoric, blanket censures against cattle leave out a big part of the story. The fact of the matter is that cattle spend most of their time on pasture.

“Ninety percent of what the animal eats is going to be plant material off the ground. But most people don’t think that,” says Ashley McDonald, Senior Director of Sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). “Most people think cattle are born in feedlots and raised in feedlots. There’s just a ton of misinformation from the start, and there’s no simple message to counteract it.”

Beef production in the United States is roughly divided into three phases: cow-calf, stocker, and finishing. Calves are born into cow-calf operations, where they are raised outdoors on pasture or rangeland until weaned from their mothers. After six to 10 months, calves may continue to be raised on the same farm or ranch, or they may be sold to stocker operations, where the animals are grazed outdoors for another two to six months. From there, cattle are either sent to feedlots or remain on pasture or rangeland for finishing. In the conventional finishing phase, cattle are brought to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are grain-finished until they reach market weight, typically within four to six months. Grass-finished cattle on the other hand remain on pasture or rangeland for another six to 10 months before slaughter. As cattle spend a majority of their lives on pasture or rangeland, grazing management is a critical component of sustainably raised beef.

So, can beef be sustainable? According to Rob Manes, Kansas State Director for The Nature Conservancy, absolutely. Because animal productivity is inextricably linked to forage quantity and quality and the overall health of the ecosystem in which they are raised, cattlemen have a vested interest in protecting the environment. “Ranchers, by nature, are tinkerers,” says Ethan Lane, Vice President of Government Affairs for NCBA. “Improving on how our parents did it and looking for opportunities to do better—it’s the tradition in which we’ve all grown up.” And this brings us back to grasslands and carbon sequestration.

Numerous studies have used life-cycle assessments to validate the link between grazing animals and improved carbon sequestration. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool used to evaluate the potential environmental impacts associated with a product over its life cycle. A recent LCA conducted with White Oak Pastures, a multi-species ranching operation with over 100,000 animals on 3,200 acres, revealed that for every kilogram of beef produced, 3.5 kilograms of carbon was sequestered in the farm’s plants and soil. In other words, the study suggests that White Oak Pastures is a carbon sink. Further, researchers from Michigan State University and Texas A&M University found that regenerative management practices can sequester large amounts of soil carbon. More importantly, GHG emissions from well-managed systems were offset completely by soil carbon sequestration. These findings are significant because the implication is that, rather than contributing to climate change, well-managed grazing can help mitigate it.

While conservation principles and practices differ regionally and by operation type, the collective efforts of farmers and ranchers across the country help maintain and improve the environment. Pitting conventional beef against grass-finished beef is misguided because such a comparison ignores the nuances regarding the sustainability of these production systems. “You’re always faced with the general perception that one is always inherently bad, and one is always inherently good,” says McDonald. “Ninety-five percent of beef in the United States is grain-finished, and that is largely the preference of the American consumer. But if you put that aside, greenhouse gas emissions are actually lower in a grain-finished system.”

Intensive feedlot systems largely require less land and emit fewer GHGs per kilogram of meat compared to grass-finished systems. This is because grain-finishing significantly accelerates growth and reduces time to slaughter, which also serves to reduce methane emissions from cattle. But this is not what makes headlines, as anti-beef advocates have dictated the narrative by focusing on CAFOs and claiming that red meat is killing the planet.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and The Beef Checkoff recently published a comprehensive LCA that scientifically quantified the sustainability of U.S. beef production. The five-year study found that the environmental impact of beef cattle in the United States is often overestimated and that, at 3.3 percent of total U.S. emissions, beef production is not a major contributor to global warming. The challenge then becomes helping consumers understand what that means.

“Right now, we’re working to translate that to consumers,” says Lane. “And part of that has been and will continue to be correcting the record and getting accurate information about what our footprint is. Especially making sure that we’re drawing a distinction between a global beef production footprint and our U.S. footprint, because they are dramatically different.”

While this is not to serve as a blanket exoneration for beef production, the study provides baseline data the industry can use to improve the sustainability of beef. McDonald, who has a dual role with NCBA and as executive director of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), believes the LCA will help USRSB stakeholders target certain problem areas and develop programs to address them. “So, the question is, how do we use this framework to be the solution to climate change? As an industry, beef can store a lot of carbon. And, at the same time we’re storing carbon, we’re preserving habitat and helping the industry actually deal with the other external effects of climate change,” says McDonald.

Where do we go from here?

Villainizing beef, although possibly well-intentioned, ignores the benefits animals have for both the land and for farmers who support our food system. Grazing animals have been a part of both human-made and natural landscapes throughout history, and there’s no reason they can’t be a part of a sustainable future. To be clear, the implication is not that all beef production benefits the environment. But targeting meat, or even something as specific as beef, detracts from the larger conversation of how our current industries must change, rather than disappear, in order to be more sustainable.

According to Manes, around 40 percent of the North American landscape is suitable only for grazing, not crop production. Given that the global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and global beef demand is expected to increase, grazing animals need to be a part of the equation. “Because we certainly don’t want to convert a whole bunch of marginal land to tillage,” says Manes.

Still, many remain cautious in embracing the notion of sustainable beef, including Dr. Christian Peters, associate professor in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at Tufts University. “It’s the cow and the how,” says Dr. Peters. While intensification may reduce the land footprint and emissions associated with the land itself, Dr. Peters cautions that the amount of beef we eat is still a big part of the issue. “For each system, including grass-finished, there is a scale at which the demand for meat becomes high enough that you start eroding your ability to deliver ecosystem services, and that’s where that system falls apart.” Matt Kaminsky, who uses silvopasture—the intentional combination of trees, forage plants, and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system—at his small-scale orchard operation Gnarly Pippins, is also wary of certain scales of beef production. Kaminsky is a supporter of having animals on agricultural landscapes, but he admits that “we need to either stop or drastically reduce the amount of meat that we eat in order to be environmentally responsible.”

But consumers would be ill-advised to think that swapping out beef burgers for plant-based alternatives such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods is the solution. “When we talk about whether just reducing your meat consumption is somehow going to improve your own personal environmental footprint, we need to start looking at how those other inputs are produced,” says Lane. “If you step back one element from a common processing facility, our next step is a feedlot or grass. Their next step is a series of processing facilities and overseas shipping containers and rail transit. And no one is doing a life-cycle assessment on the difference between those two.”

While systemic improvements are necessary on the production side, consumers can help drive this change by purchasing more sustainably raised beef. It may cost more out of pocket in the short term, but it will cost the environment far less in the long term. Rather than demonize beef, we must work together to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to combat climate change. Solutions that can and should include livestock.

Lindsay Gaesser is a second-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. She is the co-editor of the Friedman Sprout and serves as the communications director for the Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. In her spare time, she enjoys cycling, exploring the outdoors, and sharing good food with good friends.

EJ Johnson is a second-year NICBC student and is the co-editor of the Friedman Sprout. She loves to talk and eat, so she ended up in nutrition communications. At Friedman, she is a research assistant at the Global Dietary Database and is a teaching assistant for “Writing Well About Food and Nutrition.” In her spare time loves to read fiction and travel, although lately less travel due to the whole “broke grad student” thing.

Nako Kobayashi is a recent graduate of the AFE program at Friedman. She now works at Ceres, Inc. as a Food and Forests Associate. She is interested in sustainable and diversified food systems and loves devouring both food and stories about food. The views presented in this article are her own.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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