The Sustainability Footprint Of Beef

Each type of food we eat has it’s own sustainability footprint

In this guide, we’ve outlined the potential sustainability footprint of producing and eating beef.

 

Summary – Sustainability Footprint Of Beef

Overall

What is clear is that although beef is a staple in the American diet and the worldwide diet, and is a major part of the world economy in the agricultural sector, the sustainability of beef production is not great when looking at several different measurements

 

Carbon Footprint

Animal meats tend to have the highest carbon footprint amongst different foods.

Amongst animals meats, beef tends to rate as the meat with the highest carbon footprint across several measurables – per unit of weight produced, per total tonnes produced, per calorie, per serving, per gram of protein produced, and so on.

Part of this has to do with the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy (or, feed to meat production efficiency).

But, there’s also factors like the livestock production method that play a part (e.g factory farms vs pasture raised cattle.)

In comparison to other animal meats, beef might rate alongside lamb, but above pork and chicken

One estimate by theconversation.com indicates ‘Farming cattle releases five times more greenhouse gases and uses six times as much nitrogen as the average of other animal products’

 

Energy Footprint

Beef also has an energy footprint.

Some estimates indicate that one pound of feedlot beef is the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline

 

Water Footprint

When it comes to the water footprints of different foods, beef and animal meats tend to have a higher water footprint than vegetarian and plant based foods

Beef can rate near the top of water intensity amongst animal meats amongst several measurables 

According to some breakdowns, the animal feed fed to cattle contributes to roughly 99% of the water footprint of beef, with drinking water and servicing water only about 1%

In some countries, majority of the water used in beef production is green water (renewable and more sustainable), but the type of water can differ depending on the country (e.g. less renewable irrigated blue water could be used in a greater amount)

According to some reports, grass fed beef might have a lower water footprint than corn and grain fed beef

Ultimately, the type of beef (boneless vs another type), the length of time the cow is alive before slaughter, how much water is used on the cows feed, the quality of the feed and how efficient it is at converting energy to meat production, how much meat each cow can produce, the type of beef production system used, and other factors can all impact how water intensive beef production is.

 

Land Footprint

Beef once again is one of the most land intensive foods to produce in terms of yield per unit area of land, per calorie produced, per gram of protein produced, and according to some other measurables as well

Beef requires land for cattle (to graze or for feedlots), and land to grow feed.

When it comes to land use, it’s important to identify the type of land being used – for example, land that can be used for grazing is different to arable land used for crops.

 

Soil Footprint

Topsoil can be lost in the process of beef farming

 

Feed Requirements & Footprint

Cattle need feed in order to produce beef, and this feed has it’s own land, water and resource footprint.

Feed can include grains, roughages, soy and even cattle themselves (fed back to cattle for the protein). Some cattle even eat poultry manure.

Obviously though different systems will have different feed requirements, like for example in the difference of grass fed vs grain fed cattle.  

Something else to note about feed in the United States is the prevalence of GMOs i.e. majority of GMO crops are used for livestock feed.

 

Pesticides & Fertilizer Footprint

Pesticides and fertilizers are used for livestock farming.

Pesticides can be used on livestock themselves (livestock can sometimes be directly dosed with chemicals to prevent pest infestation), as well as on the animal feed that is grown for cattle to eventually eat

Fertilizer can be used on feed for better yields and to stimulate growth.

 

Chemicals To Consider In Beef Production

Chemicals that may sometimes be found in beef production might be:

Any pesticide residue that might find it’s way onto animal meat

Veterinary drugs and heavy metals that may be found in some meat

 

Environmental Issues

Some of the environmental issues that beef production might contribute to might include:

Deforestation and land clearing (to create land for farms, ranches and pasture), Land and soil degradation (especially from overgrazing), Greenhouse gas emissions, Fertilizer (reactive nitrogen) and manure run-off – leading to water pollution, Waste pollution, Land use, and Water use

 

Efficiency Of Converting Feed To Meat Or Protein

The conversion of feed to meat or protein is one variable that impacts the sustainable use of resources.

Cattle might be some of the least efficient livestock at converting feed into meat or protein (poultry can be the most efficient, the cheapest and have the least religious restrictions of all the animal meats).

The quality of the feed is a variable in conversion efficiency though – conversion efficiency in places like America and Europe where grain is used might be higher than in some places in Africa where feed quality on rangelands is poor.

Grass or hay fed cattle may convert at the most efficient rates.

Since 1961, overall conversion rates for cattle have increased.

 

Potential Animal Cruelty & Welfare Issues

There can be some potential issues to do with cattle welfare.

These can happen at birth, at the farm level, during housing, during transport and during slaughter.

Some people also point out the slaughtering of cattle themselves for the production of beef as a food product.

 

Food Waste

Food waste equates to wasted resources, which impacts sustainability and environmental issues.

