Is Beef Good for the Planet?
No, but we shouldn't pin our hopes on a global vegetarian future
Revised: An earlier version of this article referred to Civil Eats as a “foodie journalism” site and described conventional beef and regenerative agriculture proponents as “beef revisionists.” In response to several complaints, the reference to revisionists has been dropped. The article has also been revised to refer to Civil Eats as a “sustainable agriculture news site” and to note that Van Eenennaam acknowledges that beef production has nontrivial environmental impacts.
It is well established that beef consumption involves very real environmental trade-offs. Yet notable players in the world of food and agriculture continue to suggest that beef consumption could be an environmental “free lunch.” Celebrity chef Dan Barber told an audience at the Fast Company Innovation Festival last week that they could reduce their carbon emissions by switching to grass-fed beef. The rancher and grazing evangelist Alan Savory has taken such claims to their logical absurdity, insisting that producing and consuming more cattle can, by itself, do much of the heavy lifting to mitigate global warming.
Academics have also gotten in on the act. The animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam recently published an article arguing that “cows are getting a bad rap.” Beef has nontrivial environmental impacts, she acknowledges, but they are overstated and beef’s benefits are underappreciated. After all, grazing cattle allows humans to produce calories from marginal grassland that has no other agricultural use. All this is to suggest that, on balance, beef production and consumption is an undeserving target of urgent environmental concern.
But “can responsible grazing make beef climate-neutral,” as the sustainable agriculture news site Civil Eats intimated last spring? A careful review of the claims made by both conventional beef defenders and new-fangled regenerative agriculture advocates suggests those claims are myopic at best and misleading at worst.
While it is narrowly true that some demand for beef can be met with land that has negligible crop production value, over 500 million hectares — about half of the land used to graze cattle today — could be used as cropland, according to one recent analysis. This is a vast amount of land, equivalent to about 35% of all global cropland today.
Related arguments that cattle can eat crop by-products that are inedible to humans similarly miss the mark. While it is true that cattle feed often includes large amounts of crop residues and byproducts, such as sugar cane tops, banana stems, and brewers grains, roughly 70-130 million hectares of land — over 10% of the land used to grow cereal grains globally — produce feed for cattle.
If claims that cattle grazing doesn’t compete with crops are misleading, claims that practices such as rotational grazing can negate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of global beef production, or even make it carbon-negative, are near fantastical. While it may be possible under very specific conditions to sequester so much carbon in the soil that beef production results in a net reduction of GHG emissions, such an outcome is profoundly unrealistic at a global scale.
The latest research finds that even in the best case scenario — in which the ideal pasture management practices are implemented across the world’s hundreds of millions of hectares of pasture — beef would still be substantially more carbon-intensive than most alternative protein sources. Other studies have demonstrated that intensive grain-finished beef production actually generates lower GHG emissions per kilogram of protein than grass-finished beef, largely because grain finishing gets cattle to slaughter weight much faster, resulting in much lower life-cycle methane emissions.
Cattle grazing on marginal lands also has environmental impacts that go beyond greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents of grazing rarely note that even marginal pasture and rangeland could be — and indeed have been — restored as habitat for wildlife. As grasslands in the Steppes of Kazakhstan have been abandoned by pastoralists in recent decades, the endangered Saiga antelope has made a comeback. In Iran, another country that has experienced a significant contraction of pasture, the Persian cheetah (one of the world’s most elusive and endangered big cats) is showing signs of coming back from the brink as well.
In sum, the fact that some fraction of the world’s rising demand can be met with marginal lands, human-inedible feed, and grazing practices that can sequester carbon does not in any way negate the climatic impact, land footprint, or threat to biodiversity of global beef production.
In fairness to the regenerative agriculture proponents and conventional beef defenders, they are not the only prominent voices making fanciful claims about how to address the environmental impacts of beef consumption. Many advocates claim that the only solution to the environmental consequences of meat production is for everyone to become a vegetarian. Some technologists, meanwhile, suggest that plant or cell-based meats might soon represent a large-scale alternative to meat consumption.
And while there is a grain of truth to each of these arguments, neither holds up well under scrutiny. There is little evidence that behavioral change of the sort entailed in a global vegetarian future is remotely plausible. Despite decades of vegetarian advocacy in the US, for instance, meat consumption is projected to hit record highs in 2018, and American beef consumption remains higher than almost anywhere in the world.
Meat consumption almost everywhere also remains closely coupled with per-capita income. For this reason, driven largely by rising demand in the developing world, beef production is projected to rise nearly 15% above 2010 levels by 2025, bringing a commensurate increase in pressure to expand grasslands. Today, grazing is expanding fastest in humid and low-income areas like the Amazon, which generates more biodiversity loss, deforestation, and GHG emissions than perhaps any other land use change on the planet.
As for those who hope that cell-based meats might succeed in displacing beef consumption where vegetarianism has failed, there have indeed been some promising developments on this front. But we are likely to be decades away from these products making much of a dent in global meat consumption.
Unavoidably, then, improving the productivity of beef production through technology will be necessary to mitigate its environmental impacts.
A recent study in Nature found that technological improvements — like more intensive production, better manure management practices, and feed additives that reduce emissions — could cost-effectively reduce direct GHG emissions of beef production by at least 9% and land use associated with beef production by 31% by 2050, compared to a business-as-usual scenario. Given that much of the GHG emissions that result from growing beef production are indirect (arising from deforestation), the actual climate benefit of these sorts of technological improvements would almost certainly be much larger.
Technological improvements won’t make the sizeable environmental impacts of beef consumption go away, and we should harbor no illusions to the contrary. Nor should pursuing supply-side improvements of this sort lead us to abandon efforts to improve pasturing practices, utilize crop residues for feed, reduce beef consumption, or develop meat substitutes. But to reduce the environmental impacts of beef production, we must trade in magical thinking for a pragmatism better suited to the world that we are making. That means moving toward intensive, high-productivity systems that can produce beef with the lowest possible impact.