The food we eat has it’s own sustainability footprint.
In this guide, we’ve outlined some of the potential impact/footprint of producing Beef.
Summary – Impact/Footprint Of Beef
What is clear is that although beef is a staple in the American diet and the worldwide diet, and is a major part of the world economy in the agricultural sector, the sustainability of beef production is not great when looking at several different measurements
This is especially so when compared to other food products like plant based foods
Beef has one of the highest carbon footprints of all foods by weight (per kg) produced
Beef has one of the highest carbon footprints of all animal meats, alongside lamb
Chicken in comparison has a lower carbon footprint
In general, animal meats tend to have a higher carbon footprint than vegetarian foods
The animal feed fed to cattle contributes to roughly 99% of the water footprint of beef, with drinking water and servicing water only about 1%
According to one source – 29 percent of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products, and one-third of that water is used to raise beef cattle (news.thomasnet.com)
Substituting a beef burger for a soy burger might be one way to lower the water footprint of a meal
To produce one unit of protein, some sources indicate that beef and mutton by far use the highest average area of land. Vegetarian foods use far less land
Substituting beef for chicken could reduce the land footprint of a diet in the range of 10 to 15 fold according to some estimates
But, it’s important to confirm the types of protein being produced (whole proteins vs part proteins), and even the type of land being used (arable vs grazing)
Compared to fruit and vegetable, and plant based diets, animal meat such as beef requires resources in the form of animal feed, which is essentially growing food to produce more food
In terms of food waste – animal meats are wasted far less on average than perishable foods like fruits and vegetables. Some estimates put meat waste at 14 to 20%, and fruit and vegetables at anywhere from 30 to 50% (although some seafoods can have higher waste rates)
Pesticides and fertilizers can be used to grow animal feed
Veterinary drugs and heavy metals can sometimes be found in meat
Livestock can sometimes be directly dosed with chemicals to prevent pest infestation
Clearing of land and deforestation for beef farming/ranching is an environmental issue in some places
How long cattle are farmed before they are sent for slaughter is a big variable – some argue that grain fed cattle fatten up quicker, so have less time to burp, fart and excrete manure – all factors in releasing greenhouse gases
Some sources indicate that the efficiency of converting grain into meat is the worst for beef, and the best for chickens and pigs. The quality and type of feed matters too though – poor quality hay and dry matter needs to be consumed in higher quantities than farmed grains
Cattle account for 77% of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock for 59m tonnes of beef each year. Pork and poultry produce 10% of the greenhouse gases, but 215m tonnes of meat (economist.com)
There are several potential animal cruelty and animal housing concerns related to beef farming
Beef and rice are the two leading agricultural products in the world – they play an important role in the world economy in terms of income, employment, and so on
Other potential environmental impacts of beef farming are overgrazing, soil and land degradation, water and air pollution, waste pollution, and more
*There’s different types of beef, and the the production system from which the beef is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed can impact the footprint of the beef. Another example is grass fed vs grain fed beef. The global production systems and footprints vary worldwide. What all of this means is that not all beef products have the same footprint – how they are produced matters.
Carbon/Energy Footprint Of Beef
Beef has a higher carbon footprint than either chicken or pork per kilo of protein produced.
- To produce one kilo of beef, including all the emissions produced on the farm, in the factory, on the road, in the shop and in your home – there is 27 C02 kilos equivalent produced, which is about the same as driving 63 miles.
– From Greeneatz.com, with figures by the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide and the EPA’s Guide to Passenger Vehicle Emissions.
- It takes the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef
- Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy
- Beef has 6.61 lbs of CO2 footprint per serving
- A close second to lamb, beef production releases the equivalent of driving about 6 ½ miles in your car for every four oz. consumed.
- The amounts of greenhouse gases associated with the production of a kilo of protein by different animals:
- 3.7kg for chicken
- 24kg for pork
- Up to 1,000kg for cattle/beef
- The lower, more efficient ratios for chicken and pigs come about because they are kept in factory farms.
- Factory farming is good for the planet, if not for the animals.
- [Cattle fed on] traditional pastoralism [in some places in the world produce more greenhouse gas emissions because th fed quality is so low and so inefficient]
- Cattle on dry rangelands produce 100 times as much greenhouse gases as cattle in America or Europe for the same amount of protein.
