Beef: are emissions the only factor in sustainability?

13 Oct 2017

It is increasingly recognized that the environmental impact of beef production, due to the cow’s digestive system, is one of the worst sources of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. This is one of the reasons why more and more people are choosing a vegetarian diet, favoring white meat over red meat and labeling beef production as “unsustainable.” But is that really the case? Is all beef the same, from an environmental standpoint? Is meat from intensive production, with cattle nourished on high-protein feed, more damaging than that from grass-fed cows, who have a lower growth rate and need more land?

The scientific community has been divided for some time over this argument. A number of reports demonstrate that the use of pasture in beef production has beneficial effects on the environment, such as CO2 sequestration from the atmosphere, and yet other studies claim the opposite: that a bovine diet based on cereals and high-protein grains is the most efficient and creates the least negative impact.

In this vein, the new report Grazed and Confused was recently published by FCRN (Food Climate Research Network), part of a research center at the University of Oxford, claiming that grass-fed beef production is no less damaging to the environment.


The pasture-raised White Modenese Cow (Slow Food Presidium)

“Switching to grass-fed beef and dairy does not solve the climate problem—only a reduction in consumption of livestock products will do that,” says one of the report’s authors, Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen.

While aware of the fact that meat, and beef in particular, is one of the foods with the greatest environmental impact (it is estimated that cattle farming is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions), Slow Food believes that taking only emissions into consideration as the exclusive benchmark to evaluate two types of farming as different as that of pasture-raised and intensive is not enough and risks being misleading.

It is only one factor in a much more complex equation. Grass-fed farming, other than having an important social, cultural, ethical and environmental value, provides a series of particularly important ecological services in the long term: ruminant hooves open the soil so that it better absorbs rainwater (reducing the risk of landslides and ground instability); their grazing keeps grasses under control and helps keep pastures from becoming wild again (reducing the extremity of fires); and, their manure directly fertilizes the soil, assuring the continuous production of grasses.

Recent news reports that from an animal ethology point of view, grass-fed cattle are able as they feed to choose the varieties of grass that they prefer and which are better adapted to their well-being. Consequently, the quality of the meat and milk of animals fed with natural pasture grasses is superior and pasture-raised animals have a better quality of life.


Maremmana Cows (Slow Food Presidium) grazing on grass in Tuscany.

The use of grass grazing in farming assumes, however, a radical and complex shift in the paradigm and system regarding the relationship between humans, animals and the land.

Grazing means fewer cows, less meat consumption, improved animal welfare, increased care of the soil, and, ultimately, shifting from specialization to diversification in farming systems so that they become more representative of closed-loop systems (with diverse positive environmental outcomes, such as waste recycling and waste management).

For this reason we need an analysis based on new indicators representing a holistic approach and that takes into consideration diverse factors such as the nutritional value of animal feed, long-term impacts, and animal welfare.

As long as the only parameter to assess the sustainability of a product is based on emissions we will not have the full picture needed to enable us to buy as informed consumers.

Slow Food hopes that the scientific community will work in this direction, concentrating on the costs and benefits typical of two distant and different livestock farming and food production systems.

We are convinced that the type of farming can make all the difference (think of the devastating impact of feedlots and intensive mega-farms), but the choice of quality meat must be made along with a massive reduction in the consumption of animal products, in favor of a plant-based diet.

Slow Food is promoting the Menu For Change campaign to tell the world how climate change is affecting small-scale farmers and food producers and what we are doing to support them. Get involed!

Source: The Conversation


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