Animal meats are wasted far less on average than perishable foods like fruits and vegetables.

Some estimates put meat waste at 14 to 20%, and fruit and vegetables at anywhere from 30 to 50% (although some seafoods can have higher waste rates).

It’s worth noting that although meats are wasted as a lower rate (14 to 20%), meat is more resource intensive to produce, and the life of the animal is wasted too.

 

Importance Of Beef To The Economy

Of all meats, chicken and beef have the highest % share of the global meat market.

The global beef market alone is worth hundreds of billions on dollars a year, and employs many people.

The beef market is expected to grow into the future as population sizes increase, although, growth could be impacted by the number of cattle, and yield rates.

Chicken overall might be a cheaper meat to produce according to some metrics.

 

Impact Of Various Factors On Beef Farming Going Forward

The climate (climate can impact agriculture in several ways), resource shortages (of water, land, etc), and population growth could all impact beef farming and it’s associated benefits and drawbacks in the future

 

Health, Nutrition, & Safety Of Beef As A Meat

Aside from sustainability, economic and environmental factors, there’s human health and nutrition factors to consider with beef.

Protein content/profile (as well as the type of protein – full vs partial), quality and safety of meat, and potential diseases contained in different livestock, are all considerations.

Different people may have different nutritional and health requirements, and some people may have certain religious requirements around food. These are also considerations with beef consumption.

 

Different Beef Products Need To Be Assessed Separately & Individually

Not all beef products have the same footprint – different beef products, produced on different farms, should be assessed separately and individually. 

So, how and where beef is produced matters.

There’s different types of beef, produced from different farming & ranch operations

The production system from which the beef is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed can impact the footprint of the beef, just as a few examples.

The global production systems and footprints also vary worldwide.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Beef

Beef has one of the highest carbon footprints of any food across several measurables, including per unit of weight of beef produced, per calorie, per serving, per gram of protein produced, and so on.

Read more about the carbon footprint of beef and other foods in this guide.

 

Energy Footprint Of Beef

It takes the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef (earthsave.org)

 

How Much Water It Takes To Produce Beef

The water footprint of beef can differ depending on if it’s measured per kg, per pound, or per unit of protein.

Overall, beef is one of the most water intensive foods across those different measurables.

Some sources indicate that animal feed makes up about 99% of water requirements for beef.

This is not as much an issue for grass fed beef who feed on grass that is mainly rainfed grass (and not irrigated).

Some sources indicate that most of the water used for beef production is green water (although water type, as well as amount of water can differ by country)

Of the water used to make animal products in agriculture, some sources indicate that about a third of it goes towards beef production.

 

thewaterweeat.com has an entire breakdown of how much direct and indirect water is included in the production of boneless beef in an industrial system.

They outline factors such as:

– The length of time to slaughter

– How many kilos of boneless beef one animal can produce

– How many kilos of grains (wheat, oats, barley, corn, dry peas, and other small grains) the animal consumes

– How many kilos of roughages (pasture, dry hay, silage, and other roughages.) the animal consumes

– How much water the grains and roughages take to produce

– How much water the cow drinks

– Water required for servicing the farmhouse and slaughtering

The production of grains and roughages by far uses the most water.

Read the full numbers and details of this example in the thewaterweeat.com resource

 

How Much Land It Takes To Produce Beef

Beef once again is one of the most land intensive foods to produce in terms of yield per unit area of land, per calorie produced, per gram of protein produced, and according to some other measurables as well

Some sources indicate that when you look at countries with low beef consumption, there is a corresponding low land use requirement. And, the opposite is true for high beef consumption.

Part of the reason beef has a high land usage is that both the cattle and the feed for the cattle need land.

The type of land being used (grazing vs arable) is an important consideration in land use

 

Soil Footprint Of Beef Farming

35 pounds of topsoil are lost in the production of one pound of grain-fed beef

– earthsave.org

 

Feed Requirements For Cattle & Beef

Cattle need feed in order to produce beef, and this feed has it’s own land, water and resource footprint.

Feed can include grains, roughages, soy and even cattle themselves (fed back to cattle)

 

The thewaterweeat.com resource outlines that cattle in an industrial beef production system will be fed (over a 3 year to slaughter average):

… nearly 1300 kg of grains such as wheat, oats, barley, corn, dry peas, and other small grains. 

… 7200 kg of roughages such as pasture, dry hay, silage, and other roughages.

 

earthsave.org indicates that:

Approximately 8 million pounds of poultry manure are fed annually to California’s beef cattle

14% of all cattle are fed back to cattle as part of protein-fortified feed

12-16 pounds of grain and soy are needed to produce one pound of grain-fed beef

 

In the US, majority of GMO crops are used for livestock feed.

 

Pesticides & Fertilizers Used For Beef Production

Pesticides and fertilizers are used for livestock farming.

