Can We Improve the Sustainability of Global Beef Production?

Avoiding meat altogether is ideal but politically, socially, and economically unviable. Changing how and where we produce livestock is an alternative.

Sourabh Jain
Published in
5 min readJan 10


Andy Kelley from Unsplash

Beef production has a large environmental footprint, and with a rising population and affluence, the demand for beef will only increase. So avoiding beef production, for example through dietary changes, is an ideal solution to minimize the environmental impacts of our food production system. However, livestock farming not only supports the socioeconomic development of hundreds of millions of farmers in developing countries but also is a major economic driver of many economies. Therefore, reducing meat demand remains a politically, socially, and economically unpleasant solution. Also, behavioral change toward a low-meat diet is a slow process and will take decades to materialize.

So, the question is, are there any alternatives? How and where can we produce beef and still manage to meet multiple goals — lowering environmental impacts, improving human welfare, and meeting the meat demand, all with minimum tradeoffs? This blog post summarizes the finding of a recent study on beef production that explores the answers to this question.

Why and what of the study

The study claims that the earlier work on sustainable beef production was conducted either at a too-small scale (farm level) or a too-big scale (global/continental level) and was inadequate to inform policymaking for a large-scale transition toward sustainable beef production. The study “ fills these gaps by taking a multidimensional lens to assess sustainable beef supply and spatially optimize where and how beef could be produced to meet global demand while minimizing production costs and GHG emissions at 5 arcmin (~9.26 km at the equator) resolution across the globe” (emphasis mine).

The study estimated the economic costs of producing beef and included land management, feed production, and transportation costs. The study adopted a comprehensive approach to calculate the GHG emissions of each grid cell. It included all emissions from enteric fermentation, manure management, fertilizer application, transport, export, processing, and packaging. In fact, it also included both positive and negative changes in land use practices. The additional emission would occur if beef was produced on new land areas, and the emission mitigation would occur via carbon sequestration when land areas were restored after stopping beef production.

For each grid cell, the study calculated the weighted sum of economic costs and GHG emissions and minimized the sum by varying i) different feed mixes (grass, crop residues, grain, etc.) and ii) the relative weights assigned to economic and environmental costs. For example, when the objective was to minimize only economic costs, it gave 100% weight to the economic cost and 0% to environmental cost to determine the optimal feed mix, and as a consequence the land use practice, which achieved that objective. Similarly, it shifted the weight incrementally from economic to environmental costs (say in the steps of 10%) and optimized again.

Once this was done for all grid cells, it began selecting the grid cells with the lowest weighted sum until the demand for beef was met. It then added the optimized economic and environmental costs to arrive at aggregate values and generated a Pareto-efficient solution. To clarify, the optimization was done for each cell independently, not collectively. So, it was a local optimization, not a global one.


The results show that the current production system is Pareto-inefficient (see top-left chart in Figure below). From the study:

Each solution along the frontier corresponds to an optimal spatial arrangement of feed compositions and locations that minimize a given weighted sum of production costs and GHG emissions. The steepness of the Pareto frontier indicates the gain of one objective at the loss of another, for instance, GHG reduction (gain) per dollar spent (loss).

The red cross shows the current combination of production costs and environmental impacts. We can move leftwards or downwards in a straight line to draw some insights. By changing how and where we produce beef, for producing the same quantity of beef, we can reduce emissions by 1,235 MtCO2e yr−1 (70% reduction) without increasing costs, or can reduce costs by US$43 billion yr−1 (36% reduction compared) without increasing emissions.

Figure 1 from the study

Looking further into where those optimized grid cells are located reveals an interesting pattern. It will be cheaper to produce most beef in developing countries as compared to developed countries. However, it will be environmentally more sustainable to produce beef in developed countries. Further from the study:

When prioritizing cost reduction, beef production would shift from areas of high production costs (for example, land value and producer prices) such as North America, Europe, and East Asia, to areas with lower costs of production such as parts of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central, and Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Conversely, giving greater importance to minimizing GHG emissions would shift production from Latin America, Oceania, the Sahel region, and Asia to North America and Southern Africa where crop and grass yields tend to be higher and emissions intensity of beef production is lower.

Final thoughts

The study was motivated by a realistic thought that dietary habits are unlikely to change anytime soon and beef production will continue to increase. So, what can we do about it? Is there a way we can still find a middle ground to balance economic and environmental goals? The study adopted local optimization rather than global optimization to ensure the findings are relevant for local or national policymakers. The results reveal that while there will always be some trade-offs between balancing economic vs. environmental objectives, we don’t have to make them now. Our current production already has huge inefficiencies and fixing them can produce significant environmental and economic gains without making many dietary compromises.

Nonetheless, there is no free lunch. Improving production efficiencies will require a significant reorganization of where and how beef is produced. In my opinion, such cross-national and continental reorganization seems to be politically far more difficult than inducing behavioral and dietary changes.



Sourabh Jain

Postdoctoral scholar who applies systems thinking to model circular economy running on 100% renewable energy systems and zero waste.