The conversation about sustainable beef production has become a hot and polarising topic of late. Why has it not been possible to get to a globally understood definition and target?
There are three main domains covered by sustainability: economics, the environment, and social issues. This means that sustainability falls under a wide umbrella. It involves everything from rural livelihoods and the economic viability of farmers, to carbon and water footprints, which garner most of the attention, to social issues.
The latter entails everything from nutritional quality to cultural values and animal welfare. In all, this is quite a complex topic, and we can’t always get agreement because we’re trying to balance everything at once.
It’s also not a purely objective topic, even though it is driven by science. People value different things differently. One person may prioritise animal welfare above environmental footprints, while another may prioritise the affordability of food above all else. It’s not that one person is right or wrong; it’s just a reality of a pluralistic society.
Would the planet be better off if we weren’t feeding animals, but rather using that land to produce crops for people?
Resource competition is a key area that we see coming up again and again in terms of cattle and sustainability. The question usually asked is: are livestock eating what could be human food?
This can be both an issue of direct feed/food competition and land-use competition with regard to land that’s used to grow crops for cattle and other livestock.
The answer is yes, in part, but perhaps not as large a section of the total global food ration as people think.
About 14% of what livestock consume globally could potentially be eaten by humans directly. But 86% is made up of material that cannot be consumed by people directly. These include the forages that are fed to cattle and other ruminants.
Moreover, cattle require only 0,6kg of human-edible protein and feed to make 1kg of human-edible protein in meat and milk. They take what is essentially a low-quality form of protein and ‘upgrade’ it in their rumen to produce high-quality protein for human consumption.
This is key to understanding how these animals fit into a sustainable food system. They produce more protein than they use, upcycling something that is of little or no value, such as grass, into a higher-value product, like beef. And that’s really the headline we should be focused on.
In terms of land use, there is direct competition between [food crops and feed crops grown on arable land]. But by far the most land that is used for cattle production specifically cannot be used for crop production; this includes rangelands that are too rocky, steep or arid for cultivating crops. So the suitability of land is a very important aspect to consider when we think about land footprint.
Another important aspect to consider is quality of land use. There are examples of mass erosion in fields where crops are planted, and this, of course, is unsustainable. Over time, data has shown what an enormous difference it makes to have continuous cover on the soil surface.
This is especially the case in pasture lands where the soil is permanently covered.
From a food systems perspective, pastures are not a particularly valuable use of land without ruminant animals.
But used for livestock, they produce valuable forage crops that have lower rates of erosion and improve soil health in most cases, which brings sustainability, not unhealthy competition, to our food systems. They also allow for rotation, [which is beneficial for the soil and plants].
Ultimately, the plant agriculture versus animal agriculture dichotomy is a false one; the two work together. Livestock can add to the bounty on our table; they can extract more value from plant resources and upgrade and upcycle them.
What does sustainable, good-for-the-planet beef production look like to you?
If we look at the Southern Great Plains of the US, for example, there are always a couple of million head of cattle grazing winter wheat. They are taken off the land in March or April and the wheat is then allowed to grow and be harvested for food.
The milling process results in many by-products, such as wheat middlings, which are fed back to the cattle. So the land produces human food from plants, human food from animal protein in the form of beef production, and feed for the animals to make protein.
Another great example is the California dairy industry. This state is also home to considerable orange juice and almond milk production, which is intertwined with the dairy industry. Almond milk and orange juice production result in many by-products. Almond hulls and citrus pulp all end up in a total mixed ration that is fed to dairy cattle, who then produce milk.
On average, every 100kg of human food produced from crops worldwide generates 37kg of by-products. Many of these are fed to livestock.
Regarding by-products and waste from the production of food, we need to take into account what the methane emissions would look like in landfills were it not for this waste being used by ruminants.
The number one source of methane gas in landfills is food waste, which means that opportunities to recycle and capture gas are extremely important. Because food waste (between 30% to 40% of human-edible food) produces methane gas and exacerbates climate change, there need to be systems in place, such as animal feed, that use up this food waste.
The argument against beef production often cites methane gas emissions directly from cattle as contributing to climate change. How big is the problem?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 4% of US greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle production.
This includes all the enteric methane that comes from ruminant animals and all the emissions from managed manure within the livestock sector. Crop farming produces about 5% of emissions, putting total emissions from agriculture at 9% of the overall total.
This is not nothing, and we need to work towards reducing these emissions, but it is obviously not the single largest source of emissions in the US, by far. The burning of fossil fuels accounts for 75% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.
In terms of the methane produced by cattle, research from the University of Oxford has shown that methane is a short-lived climate pollutant. So some of the older calculation methods used to account for the different global warming potentials of gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide don’t always fit when the climate pollutant is short-lived, as is the case with methane.
There are sources of methane and sinks of methane. As the turnover of methane in the atmosphere is fairly rapid due to its short life cycle, we can reduce the sources of methane and draw down atmospheric concentrations much quicker than in the case of carbon dioxide, which is longer-lived. Today, there is far more focus on the newer models for gas calculations, which should provide a more accurate picture.
Are there ways in which cattle farmers can reduce their carbon footprints?
Reducing methane, along with increasing soil carbon storage, are important levers that the cattle industry can pull in order to be part of the solutions to climate change.
There are many ways to achieve this, from increasing the genetic potential of animals to garner greater output from fewer inputs, to increasing the efficiency of converting feed into meat and milk. Anything that can be done to improve feeding, increase nutrient uptake by the animals, and reduce nutrient losses is important.
There has been much interest in new feed additives and biotechnologies that can reduce emissions directly from animals and their manure. Grazing management and extensive systems are crucial, not only to achieve carbon sequestration but to provide high-quality feed to animals and reduce their emissions.
Since more readily digestible foodstuffs tend to reduce methane emissions, feeding regimes play a major role in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
Why do you believe the cattle industry is already far more environmentally friendly than the world gives it credit for?
We have this wonderful ‘technology’ in cattle, which enables them to produce high-quality protein from human-inedible plants. Moreover, this ‘technology’ is solar-powered and can harvest these plants without burning fossil fuels. It also produces high-quality organic fertilisers, and the technology can self-replicate!
I think the cattle industry has missed an opportunity to position itself in a market
that is focused on environmentally friendly innovations to feed the world’s growing population.
People don’t always realise the full power of ruminants and how amazing these animals really are. They’re remarkable at processing fibre and at converting cellulose
(the most abundant organic compound on the planet) into many useful products, from beef and milk to leather and even to heart valves for people. They are incredible creatures, and we should not lose sight of this in our discussions on sustainability.
Email Sara Place at [email protected].