The Search for Sustainable Beef

New report finds grass-fed beef is “in no way a climate solution”

Grass-fed beef is a growing trend, but it’snot a sustainable solution to climate change.

Can you have your beef and eat it too? For years those of us at the Center for Biological Diversity have been saying no… not if you care about the health of wildlife and the planet.

We’ve watched the grass-fed beef trend grow as a possible solution, but we’re not biting. Grazing threatens wildlife and takes an enormous toll on habitats, and won’t fix the climate crisis animal agriculture creates.

A new study released earlier this week confirmed what we’ve been saying all along: Grass-fed beef, like factory-farm beef, has a supersized carbon footprint. The only viable solution to make our diets more sustainable is to significantly reduce our consumption of beef.

Grazing cattle destroy natural riparian habitats and wetlands that native wildlife need to survive.

As the connection between animal agriculture and climate change has been clarified, some have promoted grass-fed beef. They claim it’s a way to eat meat while addressing some environmental harms associated with raising cattle in factory farms.

They suggest that grazing cattle are actually good for the environment because they help the land to capture carbon and sequester it in the ground.

It’s that very argument that this study puts to bed. Researchers at the University of Oxford through the Food Climate Research Network added up all the climate effects of grass-fed beef — both positive and negative. They compared carbon sequestration to the greenhouse gases emitted by grass-fed beef production. They found that even under ideal conditions, the benefits of grazing aren’t enough to counteract the emissions produced by the cattle.

If we replaced conventional beef with grass-fed beef, it would actually make tackling climate change even more difficult. Currently grass-fed beef makes up only a small portion of meat consumption. But it accounts for as much as one third of greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant animal farming.

The Greater Sage Grouse, which needs its native tall grasses to protect itself from predators, is one species devastated by cattle over-grazing vulnerable habitats.
“Ultimately, if high-consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is.” — Dr Tara Garnett, lead author of the new report.

While this study focused primarily on the climate impacts of grass-fed beef, the environmental harms go much further. Switching to grass-fed beef would also make it harder to fight wildlife extinction. Livestock grazing is a leading cause of species endangerment and the leading cause of the desertification of arid landscapes.

The largely monoculture ‘grass’ cows eat in the production of grass-fed beef damages bio-diverse habitats that pollinators and other wild animals depend on. Grazing cows destroy fragile ecosystems and threaten natural biodiversity by changing vegetation patterns, eroding soil and limiting a habitat’s ability to retain water for native wildlife.

Grass-fed beef is a poorly defined, largely unregulated term that refers to a diet which includes some grains and artificial grasses, and comes at a high cost to the natural grasslands used to feed grazing cattle.

It would be more accurate to dub this type of beef ‘habitat-fed.’ It already affects nearly half of currently threatened and endangered species in the United States.

Tule Elk in California were barred access to freshwater in a national seashore so it could be given to grazing cattle. Cattle grazing on public lands also threaten sage grouse in the plain states and exacerbate the recovery struggle of Mexican gray wolves in the southwest. Evidence has shown that removing cattle from habitats can restore populations of trout, native songbirds, wildflowers and amphibians.

Given these threats to wildlife along with the climate impacts, it is clear that grass-fed beef isn’t a sustainable solution. Especially not at our current rates of consumption. While it is potentially more humane than meat from factory farms (which come with their own set of environmental problems), making the switch would only be choosing environmental devastation in lieu of animal cruelty.

The search for better, more sustainable solutions to animal agriculture continues, but this study reaffirms that the answer to a truly sustainable food system comes in eating less beef.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.