Is Feedlot Beef Better for the Environment?

Smaller Land Footprint and Lower Pollution Pointed to by Scientist Judith Capper

This past February, the nation's top nutrition panel released new dietary guidelines, urging Americans to start thinking about the environmental impacts of the food they eat. Meat, especially beef, was highlighted as having the most environmental impact. Not all beef is created equal, however, so what kind should conscientious consumers choose? If you thought “grass-fed,” you might be in for a shock. Dr. Judith Capper, an animal scientist, shares her surprising research into how grass-fed beef actually has higher environmental impacts than conventional beef.

Industrial meat production – particularly for beef – is often portrayed as an environmental menace. Has this always been the case?

I wrote a paper comparing the environmental impacts of beef production between 1977 and 2007, with the goal of understanding whether more intensive and efficient beef production has come at a greater environmental cost. The paper fairly categorically shows that it didn’t. We saw a 16 percent reduction in carbon footprint per pound of beef over that time period, a reduction in land use by a third, and a reduction in water use of 12 percent.

What drove the efficiency improvements in the way beef was produced between the 1970s and today?

There were two major factors. First, carcass weight went up (the amount of beef per animal). In the 1960s and ‘70s we began breeding better (and by that I mean bigger) animals. Now, that doesn’t mean that bigger is better in the future, but the animals we have now are far more advanced than they were 20 or 30 years ago at converting feed into beef, thanks to selective breeding.

The second factor is that we’ve cut back on the time needed to raise cattle. In the 1970s, it took 609 days to raise a cow from birth to slaughter. Today, it’s 485 days. That time reduction has been achieved simply by better understanding the animals: how to feed them and care for them. Growth, breeding, veterinary technologies –– everything we do is so much more efficient and science-based than it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ time.

Is grass-fed beef better for the environment?

People often have the perception that grass-fed beef must be better for the environment, yet it’s a system in which cattle grow more slowly and are slaughtered at a lower live-weight. For example, if we switched to all grass-fed beef in the United States, it would require an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million acres more land, and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. We’d have the same amount of beef, but with a huge environmental cost.

When we take into account everything that’s involved with producing a pound of corn-fed or grass-fed beef, from the manufacture of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to the transport of animals to the slaughterhouse door, we see that the reduced productivity in grass-fed systems results in significant increases in land use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef compared to corn-fed beef.

What’s been the reaction to those findings?

We published a paper with those findings not to denigrate either the grass-fed or corn-fed beef industries, but to try to point out to people that the issue isn’t as simple as “corn is bad, grass is good.” If we improve productivity and efficiency in any system, it will lead to us using less land, less water, and emitting less carbon per pound of beef.

Even if corn-fed, feedlot beef can be less harmful to the environment, isn’t it worse for animal welfare?

It’s a difficult question, because animal welfare means different things to different people. If we put cattle in a feedlot, can they graze on pasture? No, they can’t. So if welfare is inherently tied to being able to graze pasture, then yes, it’s a welfare issue. But if the question is, do feedlots necessarily cause problems like lameness, digestive issues, or illness, then the answer is no. There are good feedlots and bad feedlots, just as there are good grazing operations and bad ones. I’ve been to some feedlots which are just amazing –– I mean, fabulously good. We also see a very different set of health and welfare challenges in a grazing system versus a feedlot system. But I haven’t seen any definitive evidence in person or in the literature to say that feedlots are always bad.

Food writer Mark Bittman has called for the end of “the routine use of antibiotics from food production.” What do you think of antibiotics use in beef?

There has been a lot of work on that topic, particularly in terms of cutting down or eliminating the use of antibiotics that are important for human health. I often see numbers quoted saying things like, 80 percent of total antibiotic use is for animals. But that’s on a weight basis and includes antibiotics that have no equivalent in human health.

If we take all antibiotics out, then we are going to have issues. About 10 years ago, the Netherlands took out all preventive antibiotics use in their livestock industry. What happened is total antibiotic use actually went up, because instead of lower-dose preventive use, they had to use higher doses to manage all the disease outbreaks. It isn’t always as easy as saying, if we take this out, everything’s going to be fine.

Why does grass-fed beef have the reputation of being better for the animals and the environment?

It ties in to this perception that if it’s more natural and traditional and as it was 80 years ago, then it must have been better. It’s a strange paradox. None of us would want to go to a hospital from 80 years ago. It would be crazy, right? But in terms of food, all of us seem to have this perception that food as it was back in the “old days” was so much better than it is now.

The food movement is largely critical of industrial food production. Should we embrace its recommendations?

I think being interested in food –– how it’s made, where it comes from –– is fabulous. I really do. Having said that, nationally and globally we have a lot of people who don’t have enough money. They can’t buy organic, heirloom-bred food. It’s simply not possible.

What the food movement calls for is a more expensive and less efficient food production system. How is that going to work? It’s good to aspire to having a better food system, and we can debate for hours what that entails, but we’ve also got to understand that at the moment we’ve got over 7 billion people on the planet and all of those people need food every single day.

Should people who care about the environment strive to eat less beef?

I think we have to think about it in terms of the individual and in terms of having a balanced diet. It’s tempting to say yes, absolutely, because beef has a high carbon-per-pound emissions rate, but I was just reading a paper which shows that the foods with the lowest carbon rating are things like sugars, syrups, and carbs. That may make for a low-carbon diet, but from a nutrition point of view, it’s terrible. We have a definite trade-off there. You have to think, if we don’t eat beef, what do we eat instead? And what consequences does that food have?

Do you see a role for beef in a sustainable agricultural future of 9 billion people?

Absolutely I do. Beef plays an important role in terms of using land where we can’t grow other things. For example, basically all of the rangeland in the western United States, which can’t grow artichokes or beets or carrots, can be used to grow protein. I also think the price of beef will probably continue to increase. On that basis, beef consumption per person will probably come down. If we see new regulations like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems, that would also have implications for beef production. But in the absence of anything else, I think the price of beef is always going to be the major factor as to whether people consume more or less of it.

Do you eat beef? What kind do you buy?

I do! When I was back in the States it was conventional, corn-fed beef. Now that I’m back in the United Kingdom, it’s a slightly different system –– implants and beta-agonists haven’t been approved for use by the European Union so kind of by default I’m buying “natural” beef.

Dr. Judith Capper is an animal scientist based in the United Kingdom. She is an adjunct professor at Washington State University and an affiliate faculty at Montana State University. You can read more on her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter @Bovidiva.

Marian Swain is a conservation analyst at the Breakthrough Institute.

Photo Credit: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty (left); Brian Charles Clark, Washington State University (center); Flickr User thskyt (right)