or quite some time, the population has been told that cutting meat out of their diets is the best thing they can do for the environment. For those who are lovers of brisket and rib-eye, they may somewhat illogically refuse to believe it—telling themselves, Veganism is simply not for me.
Instead of ditching meat entirely, some have been intrigued to figure out what the most sustainable options are for those who want to eat beef but still be mindful of the environment. So what, if any, are the best solutions to have access to? Is it organic, hormone-free, grass-fed livestock? Is it something completely untapped, or are people destined to be eating Beyond Meat burgers for the rest of our lives?
To understand how to make more sustainable choices, one would need to understand the factors that could make beef more or less sustainable.
Let’s begin with methane and CO2 emissions. Cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas, through their digestive process. And they produce a lot of it. Emissions from cattle account for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world. CO2 is also a factor to consider: it comes from production of the corn and soy that most cows are fed and the transport of the beef to its final destination, since the majority of beef is not raised or processed locally to where it is eaten.
Producing beef also consumes a tremendous amount of water - approximately 1800 gallons per pound. This number includes the cow’s drinking water, producing the feed and supporting the land the cow is living on, processing the meat, and so on. Now, of course the planet is a closed system and that water is not disappearing forever, but there is a financial and environmental cost to that water being consumed so intensely and in such large amounts. Factor in the deforestation and soil degradation that beef production is responsible for and the evidence shows that it is an unquestionably, highly inefficient way to produce calories.
When it comes to finding more sustainable food(s), buying organic has almost always been the gold standard, particularly because it is the most straightforward concept for consumers to wrap their heads around and support. Organic, at its base level, means that a product was produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, sprays, or other materials. For beef to be considered organic, it has to be grown under a lengthy set of restrictions far too long to list entirely, but most prominently: free of hormones and antibiotics, raised under organic management for the last third of its life, only fed organic feed, and their manure has to be managed so as not to contaminate other crops on the farm. Further research shows that organic and conventional beef have roughly the same carbon footprint, mostly due to the releasing of methane, which happens regardless of the method with which the cattle are raised. So organic is, in almost all cases, a better way to go, if for no other reason than the reduction in harmful chemicals being used in the process, but it is by no means a perfect solution.
When starting to research, one's initial belief may be that grass-fed beef would be the answer, — and then mere minutes of research would disabuse that notion. As it turns out, and due to a regulatory change in the US in 2016, the bar for using the term "grass-fed" is, in the case of large farms, exceedingly low, such that grass fed or grass-finished (corn fed but switched to grass for the last weeks before slaughter) garners the same designation. Problematically, not only does grass fed beef actually create more methane due to the slower maturation and therefore longer lifespan of the cows, but it also takes up more land to produce the same amount of beef. Because these cows never get to the size of their grain-fed counterparts, it therefore also takes more methane-making cows to produce the same amount of meat.
However, the one major benefit of grass-fed beef is that grain-fed cows require a tremendous amount of energy to raise; growing a lot of calories is needed to feed your calories, and most of those grains are grown under the mass-manufactured, chemical and GMO-heavy conditions that are endemic throughout food supply chains. With grass-fed cows, in particular those grown on small farms where they graze in a pasture, the impact is much easier on the environment. And some researchers even believe that with the right techniques of pasture rotation, use of specific types of grass, and a more holistic approach, that grass-fed cattle could be raised in a carbon neutral way.
This idea, called regenerative farming, is probably the best hope for a future that includes both beef and a healthy planet.
It combines the concepts of grass-fed and organic, and goes several steps further to include considerations of environmental and soil health, the well-being of the animals, and social equity within the operations of the farm. This is the best change for cattle farming to achieve the three pillars of sustainability that any good system is built upon. It also goes back to some of the more old-school, small-scale farming ideologies that have been practiced for many generations, before large-scale commercial farming became the norm.
For those researching how to consume their favourite meat more sustainably can be depressing to say the least. So to hear of a way nature and cattle farming can co-exist is a tantalizing prospect that leads to the only reasonable answer to the initial question: eat less, eat better.
The goal of this piece was to provide sustainable solutions that were also accessible and affordable to all. And in a way, this answer does exactly that. While beef raised on a farm that practices regenerative agriculture will certainly be more expensive than what you might find in a grocery store, it should be. There is a cost to buying inexpensive beef, most of which we don’t see at the outset, but climate change is laying bare for us now, after years of excessive beef consumption. And in this time of limitless recipes available online and no shortage of protein sources available in the grocery store, buying less—but better—beef is an entirely reasonable suggestion to consider that will be more gentle on the environment and for one's wallet .
So, the next time a person is thinking of indulging in a ribeye, visiting the local butcher instead of a big box grocery store to learn just a little bit about the farm the beef came from is an eye-opening alternative. If the butcher can speak to the quality of the farmer and the farm, it's the right place.