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September 28, 2023 at 1:00 PM
by Susan Gregory, CEO

All Beef gets a Bad Name but not all Beef is Farmed the Same

I just did an internet search to find out the carbon footprint of 1kg beef.

On the first page of results, the range varied from 27kg to 36kg to 50kg, 60kg, 70kg, 99.5kg and even 125kg CO2e/kg beef – when really the answer is ‘it depends on a lot of factors’.

Tight margins

Farmers work on very tight margins. Sustain’s research showed that for a packet of four beefburgers sold in a supermarket, the beef farmer makes less than a penny per packet. Another study showed that gross margins vary from £724/cow to a loss of £464/cow. That’s not much when you consider the costs of feed, vets, labour and other costs over the life of a cow.

What drives the carbon footprint of beef?

The two biggest carbon footprint drivers of beef are feed and methane.

  1. Feed

With margins so low, farmers look for feed that is high in protein and low in price. Soy meal is the cheapest feed option and best value source of protein over alternatives like lentils and other legumes. Most soy meal used in the UK is produced in South America.

Soy is an intensively grown crop, with high demands for resources: particularly energy, water, agrochemicals and soil. It’s also a big driver of deforestation as land is converted to agricultural use. It has a very high carbon footprint.

Pasture fed vs grain fed

Unlike pigs, poultry and humans, ruminants can graze pastures and eat hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues that are unsuitable for human consumption.

In other words, cattle don’t need to eat grain and use up land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops for humans. Instead, they can consume grasslands, which has the added benefit of holding  much more carbon than cropland.

Research from the National Trust shows that well-managed grass pasture actually reduced net emissions by up to 94%, and even resulting in a carbon ‘net gain’ in upland areas.

An added bonus is that pasture fed beef generates a premium and is recognised as being lower fat/higher nutritional content vs grain fed beef.

Why isn’t all beef pasture-fed? 

The main reasons are that cattle take longer to mature and occupy more space which farmers don’t always have and it’s not economically viable if you’re producing beef that gets 1p profit for a packet of four burgers.

  1. Methane

Cows burp and fart methane. 

Use of seaweed based supplements in feed can reduce methane emissions in grain fed cows by 80% but these supplements are not yet used widely.

Cows that are pasture fed burp up to 20% more methane than cows that consume grain (as grass is harder to digest and pasture fed cows have a longer lifespan).

Methane considerations

Methane is not a good thing. It has 28x the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2) but there’s a bigger picture to consider:

  1. CO2 originally sequestered in the grass is being recycled – not added through fossil fuel derived fertilisers required to produce grain on land that has been deforested.
  2. As cattle and other ruminants graze pasture, grass growth is stimulated.  This growth results in an increase of CO2 absorption through its leaves and stores the CO2 in the mass of roots underground in a far more stable form of carbon, resulting in carbon sequestration.
  3. If cattle is mob grazed (a system of periodic grazing with long rest to stimulate the grass to inject more carbon in the soil) the pasture sequesters even more CO2. 

Could the Dust Bowl have been avoided?

An interesting USA example refers to the bison herds that roamed the American prairies. Their manure gave nutrients to the soil and because they consumed grass, feed crops (and the related ploughing) weren’t required, allowing deep rooted grasses to flourish which reduced soil erosion. It is believed that if they hadn’t been slaughtered, the Dust Bowl may never have happened.

One pasture fed cow balances one person’s emissions (UK)

One extremely detailed and well written study from Nature Way Farm in Milton Keynes quantifies this as 2.5t carbon or 9.15t CO2e sequestered per hectare per year. They calculate one of the cows sequesters as much CO2 as the average UK person generates.

Ultimately, the amount of carbon sequestration will also vary according to the animals, type of grazing and age of the land as this study shows

Scientists now think that grazing cattle on pastures and restoring grasslands could play a vital role in slowing the global warming process.

It’s a delicate balance. The grass should not be overgrazed and in peak growing season, the cows are moved from one 2 metre high grass section to the next every 12 hours. The grass often contains specific herbs to support the cows health/digestion. We’re talking about very happy cows.

Is intensive farming better? 

For maximum efficiency you would get as much beef (larger cows) as possible in as short a time as possible from as little feed as possible. This would drive a decision to intensively produced grain fed cattle farming but this argument ignores the amount of land and resources required to produce the grain for those cows and also the beneficial impact of livestock on soil health (and animal welfare). 

At the same time, research shows that there is simply not enough land available to shift beef production to an exclusively grass-fed system. A 2018 USA study found that current pastureland grass could support only 27 percent of today's beef supply.

What’s the answer?

Eat less beef, eat better beef, eat beef that you can trace in terms of welfare and precise carbon footprint.

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