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What is the Real Environmental Impact of Beef Production?

We've all heard that meat (and beef production in particular) is bad for the environment. But it's not just what meat you eat but also how it's produced that matters. It seems some beef farms - those using more sustainable methods - do far less damage to the natural world than others.

Beef production carries an enormous environmental footprint, contributing to land and water degradation, deforestation, acid rain, biodiversity loss, and even the degeneration of coral reefs. But here’s some good news for those who want to be more sustainable but can’t give up meat just yet: it looks like the issue is much more nuanced than simply “beef is bad”, after all.

A group of researchers at Oxford University and Agroscope (the Swiss Agricultural Research Institute) have found significant differences in the environmental impact between different producers of meat and animal products. The researchers closely examined the environmental impact of almost 40,000 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging factories, and retailers – creating the most comprehensive database of the food sector’s environmental impact ever compiled.

“High-Impact” And “Low-Impact” Methods of Beef Production

Not all farming practices are equally sustainable.  A farm’s size, methods, and geographical location – as well as the amount of processing, packaging, and transport that its products undergo throughout their lifecycle – all contribute to environmental impact. To give you an idea of scale, farms range in size from around 0.5 hectares in Uganda to 3000 hectares in Australia, and the use of mineral fertiliser ranges from 1kg of nitrogen per hectare in Uganda to 300kg in China.1

Taking these different factors into account, researchers were able to distinguish between “high-impact” and “low-impact” meat producers by quantifying different aspects of environmental damage - such as the amount of land or freshwater used, the level of greenhouse gas emissions, or a farm’s contribution to acidification and eutrophication of rivers. 

The Different Environmental Impacts of Beef Production

When it comes to the beef industry, high-impact beef producers vastly differ from their low-impact counterparts:1 

  • They release 12 times as much CO2 as low-impact producers;
  • They use up to 50 times more land than low-impact farms. 

These staggering differences explain why only 25% of beef farms contribute over half of all beef-related environmental damage.

What If All Beef Farms Became Low-Impact? 

Unfortunately, even meat produced by the most environmentally friendly farms has a greater environmental impact than the environmentally “worst” vegetables. A concrete example: a low-impact litre of cow’s milk uses almost twice as much land and creates almost double the emissions than the average litre of soy “milk”.1

Read more about the environmental impact of wild meat.

Eating Less Meat Compared to a Plant-Based Diet

Products from the meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy industries already use around 83% of the world’s farmland and contribute more than half of food’s emissions - so it’s no surprise that this study confirmed that a plant-based diet remains the most sustainable choice. If we all went plant-based, we’d halve CO2 emissions, acidification, and eutrophication associated with our diets and reduce the amount of land used to grow our food by 76% globally.  In the US, where people eat three times more meat than the global average, going fully plant-based would help reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 73%. 1

However, there is good news for those who want to be more sustainable but can’t or don’t want to remove all animal products from their plates.  The study found that if we halved our consumption of animal products and only bought them from low-impact producers, it would be 70% as effective as going vegan! 

The Need for New Sustainability Labels on Food Packaging 

Sadly, most of us still have no idea how to distinguish a high-impact producer from a low-impact producer in a supermarket. One solution might be the introduction of packaging labels, which could help identify the environmental impact of each specific producer (for example, a green sticker for low-impact, a yellow sticker for medium-impact, and a red one for high-impact) and, therefore, help us all make more informed decisions about what we buy. 

Sustainability labels could also encourage farmers to monitor and communicate their efforts to reduce their impacts to suppliers and customers and for suppliers to source their products from more sustainable producers. In other words, more transparent information about where our food comes from could truly help us make greener choices without having to make radical changes to our diets and lifestyles. 

Read more about sustainability labels and how they need to change.

Governments Must Step Up Too

However, the study highlighted that consumers’ intentions alone can’t make a difference unless they are supported by policies around transparency and financial incentives that support more sustainable consumption. The burden of responsibility cannot entirely fall on our shoulders – it’s time for our governments to use the technology and knowledge they have available to ensure sustainable choices are more accessible. Will the EU’s Green Deal be the answer we’re looking for? We’ll have to wait and see.

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