This week I was asked to respond to an excellent Breakthrough article on the environmental impacts of beef production. As ever, I hope the comments below provide food for thought (pardon the pun) and I urge you to read the full Breakthrough article as well as the other comments by Jayson Lusk, Maureen Ogle and Alison van Eenennaam.
Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us and, as a scientist, sustainability consultant and parent, I don’t have a problem with food production being one of the biggest contributors to global environmental impacts. Why? Because food production is one of the few industries that are absolutely essential for human life. However, it’s clear that we need to take steps to reduce environmental impacts from human activity, and as such, the livestock industry is often criticised for both resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Although meat production is predicted to increase from now until at least 2050, it should be noted that the trends for improved productivity and efficiency within global livestock industries also reduce environmental impacts. As described in Marian Swain’s essay on meat production, the US beef industry cut resource use and greenhouse emissions considerably between 1977 and 2007. Meanwhile, the rise of modern feedlot-finishing systems cuts land use, water use, and emissions per unit of beef compared to grass-finished meat.
These findings may seem intuitively incorrect as we’re constantly exposed to marketing and media messages suggesting that only grass-fed meats are environmentally sustainable, and that intensive livestock systems are undesirable. The data speak for themselves however—the majority of extensive systems finish cattle at lighter weights (thus requiring more total animals to maintain beef supply), have lower growth rates (so cattle take longer to grow to their finish weight) and often have lower reproductive performance in female cattle.
All these factors combine to increase environmental impacts. But when I presented this data to a group of French Masters-level Livestock Engineering students earlier this month, they were (in their own words) shocked. Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.
Does this mean that every beef producer worldwide should embrace feedlot-finishing and reduce pasture use? Absolutely not. One of the major benefits of cattle compared to swine and poultry is that they digest and use human-inedible forages, such that dairy and grass-fed beef cattle actually produce more human-edible protein in the form of milk and meat than they consume; and feedlot-finished beef cattle have a ratio of human-edible feed intake to human-edible protein output similar to that of swine, despite their greater overall land use. In keeping with the themes discussed in the Swain’s essay, there is no magic bullet—it is essential to fit production systems to the cattle, climate, market, and culture within each region and to improve productivity within each and every system.
So rather than reducing animal protein consumption as we move towards 2050, we might ponder keeping total consumption relatively stable, with a more equitable distribution across the globe? This would allow for a decrease in over-consumption in high-income regions, while providing a greater quantity of milk, meat, and eggs to those who have dire need for adequate animal proteins to maintain health and to promote adequate child growth and development. While the environmental impact of beef production is a key concern, we also have to examine the role of livestock in economic and social sustainability. For billions of small-scale farmers, cattle provideeconomic viability, improved nutrition, social status and a means to diversify agricultural production as well as tangible benefits in terms of fertilizer, hides and other by-products.
Should we insist that global beef production is abandoned in favour of increased legumes, nuts or lab-created proteins? No. We simply need to give producers worldwide the education, tools and technologies to make the best and most efficient use of their resources. Only then will we have a truly sustainable (environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable) global meat industry.