Who Says Beef Production isn't Sustainable?

Over the last couple of years there has been increasing pressure on livestock production with regard to the environment and sustainability, writes Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite editor.
calendar icon 2 February 2012
clock icon 3 minute read

What is the environmental impact of livestock farming and is livestock production sustainable?

These are commonly asked questions, and the answers will vary greatly.

In 2006, the FAO concluded that livestock production was responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and despite later admitting this figure was invalid, the number has stuck.

As well as being environmentally damaging, critics also believe that intensive production systems are unsustainable.

Last week, Jude Capper from Washington State University spoke at the British Cattle Breeders' Conference and highlighted the improvements that the industry has made over the last 30 years and quashed some of the myths.

  • In 2007 the beef industry produced 13 per cent more beef from 30 per cent fewer animals, through maximising resources such as land and water.

  • The carbon footprint of beef was reduced by more than 16 per cent between 1977 and 2007.

  • Ms Capper's research highlighted the US as a leader in sustainable beef production, with US cattlemen raising 20 per cent of the world's beef with seven per cent of the world's cattle.

  • On average it takes 226 more days to produce grass-finished beef to reach market weight compared to grain-finished cattle. What is the environmental impact of this?

  • Each pound of grain-finished beef requires 45 per cent less land, 76 per cent less water and 49 per cent less feed than grass-finished beef. On top of this is generates 51 per cent less manure and 42 per cent fewer carbon emissions.

Ms Capper said that not eating meat in a bid to save the environment through eating a meatless meal once a week is only equal to .44 per cent of the US carbon footprint. Will this make a big difference for the environment - probably not, however it will have an significant effect on consumer health, said Ms Capper.

With a nutrient deficiency in many women under the age of 30, the industry should be working actively to encourage beef consumption and teach consumers the facts about beef.

In the UK, the latest chapter of the roadmap, Down to Earth, which is the third in the series of on-going reports on the carbon footprint of beef and lamb production was launched by the English Beef and Lamb Executive this week.

The report shows that achieving optimum liveweight gains, selecting for slaughter and the best weight and specification, feeding good quality grass and rations and achieving the best output in breeding should be the main goals for low carbon cattle and sheep production.

The roadmap, which draws on data from around 200 farms in England includes sections on emissions benchmarking, carbon sequestration, waste in the supply chain, retailer activity and farmer cases studies.

The data was drawn from carbon footprint surveys carried out by EBLEX and also by McDonald's and the results reaffirmed the findings in the second chapter of the study, Testing the Water.

Charlotte Johnston, Editor

Charlotte Johnston - Editor

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