Beef's Shrinking Environmental Impact

February 16, 2012

The carbon footprint of beef is shrinking, according to a study from Washington State University.

The carbon footprint of beef is shrinking, according to a study from Washington State University. The study compared today’s beef production impact to that of the production system in 1977, revealing some striking improvements in current practices.

Published in a recent issue of the Journal of Animal Science, the study found that, compared to beef production in the 70s, each pound of beef raised in 2007 used 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed, and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, shrinking the carbon footprint of beef by 16.3 percent in 30 years.

Dr. Jude Capper, study author and Assistant Professor of Dairy Sciences in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University, says that the judicious and safe use of technologies such as FDA-approved growth promotants, which supply a very small amount of supplemental hormones to growing cattle, have also helped to improve the average daily gain of cattle without affecting animal welfare, meat quality, or human health.

“If we were to eliminate growth-enhancing technology use from beef production we'd need an extra 14.3 million animals in the national beef herd just to raise the same amount of beef as we did in 2010 (26.1 billion pounds), which would considerably increase resource use and carbon emissions,” says Capper.

While the environmental benefits of these technologies are significant, consumers often perceive improvements in beef production as coming at the expense of animal health and welfare. However, Capper says that this is not the case. “Cattle farmers and ranchers have high welfare standards and cattle diets are specially formulated to allow animals to perform to the best of their genetic ability. This results in cattle that grow faster and are harvested at a greater weight, reducing the total number of animals needed for beef production and therefore requiring fewer resources and carbon emissions associated with beef production,” says Capper. “Animal welfare is a priority for the entire beef community because healthy animals are the foundation of a safe and wholesome food supply.”

All cattle, regardless of how they are “finished,” says Capper, spend the majority of their lives grazing on range and pasture land that is often unsuitable for raising crops. The beef lifecycle typically begins with young calves that nurse on their mother’s milk and spend time grazing on pasture until weaning. They then move to a “stocker” or “backgrounder” where they graze on many different types of pastures and essentially convert forage and grass into protein. Most cattle are then “finished” for the last 3 to 4 months in a feedyard.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the world population will grow to 9.5 billion people by 2050, which means more milk and meat will be needed per capita, especially as global affluence grows. Generally, beef production requires animal feed and drinking water, unit electricity and fuel for animal transport. Also needed are fertilizer for feed crops, irrigation water, and fuel for harvesting. As the population increases, it will be crucial to continue the improvements demonstrated over the past 30 years to meet the demands for nutrient-rich beef, while at the same time reducing resource use and mitigating the environmental impact beef production has on the planet, says Capper.

“On a global basis, cattle ranchers need to make continuous improvements to their production systems in order to raise sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious beef to fulfill consumer requirements. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution as to the ‘best’ way to raise beef; it is entirely dependent on the resources available in each region. It's essential that U.S. cattlemen and women continue to improve productivity and sustainability in future, just as they have done in the past,” she adds.