Where’s the Sustainable Beef?
If you don’t already know, “Where’s the beef?” is a famous catchphrase from a 1984 television commercial featuring three white-haired ladies standing around a hamburger bun with a tiny beef patty in the center. But Americans haven’t been clamoring for more beef in recent years—and it’s not just because the commercial doesn’t air anymore.
Beef consumption in the U.S. has gone down almost 20 percent between 2005 and 2014, which is good news for our climate. Raising cattle requires a lot of land, a lot of corn and soy, and their burps and farts contain a potent gas called methane, which warms the climate something like 30 times faster than carbon dioxide. Beef production results in five times more carbon emissions than producing chicken and 20 times more than beans and vegetables.
Beef is one of the more environmentally expensive things we can eat, but researchers are trying many different avenues to improve the beef production process.
One of those avenues is carefully managing how beef cattle graze. If done under very specific circumstances, grass-fed beef can have some environmental benefits compared to grain-fed beef that are fattened on corn and soybeans in feedlots towards the end of their lives.
Grass-fed beef has the potential to use land that’s not suitable for growing crops. There are some places in the world where the soils are too dry, and the climate isn’t right for growing crops. Ranchers can use this land to graze cattle, and if managed just-so and cattle are rotated to different patches of land, some scientists have found you can improve plant growth and improve soil quality by sequestering carbon in the soil.
Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean researcher, was so excited about this finding, he claimed that managed grazing could offset all of the carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and agriculture. What an incredible idea: we could just eat a bunch of grass-fed beef and solve all of our climate problems!
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Most pastures are not actively managed, and recent research has found that only under very unique climate and soil conditions will pastures accumulate carbon in the soil. Even in the best conditions, once enough soil carbon has been sequestered, it levels off, and can no longer sequester more, making it a short-lived climate benefit. Plus, this climate benefit is fairly small compared to the total life cycle emissions of cattle, making grass-fed beef far from a climate savior. In the words of Dr. Tara Garnett, who did an extensive review of literature on the subject, “Grazing livestock—even in a best-case scenario—are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock.”
Even so, grass-fed cattle from well-managed pastures are not reliant on the large quantities of corn and soy needed for conventionally raised beef, and don’t carry the environmental burdens of confined animal feeding operations and the large pits used to manage their manure (gross).
Another avenue of research is getting creative with what beef cattle eat to reduce their methane emissions. Scientists at James Cook University in Australia have found that feeding beef cattle a small amount of seaweed can reduce their methane emissions by 70 to 99 percent, an exciting development. Unfortunately, there’s some indication that cattle eating seaweed may have the side effect of emitting bromoform, a pollutant that can degrade the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that protects us from harmful UV radiation. Researchers from Stanford University are reportedly taking the same seaweed from Australia to see if they can replicate these results and perhaps find a way to reduce all damaging emissions.
Many ranchers and scientists are trying to find ways to make more sustainable beef, but the state of the science says we’re still pretty far away from that.
So where do we go from here?
Eat and waste less beef. Since beef is so resource-intensive, we should eat it very sparingly, and make sure when we buy it, we don’t waste it. Food waste generates a lot of emissions because of all of the resources needed to produce the food, and when we toss food into landfills, the decomposition also emits methane.
On the occasion you do eat beef, make sure it is grass-fed. Grass-fed beef typically says that it is “grass-finished,” to indicate the cattle ate grass throughout their lives. If you buy beef that doesn’t say if it is grass or grain-fed, it is probably grain-fed.
Eating and wasting less beef, and making sure it comes from a better source when we do eat it, is a major way we can all help improve the food system. If you’re interested in more ways to help build better a food system, check out PlanetVision’s Action Guide.
Emily Cassidy is Sustainability Science Manager at the California Academy of Sciences.