Sustainability and the Beef Industry Part 1: Problems

The beef industry is arguably one of the most economically and culturally important sectors in the US — red meat constitutes 58% of meat consumed in the country — yet despite this (or maybe because of it), it’s also extremely unsustainable. With increasing demand for meat worldwide, our current methods of producing beef need to be reexamined.

There are two main problems with beef production: 1) it emits large amounts of greenhouse gasses, and 2) it’s wildly inefficient in multiple ways. Firstly, livestock accounts for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, which come from several stages in the process, such as land use change, machinery, fertilizer manufacturing, and feed crop production. A large bulk of emissions, however, comes from enteric fermentation, which is a process where bacteria in livestock’s digestive tract break down carbohydrates and produce methane — in other words, cow burps. An individual cow can burp up to 220 pounds of methane annually, which is worrisome considering that methane is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effect.

Secondly, beef is incredibly inefficient in its use of resources, particularly land and water. About 7% of the US — which is an area larger than the entire state of California — is used for cattle (constituting both pastureland and cropland for feed). In addition to being large in the first place, beef’s land requirement makes other protein sources look modest in comparison; it needs about 16 times more area than pig meat, the next highest protein (see figure below).

Land use of various protein sources, the highest among these being beef. Source: https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

Cattle also require a large amount of water — about 1,800 gallons per pound of beef. This water is rainfall that helps pastures grow, direct cattle drinking water, and also irrigation for feed crops. Again, in comparison to other protein sources, cows consume a significant amount of water relative to their meat output.

Currently, there are two main ways of raising cattle: pasture systems and feedlot systems. Feedlot systems usually involve keeping calves in an open pasture for the first 6–9 nine months of their lives, then moving them feedlots (also called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs), which are smaller areas with little room for movement that feed cows grain (pictured below). In pasture systems, cows are simply left to graze for their entire lifespan.

Cows in a feedlot eat grain from troughs
Photo from https://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/optimizing-feedlot-feed-efficiency-8.

Both systems compete with edible crops (i.e. crops that can be directly consumed by humans) for space. Feedlot-finished cattle require additional cropland to grow their grain feed, and grass-fed cattle require large pastures. However, it must be noted that 65% of pastureland is actually land unsuitable for human crops, meaning the pasture method is less of a competitor than the feedlot method. Feedlots have other problematic environmental effects, such as the runoff from manure lagoons, or large pools of manure produced by the confined cattle. Some operations with thousands of cows can produce as much waste as a medium-sized city.

On the other hand, the pasture model seems to be associated with more emissions compared to feedlot systems, and heavy grazing common in this model dries out and compacts the soil; transitioning pastures to industrial production has been shown to improve soil health. However, pasture systems can be less damaging in other areas — for example, they can have lower impacts on water resources since grazing lands are mostly rain-fed. Sustainable practices like rotational grazing could also be used to counter negative effects on the soil. Thus a dilemma arises: both feedlots and pastures have beneficial and destructive environmental impacts.

In order to meet beef demand in a sustainable way, current production systems must change. Cattle-raising needs to become more efficient in its use of land and water and find ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions by adopting solutions that reflect the innovation of the twenty-first century.

Read part two, “Sustainability and the Beef Industry Part 2: Solutions,” here.

Special thanks to Megan Irwin and Michaela Meskell.

Additional sources:

https://www.watercalculator.org/footprint/water-footprint-beef-industrial-pasture/

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-011-0346-y

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By contributors from In the Green, a UCI student organization promoting sustainable business. This publication is dedicated to providing education and insights on sustainability.

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