Quantcast

Grass-Fed Beef Will Not Help Tackle Climate Change, Report Finds

Popular
Kyle Spradley / MU College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources / Flickr

By Daisy Dunne

Billed as a more environmentally friendly way to rear cattle, grass-fed beef has been the red meat of choice for many a climate-conscious carnivore.

Indeed, research has suggested that grazing cattle can help offset global warming by stimulating soil to take up more carbon from the atmosphere. This process, known as soil carbon sequestration, is one way of reducing the amount of human-induced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


However, a report released Tuesday by the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford found that cattle fed on grass release more greenhouse gas emissions than they are able to offset through soil carbon sequestration.

This means that grass-fed beef is "in no way a climate solution," said the lead author of the report.

Carbon from cattle

Livestock contribute to human-induced climate change by producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Cattle release methane through belching and passing wind, as well as in manure. Livestock also contribute to global warming indirectly through deforestation.

Overall, the livestock industry is responsible for around 15 percent of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 80 percent of these emissions come directly from ruminant animals, such as cattle.

The majority of the world's cattle are "grain-fed." In most cases, this means that the animals begin life grazing in the field, before being transferred indoors to be fed on grains, such as corn and soy.

However, a growing number of livestock producers are choosing to feed their cattle on a diet purely of grass. These "grass-fed" animals spend the majority of their days grazing outside.

Though both types of cattle contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions, it has previously been suggested that grass-fed cows could have a lower carbon footprint.

This could be because grazing cattle can stimulate plant growth, which in turn leads to higher levels of soil carbon sequestration, said Dr. Tara Garnett, lead author of the new report. She told a press conference this week:

"Animals help with [carbon sequestration] by nibbling away and chomping away, which stimulates the plants to grow. That can cause the plants to put down deep roots."

This process means that more organic carbon could become fixed in the soil, Garnett said.

Chewing the fat

To understand the impact of grazed cattle, researchers from the Food Climate Research Network spent two years analyzing the available scientific research on grass-fed livestock sector emissions, as well as its potential impacts on carbon sequestration.

The researchers reported that grass-fed beef contributes very little to the global protein supply, accounting for just one gram of protein, per person, per day. In comparison, ruminants as a whole contribute 13g of protein to the global average protein intake, per person, per day.

The chart below shows how different animals and crop contribute to the average daily protein intake.

The average global protein intake derived from different animals and plants per person, per day, in grams. Garnett et al. (2017) Data Source: FAO

Despite making only a marginal contribution to global protein intake, grazed beef accounts for between a quarter and a third of all greenhouse emissions from ruminant livestock, said Garnett:

"It's worth comparing [emissions to protein intake] because grazed beef have reasonably significant emissions when compared to the amount of protein that they provide."

The researchers also analyzed the total carbon sequestration potential of the world's grasslands. They reported that, if all of this grassland were grazed on by ruminants, 20 to 60 percent of the annual emissions of grass-feed could be offset by carbon sequestration.

However, this estimate assumes that the environmental conditions are right for soil carbon sequestration to take place, Garnett added:

"It's an optimistic estimate. The climate and the rainfall conditions needs to be right [for soil carbon sequestration to take place]. If you overgraze the grassland, then you will get an annual loss of carbon from the soil."

Climate solution?

Despite the potential impacts of soil carbon sequestration, grass-fed beef is, overall, a net contributor to carbon emissions and, therefore, a driver of human-caused global warming. Garnett said:

"This report concludes that grass-fed livestock are not a climate solution. Grazing livestock are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use."

The research suggests that the best way to tackle livestock emissions is to cut global levels of meat consumption, said Garnett.

"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."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

"Globally, we're starting to see examples of retailers moving away from plastics and throwaway packaging, but not at the urgency and scale needed to address this crisis." Greenpeace

By Jake Johnson

A Greenpeace report released Tuesday uses a hypothetical "Smart Supermarket" that has done away with environmentally damaging single-use plastics to outline a possible future in which the world's oceans and communities are free of bags, bottles, packaging and other harmful plastic pollutants.

Read More Show Less
Children are forced to wear masks due to the toxic smoke from peat land fires in Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga / CIFOR

By Irene Banos Ruiz

Pediatricians in New Delhi, India, say children's lungs are no longer pink, but black.

Our warming planet is already impacting the health of the world's children and will shape the future of an entire generation if we fail to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (35.6°F), the 2019 Lancet Countdown Report on health and climate change shows.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Private homes surround a 20 inch gas liquids pipeline which is part of the Mariner East II project on Oct. 5, 2017 in Marchwood, Penn. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The FBI is looking into how the state of Pennsylvania granted permits for a controversial natural gas pipeline as part of a corruption investigation, the AP reports.

Read More Show Less
Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles. Carolina Wild Ones / Facebook

Three cows who were washed off their North Carolina island by Hurricane Dorian have been found alive after swimming at least two miles, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
The Dakota Access pipeline being built in Iowa. Carl Wycoff / CC BY 2.0

The fight between the Standing Rock Sioux and the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline is back on, as the tribe opposes a pipeline expansion that it argues would increase the risk of an oil spill.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Scanning electron micrograph of Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague, on proventricular spines of a Xenopsylla cheopis flea. NIAID / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A middle-aged married couple in China was diagnosed with pneumonic plague, a highly infectious disease similar to bubonic plague, which ravaged Europe in the middle ages, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less
Milk made from almonds, oats and coconut are among the healthiest alternatives to cow's milk. triocean / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Dairy aisles have exploded with milk and milk alternative options over the past few years, and choosing the healthiest milk isn't just about the fat content.

Whether you're looking beyond cow's milk for health reasons or dietary preferences or simply want to experiment with different options, you may wonder which type of milk is healthiest for you.

Read More Show Less
Greta Thunberg stands aboard the catamaran La Vagabonde as she sets sail to Europe in Hampton, Virginia, on Nov. 13. NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP via Getty Images

Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist whose weekly school strikes have spurred global demonstrations, has cut short her tour of the Americas and set sail for Europe to attend COP25 in Madrid next month, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less