Livestock like cattle can be treated with pesticides to prevent infestation or disease, and pesticide is also used on animal feed (in the 100’s of millions of pounds each year in the US alone).

Glyphosate is one of the most commonly used pesticides.

Fertilizer is also applied to hay and pasture fields to increase yields and to stimulate growth.

medium.com and u.osu.edu both discuss fertilizer and pesticide use for livestock farming.

 

Chemicals That Might Be Found During Beef Production

Sometimes, the following chemicals might be found during the beef production process:

– Pesticide residue

– Veterinary drugs and heavy metals

 

Pesticides

Pesticide residues are found in meat and animal byproducts

For glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in the world, residues allowed in animal feed can be more than 100 times that allowed on grains consumed directly by humans, and the amount of glyphosate allowed in red meat is more than 20 times that for most plant crops.

– medium.com

 

Vet Drugs & Heavy Metals

Veterinary drugs and heavy metals can also be found in meat

– medium.com

 

Environmental Problems, & Sustainability Problems Related To Cattle Based Agriculture

We’ve already outlined some of the environmental issues that agriculture in general might contribute to.

But, some of the environmental issues that the production of beef may specifically contribute to might be:

Deforestation and land clearing (to create land for farms, ranches and pasture)

Land and soil degradation

Greenhouse gas emissions

Fertilizer (reactive nitrogen) and manure run-off – leading to water pollution

Waste pollution 

Land use

Water use

 

Emissions:

Cattle account for 77% of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock for 59m tonnes of beef each year.

Pork and poultry produce 10% of the greenhouse gases, but 215m tonnes of meat

– economist.com

 

A stat on deforestation:

5 million acres of rainforest are felled every year in South and Central America to create cattle pasture [and] cattle ranching has destroyed more Central American rainforest than any other activity

70% of cleared forests in Panama and Costa Rica are now in pasture

– earthsave.org

 

General environmental issues:

Raising beef cattle is far more environmentally costly than poultry, pork, dairy or egg

[Farming cattle is roughly twice as bad across some environmental indicators like emissions and nitrogen use as staple plant foods]

[Overall, greenhouse gas emissions, the use and discharge/run off of reactive nitrogen from fertilizer or manure, water pollution, water use, and land use are all environmental issues and resource management issues related to cattle based agriculture]

– theconversation.com

 

Efficiency Of Converting Feed To Meat, Or Protein 

There is a consideration with livestock as to how efficiently an animal converts feed to meat (in terms of weight), or protein.

Efficiency of conversion obviously impacts the efficient use of resources.

Chicken and pigs might be most efficient, followed by lamb, and beef might be least efficient.

The quality of the feed is a variable in conversion efficiency though – for this reason, conversion efficiency in places like America and Europe where grain is used might be higher than in some places in Africa where feed quality on rangelands is poor.

Grass or hay fed cattle may convert at the most efficient rates.

Since 1961, overall conversion rates for cattle have increased.

 

Efficiency in livestock varies …

Chickens and pigs convert grain into meat at rates of two or three to one (ie, it takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken).

The ratio for lamb is between four and over six to one

Beef starts at five to one and goes as high as 20 to one.

– economist.com

 

[For each kilo of protein produced, a cow in American or Europe will eat less hay and other dry matter on average than a cow on drylands in East Africa, and this is because of how poor the land is]

… traditional pastoralism [and] feeding cattle with grain would dramatically improve efficiency

– economist.com

 

The meat yield per cattle has increased by approximately one-third since 1961

– ourworldindata.org

 

[the efficiency of] various animals converting grain into protein is …

… cattle in feedlots [take about] 7 kilograms of grain to produce a 1-kilogram gain in live weight.

[pork is] 4 kilograms of grain per kilogram of weight gain, [poultry is] just over 2 … And for herbivorous species of farmed fish (such as carp, tilapia, and catfish), it is less than 2.

Cattle that are grass or hay fed might convert at different rates i.e. the type of food an animal eats affects how quickly they put on live weight (extra kilograms)

– forbes.com

 

Poultry is cheaper to produce than other types of meat and chickens are the most efficient meat animal at converting grams of feed to grams of protein.

Poultry also has fewer religious restrictions on its consumption than meats such as beef or pork

– idtechex.com

 

Potential Animal Cruelty & Welfare Issues Related To Beef Production

Welfare issues during beef production might occur after birth, during housing, at the farm level, during transport (specially live transport and trade), and come slaughter time.

 

Cruelty issues might include:

Branding, Castration, Dehorning, Ear tagging, Nose ringing, Restraint, Tail docking, Tongue resection (calves) (wikipedia.org)

 

Housing issues might include:

High stocking density (feedlots), Restricted movement (feedlots), Veal crates (wikipedia.org)

 

How Much Beef Do We Waste As A Food Product

Wasted food essentially equals wasted water, land, energy, resources and all other things that goes into making that food

About 14 to 20% of meat food products are wasted.

