Why beef isn’t all bad

If you are an omnivore with a conscience, you might have been feeling a little guilty of late. A couple of big data papers were released recently showing that beef production produced more emissions and used more resources than other livestock production systems. The study that received the most coverage looked at land, water and nitrogen impacts of cattle production. The authors note in the article (and clearly state in the title) that the data and results are only relevant to the US livestock industry. They only considered land, irrigation water and nitrogen fertilisers used for feed production (e.g. corn, soybean, grain etc.), mostly in the US Midwest and they do not include pastured beef in analyses. So with these results, we can only talk about industrially-farmed beef, dairy, pork and poultry in the United States (i.e. feedlots and factory farms), but few media reports acknowledged this.

Industrial livestock production is bad for livestock, farmers, the environment and the people that eat the produce – to a lot of people, that won’t be news. So it is great that studies like these can show how much industrial livestock also affects the bottom line and national accounts, as these are the things that might effect change where it needs to happen. In an ideal world, there would be no supermarket shelves stocked with faceless beef. So here are a few positive facts to make that ideal seem possible.

Low-intensity traditional and organic beef grazing systems produce lower emissions and are more ecologically sustainable than industrial beef (or industrial organic). This study of Irish beef production systems found that conventional beef systems had more than twice the emissions of organic beef systems. Nitrogen surpluses and eutrophication potential are also lower in organic systems. Where discrepancies exist between studies comparing organic and conventional systems, it is usually because there are very few ‘standard’ methods for accounting for all these attributes – some people might count the manure from a livestock system as ‘nitrogen’, some might count the fertiliser used on feed and pasture. So comparing contrasting results of different studies needs to be done based on the data source used.

Low-intensity and diversified grazing systems, particularly small-scale farms that mix cattle with other crops and livestock, are also better for biodiversity. These types of grazing systems support higher bird and insect diversity (e.g. here, here, here, here) and increase rangeland heterogeneity. They also don’t require huge tracts of forest to be cleared to grow feed crops.

Producing meat from non-industrial dairy calves that have been raised happily can alleviate some of the ethical, environmental and economic burdens of beef. Male dairy calves are fairly useless on a dairy farm, so farmers sell them as veal or grow them to steers and sell them as beef. This study from Europe found that meat produced from male dairy calves had lower emissions than meat from beef breed production systems. However, many modern industrial dairy farms use cattle breeds specifically bred for high milk production. Male calves from these breeds don’t have the muscle condition suitable for meat, so are usually just disposed of.

In a few studies, organic or pasture-fed meat has been shown to have higher emissions than meat from non-organic systems. These type of data have been used to justify industrial production systems. However, they are usually based on the simple fact that organic cattle follow a natural growth development cycle and therefore live longer, so by default produce more emissions in a lifetime than a feedlot steer. Organic systems also usually take up more land area than industrial systems, for obvious reasons. But when you look at the overall system, organic systems use far less energy and have far fewer environmental impacts than feedlot or intensive production systems. Finally, these studies only compare livestock with livestock, not livestock with other human activities.

In most countries, emissions from agriculture are completely overshadowed by emissions from energy, mining and industry. In Australia, our most recent national inventory shows that in the year to December 2013 agriculture contributed just one fifth of the CO2 equivalent emissions that came from energy, mining and industrial processes. Over the last 20 years, Australian emissions from agriculture have increased by 1%, compared to an increase of 44.2% for energy-related activities (including fuel and mining) and 26.5% for industrial processes.

In a previous post I talked about the Australian researchers who found methane levels of 6.9 ppm in Queensland’s coal seam gas fields, compared to concentrations of around 2 ppm (commonly found at feedlots) in northern New South Wales, where there were no gas wells and methane mostly came from cattle, sewage treatment plants and wetlands (natural background levels of methane were around 1.8 ppm). So if we want to blame beef for our environmental woes, turning more farmland into mines and frack seams isn’t the best alternative.

These studies are a timely reminder that industrialised, intensive farming has very few benefits, apart from producing more meat per unit of land, and creating more melty steaks to suit the rapidly weakening human jaw. We can’t afford to keep buying faceless beef, for hundreds of reasons.

But we can afford to produce ecologically-sustainable beef that will benefit livestock, farmers, consumers and Nature, by supporting agroecological principles of diversified farms and low-intensity production, and embracing seasonality and regionality of food. Yes, extensive and organic systems produce less meat…but isn’t that the idea?

© Manu Saunders 2014

10 thoughts on “Why beef isn’t all bad

  1. mike August 5, 2014 / 6:24 PM

    We should eat feral animals….like horses 😉


    • manuelinor August 5, 2014 / 6:53 PM

      well in some countries they do eat horses! Not sure I could do it. But you have a point, plenty of deer and rabbits to go around here!


      • shapeofthingstoni August 6, 2014 / 3:47 AM

        I’m all for eating feral animals and local marsupials where careful culling is regulated. Wallaby, venison and rabbit are delicious and more sustainable meats, but some people need a more gentle introduction into sustainable eating. For the man who can’t be separated from his steak this is a great way to tart the conversation and make some more sustainable changes.

        Great article, I’ve shared it around. Thanks!


        • manuelinor August 6, 2014 / 6:07 AM

          Thanks Toni! I agree, it’s a conversation we definitely need to have.


      • mike August 7, 2014 / 9:51 PM

        When I was out and about down there I managed to snare a rabbit or two. Saw enough deer and wished I had my firearm license still. 🙂


  2. Debra August 5, 2014 / 11:04 PM

    Or feral deer that love the kind of landscape (savannahs) we are creating with all those suburbs. But mostly people should just drastically reduce or eliminate meat from their diets. Doesn’t the energy pyramid idea already show us how to maximize calories? People look for moderate solutions but the problem kind of demands big changes.


    • manuelinor August 6, 2014 / 6:20 AM

      Thanks Debra. I agree, we need to reduce the amount of red meat we eat and we need to make huge changes to the industry, but we also have to be realistic – it won’t happen overnight and not everyone will be able to stop eating meat. Calories don’t necessarily provide protein, so if we stop eating beef we will need to replace it with another protein, like less intensive meat, pulses/legumes or wild meat, as you say. Intensive beef production is only economical because demand makes it so.


  3. The Snail of Happiness August 6, 2014 / 6:21 PM

    Great post – I’m always concerned that most media attention is given to livestock reared on feed rather than pasture. In the UK (where we have a lot of grass) our stock tend to be pastured (although the move to mega dairies is a worrying trend, and a good reason for only buying organic milk), I’m a big fan of eating game, which has to be extensively reared, feral animals (rabbit especially) and, of course reducing consumption and being mindful of the implications of our food choices.


    • manuelinor August 7, 2014 / 5:39 PM

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, sometimes I wonder if people have forgotten that cows eat grass!


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