Conventional beef production is associated with a significant carbon footprint. On average, beef production emits two to nine times the greenhouse gases (GHGs) of other animal products, and more than 50 times the GHGs of most plant-based foods per unit of protein.
Beef production is also associated with global deforestation and land degradation.
Despite growing awareness around the environmental impact of conventional livestock industries, global demand for beef is on an upwards trajectory. Assessing and implementing best practices for beef production is therefore necessary to help mitigate climate change, according to a team of researchers led by Colorado State University.
In fresh research published in Global Change Biology, the team aims to identify the ‘most successful’ beef managing strategies for reducing GHG emissions.
Progress possible, but net-zero requires innovation
According to the researchers, beef management strategies to reduce GHG emissions generally fall under two broad categories: increased efficiency to produce more beef per unit of GHG emitted, and enhanced land-based carbon sequestration to offset cattle GHG emissions.
Live cycle assessment (LCA) studies comparing total GHG emissions from at least these two management systems were analysed across Asia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Latin America, and the US.
Results indicated that across all management comparisons explored, 73% of studies found significant reductions in beef GHG emissions. This, noted the researchers, indicates that there is ‘broad potential’ for improving beef’s climate impact across regions and producers.
“Our analysis shows that we can improve the efficiency and sustainability of beef production, which would significantly reduce the industry’s climate impact,” said Colorado State University’s Daniela Cusack, who is also a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
However, achieving net-zero or negative emissions with these strategies is off the table. “We will never reach net-zero without further innovation and strategies beyond land management and increased growth efficiency,” she continued. “There’s a lot of room, globally, for improvement.”
Which management strategies work best?
The greatest reductions were observed in efforts to manage plants and soils explicitly for carbon sequestration on grazed lands. This was conducted via Integrated Field Management and Intensive Rotational Grazing.
Improving feed and supplements, as well as breed changes, also showed ‘significant opportunities’ for GHG reductions, noted the researchers. There was no significant difference in beef GHG emissions per unit of beef between non-organic and organic beef production.
Interestingly, the regional analysis suggested that some regions – such as Brazil – could improve efficiency and land-based carbon sequestration to ‘greatly offset’ beef GHG emissions. Indeed, the largest potential for reducing beef GHG emissions per unit of beef was found to be in Brazil, followed by the rest of Latin America.
“My home country of Brazil has more than 52 million hectares of degraded pastureland – larger than the state of California,” said Amanda Cordeiro, co-author and a graduate student at CSU.
“If we can aim for a large-scale regeneration of degraded pastures, implementation of silvo-agro-forestry systems and adoption of other diversified local management strategies to cattle production, Brazil can drastically decrease carbon emissions.”
In regions where growth efficiency is already nearly maximised, such as in the US, ‘the potential for further gains appears small’. However, Australia, Brazil, and Asia had significant reductions in beef GHG emissions in studies that implemented efficiency strategies, the investigators noted.
“Asia, for example, is one of the most rapidly growing beef markets, but there is an imbalance between the amount of research focus on improving beef production and the growing demand for beef,” said Cusack.
“We know with the right land management and efficiency strategies in place, it’s possible to have large reductions in emissions across geographic regions, but we need to keep pushing for additional innovations to create a truly transformational shift in the way the global beef system operates to ensure a secure food supply and a healthy environment.”
Given the unlikelihood that these strategies will be applied around the world to maximum effect, the researchers suggest beef management changes for increased efficiency and carbon sequestration be considered as complements to efforts to curtain the growing demand for beef. This, they continued, could help to achieve large-scale, sustainable reduction in food GHG emissions.
Source: Global Change Biology
‘Reducing climate impacts of beef production: A synthesis of life cycle assessments across management systems and global regions’
Published 3 March 2021
Authors: Daniela F. Cusack, Clare E. Kazanski, Alexandra Hedgpeth, Kenyon Chow, Amanda L. Cordeiro, Jason Karpman, Rebecca Ryals.