This is compared to some fruits, vegetables and crop type food that might be wasted at up to 40 to 50% rates.

It’s worth noting that although meats are wasted as a lower rate (14 to 20%), meat is more resource intensive to produce, and the life of the animal is wasted too.

 

Value Of The Beef Industry To The Economy

Of all meats, chicken and beef have the highest % share of the global market.

The global beef market alone is worth hundreds of billions on dollars a year, and employs many people.

The beef market is expected to grow into the future as population sizes increase, although, growth could be impacted by the number of cattle, and yield rates.

Chicken overall might be a cheaper meat to produce according to several metrics.

 

The global beef market revenue amounted to $385.7B in 2018

The market value increased at an average annual rate of +3.2% over the period from 2007 to 2018

Global beef consumption peaked in 2018 and is expected to retain its growth in the near future

… beef output … [can be impacted by] the number of producing animals and a relatively flat trend pattern in yield figures

 

Beef and rice are the two leading agricultural products in the world (wikipedia.org)

 

Behind poultry, beef has the second highest % share of the meat market [38% and 33% respectively] (supplements101.net)

 

idtechex.com indicates that meats like chicken might be cheaper to produce than meats like beef

 

Impact Of Different Factors On Beef Farming In The Future

The climate, resource shortages and population growth could all impact beef farming and it’s associated benefits and drawbacks in the future

 

Potential Health/Nutrition Factors Relevant To Beef

Aside from sustainability, economic and environmental factors, there’s human health and nutrition factors to consider with beef.

Protein content/profile, quality and safety of meat, and potential diseases contained in different livestock, are all considerations.

 

Protein

Beef and veal have higher protein content compared to chicken, pork, turkey, and lamb. (grandviewresearch.com)

There’s also a question over the types of protein in the different meats (full vs partial proteins)

 

Quality & Safety Of Meat

Safety and quality benefits associated with kosher beef will trigger demand in the North America region (grandviewresearch.com)

 

Diseases

Meat eaters in U.S. prefer beef over other meats owing to various diseases associated with poultry and pork (grandviewresearch.com)

 

All Beef Products Should Be Assessed Individually

All beef products have different footprints because they each have different variables involved in their production. 

Some of these variables include, but aren’t limited to:

– The beef production process used e.g. feedlot and factory farmed vs open range and pasture fed (different farms, ranches and countries use a different predominant system). Some beef production operations might do both – so you have to find out the % mix. The US beef production system is much different to the Australian beef production system as one example. You can get an idea of the Australian beef system in the sustainabletable.org resource

– The type and quality of feed used e.g grain vs grass fed

– The resources available (land, water, etc)

– Where the beef is farmed, and how far it has to be transported

– The length of time before slaughter (more days equals more manure, burping, farting, etc)

– The final beef product – what type of beef it is, the nutritional profile, how safe it is, and so on

If you want the most accurate data and to know exactly what you are look at – you have to look at it on a level of a singular farm, and ask how the cattle are farmed exactly, and what goes into each stat

Some producers may put profit as their first and only priority, whilst other producers may consider the environment, sustainability, efficient resource usage, the health and well being of animals, and other factors. Some producers use different methods and processes than others.

 

Other variables to consider might be:

Developing countries face much different challenges to developed countries

When considering a stat like how much water a cattle uses – a cattle drinks water, but water also goes into growing the feed it eats – you need to know which water stat you’re looking at

Different countries have different amounts and types of land (grazing vs crop land) to use

Different countries have different amounts of water reserves to use

1 gram or 1 kilogram of food (if comparing meat vs another meat or meat vs vegetables for example) is not the same – one meat might produce more calories or a complete protein vs for example a vegetable with less calories and an incomplete protein for 1kg

Different technology presents advances in efficiency with resources and input provided to farm animals

… all of these variables are going to have different impacts and are going to provide different considerations for the best and most sustainable farming practice going forward.

These figures and this information is of a general nature and not reflective of all agricultural producers.

 

Further exclamation of this point:

Data used in agricultural reporting is from individual farms, typically one or at most a handful.

But farms differ markedly geographically, from season to season and year to year, and are thus not necessarily representative of the big picture.

For example, Grazing cattle in the arid to semi-arid western US uses an enormous amount of land, but little or no irrigation.

Grain-fed feedlot cattle, by contrast, use much less land, but require cultivated grains that depend strongly on nitrogen fertiliser.

– theconversation.com

 

Other Potential Effects Of Agriculture & Livestock In General

Positive

Potential Positive Effects Of Agriculture On Society As A Whole

 

Negative

Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On The Environment, & The Sustainable Use Of Resources

Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Human, Health, Society & The Economy

Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Animals, Wildlife & Biodiversity

 

Sources

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