It’s been well reported that plant-based diets are better for the environment, because growing plants produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than raising livestock, as well as requiring less water and land use overall. But all the research out there can be a bit confusing—such as, for example, a recently published white paper that lauds the minimal environmental impact of U.S. beef, published by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The white paper outlines the “minimal environmental footprint of beef production in the U.S.,” citing all the ways the U.S. produces beef sustainably and is continuing to make improvements when it comes to environmental impact.
It’s a scary time for those in the animal-product industry. Dean Foods, the largest U.S. milk producer, just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, blaming declines in consumer milk production. Surveys show people are eating less meat and instead might be reaching for popular plant-based offerings like Impossible and Beyond. It’s also a scary time for all of us who live on this planet, which is in the midst of what experts are calling a definitive climate emergency. As more and more experts encourage people to curb their meat consumption for the planet’s benefit, it seems the beef industry is trying to counteract that narrative with its own reports of its sustainability efforts.
Of course, the meat and dairy industries are going to share their own perspectives through self-funded research and white papers, notes Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton and senior fellow at World Resources Institute (WRI). Searchinger recently authored an extensive report on how to create a sustainable food future. While reports from industry associations may contain real facts, they also tend to include a few things worth some skepticism. Searchinger broke down some of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s highlights to put it all in context and give us the broader picture of how sustainable beef can really be.
Beef says: Carbon emission calculations are wrong
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says they get a bad rap because of how global statistics on greenhouse gas emissions get mistaken for U.S.-specific stats, and how beef emissions are muddled with that of all livestock. “Globally, life cycle emissions from livestock production (emissions from feed production to consumer) are 14.5% of GHG emissions,” per the white paper. Global beef life cycle emissions are 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, they add, and for the U.S. specifically, they say, citing the EPA, just 3.3% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from beef cattle, in the form of feed production, fuel and electricity use, and methane and nitrous oxide emitted by cow burps and manure.
But Searchinger says this isn’t accurate, because this number doesn’t take into account the land set aside for cattle farming. That means the beef industry is ignoring the emissions that are a result of converting land to use for livestock—both the energy it takes to convert that land and the fact that farmland doesn’t absorb as much CO2 from our atmosphere as the forests that it replaced. “About a third of the carbon in our atmosphere is there because of the conversion of land to agriculture,” says Searchinger. “In order to produce all of this beef, we’ve had to clear a huge amount of forest, which is true even in the U.S.”
Though the beef industry may say that doesn’t really matter since all that land has already been converted to agricultural use, that’s not the whole story either. “As global consumption [of beef] increases, we need to clear more land,” says Searchinger. Plus, it’s not like that land couldn’t go back to being forest, which would help absorb more CO2 from the air. “We cleared all this land, and people say, ‘Well, forget about it,’ but every acre of land we’re doing this to could be an acre that’s reforested,” he adds. “When agriculture contracts, forests regrow.” Taking land into account, WRI calculated that beef production was responsible for about 15% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse emissions.
Beef says: But we’re not as bad as transportation
Big Beef points the finger at transportation, saying that it’s not as bad as all the planes, trains, and automobiles that emit greenhouse gases. “To put U.S. beef production further into perspective, all of agriculture, including beef cattle and other animal and crop agriculture, accounts for 8.4 percent of U.S. GHG emissions,” writes the Cattlemen’s Association. “Comparatively, transportation accounts for 28 percent of GHG emissions in the U.S.” But this comparison doesn’t really make sense, for a few reasons. It’s not like Americans are choosing between eating a burger or driving around. Also, these calculations once again ignore the environmental impact of land use for agriculture. And in the end, it’s just a “silly” argument, says Searchinger, because it doesn’t really matter: Both are responsible for a lot of environmental damage.
“They obviously don’t want the message to be that people should eat less beef, but it’s like anything else,” he says. “We want the world’s cars to be more efficient . . . but that doesn’t mean we want people to drive more.” Overall, people have been eating less beef; the average American eats about a third less beef now than they did in the 1970s, dropping from nearly 80 pounds per capita to 57 pounds, according to 2017 data. But the thing is, total beef consumption on a population level has basically stayed the same, and that’s because our population has grown. “So if it weren’t for the fact that people are consuming less beef, we’d have to clear a lot more land,” says Searchinger. “It’s clearly had a big effect that people have [been eating less].”
Beef says: Compared to other countries, U.S. beef is the most efficient
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says U.S.-grown beef is more sustainable than beef from other countries—”The U.S. has one of the lowest beef GHG emissions intensities: 10–50 times lower than other parts of the world,” they write—and this one is actually true, but it comes with a pretty big caveat. “The bottom line is that beef is inherently a very inefficient food,” Searchinger says. “There are huge environmental implications involved in producing beef. That’s true wherever it’s produced.” The crux of why, he notes, is because it takes about 50 to 100 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of beef, meaning lots of land set aside for cattle, which is less land for forests that can sequester CO2.
One thing the U.S. does do well is maximize production: “The U.S. produces around 18% of the world’s beef with 8% of the world’s cattle herd,” according to the Cattlemen’s Association, thanks to refined genetics and nutrition advancements. “Fewer cattle required for a given amount of beef produced means fewer GHG emissions and fewer natural resources required to produce human nourishment.” It means we get more burgers out of less land, and less land for agriculture is a positive.
Though the Cattlemen’s Association says that “cattle can convert plants with little to no nutritional value often found on these lands into a high-quality protein,” that’s only taking into account the grass intentionally planted on that land for cattle to graze, as if that’s the only option. American cows aren’t just fed grass that humans can’t eat; they’re fed grain, and if we took all that grain given to U.S. livestock (beyond just beef), it could feed nearly 800 million people. “We use less land per kilogram of beef, but we’re still providing it through corn, which is edible by people,” says Searchinger.
Beef says: We’re always getting more sustainable
Finally, the beef industry promises it’s getting better and more efficient every year—making advancements in everything from grazing land management and methane-inhibitors to water recycling technology and manure composting, which it says are “just a few of the examples of new technologies being deployed and tested that will further enhance the sustainability of U.S. beef production.” But that might not really matter. Even with large gains in the meat industry, WRI projects that emissions from the industry will rise, and that’s because our population will continue to grow. Overall, says Searchinger, we need to eat less beef, and that’s most true for Americans. “Most of the world eats staggeringly little meat and dairy. If everyone in the world ate the same amount of beef we do in the U.S., we’d need another planet,” he says.
WRI thinks the average American should eat closer to the equivalent of a hamburger and a half a week, instead of the current three-hamburger-per-week average consumption. But as they say, less is always more.