- Cattle account for 77% of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock for 59m tonnes of beef each year.
- Pork and poultry produce 10% of the greenhouse gases, but 215m tonnes of meat.
How Much Water It Takes To Produce Beef
It depends on if you’re talking per kg, per pound, or per unit of protein.
Animal feed makes up about 99% of water requirements for beef.
You’d have to question how much water a grass fed beef uses, if the grass they eat is mainly rainfed grass.
- 15 400 litres of water for 1 kilo of beef (including the water it takes to grow the cattle feed)
- 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef
- It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of feedlot beef
- Beef Meat- 15,415 litres per 1kg
- The global average water footprint for different meats:
- Chicken – 4330 litre/kg
- Beef cattle – 15400 litre/kg
- Sheep – 10400 litre/kg
- Pig – 6000 litre/kg
- Goat – 5500 litre/kg
- The water footprint related to the animal feed takes by far the largest share (99%) in the total water footprint of beef. Drinking and service water contribute only 1% toward the total water footprint.
- One piece of beef can be very different from another piece. The precise water footprint of beef strongly depends on the production system from which the beef is derived (grazing, mixed or industrial), the composition of the feed and the origin of the feed.
- Due to the large feed conversion efficiency, beef from industrial systems generally has a lower total water footprint than beef from mixed or grazing systems.
- One Beef Steak (8oz) – 3496 litres of water
- 1lb of Beef – 1857 gallons of water
- The production of one kilogramme of beef requires approximately 15 thousand litres of water (93% green, 4% blue, 3% grey water footprint). There is a huge variation around this global average.
- The precise footprint of a piece of beef depends on factors such as the type of production system and the composition and origin of the feed of the cow.
- The water footprint of a 150-gramme soy burger produced in the Netherlands is about 160 litres. A beef burger from the same country costs on average about 1000 litres.
- 29 percent of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products.
- One-third of that water is used to raise beef cattle.
- Different countries might use a different amount of water to grow and produce different foods. You can see this at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_water
- The average virtual water content of beef in the USA in m3/ton is 13,193 m3/tons of virtual water
- In an industrial beef production system it takes on average three years before the animal is slaughtered to produce about 200 kilos of boneless beef.
- During the three years the cow consumes nearly 1300 kg of grains such as wheat, oats, barley, corn, dry peas, and other small grains. The cow also consumes 7200 kg of roughages such as pasture, dry hay, silage, and other roughages. The production of all the grains and roughages requires 3060000 litres of water.
- The cow also drinks 24000 litres of water in the three years.
- It takes about 7000 litres for servicing the farmhouse and for slaughtering processes.
- In total, we need 3091000 litres of water for producing 200 kilos of boneless beef.
- This means that to produce 1 kilogram of boneless beef we need 15 400 litres of water.
How Much Land It Takes To Produce Beef
There’s various ways to measure land use.
What we know is that per gram of protein produced, beef uses more land than most other meats except lamb.
- 250 Pounds of edible beef product can be produced on an acre of prime land
- It takes 35 pounds of topsoil to produce one pound of feedlot beef
- The more beef we eat, the higher our land use requirement
- Countries with low land requirements have very low levels of beef consumption
- Even relative to other meat products, the land requirements of beef and mutton can be a magnitude higher per gram of protein.
- Therefore, even substituting beef with chicken would reduce the land footprint of your dietary meat source 10 to 15-fold.
The average area of land for one unit of protein of each food type is:
- Beef/Mutton – 1.02m²
- Pork – 0.13m²
- Fresh Produce – 0.1m²
- Poultry – 0.08m²
- Eggs – 0.05m²
- Dairy – 0.04m²
- Wheat – 0.04m²
- Rice – 0.02m²
- Maize – 0.01m²
- Pulses – 0.01m²
- Per calorie, cattle requires on average 28 times more land and 11 times more water to farm.
- So, a beef calorie requires about 50 times more land than a wheat calorie.
How Much Feed & Resources Does It Take To Produce Beef
The data below is just for feed. It doesn’t include resources like agricultural chemicals.
- In an industrial beef production system it takes on average three years before the animal is slaughtered to produce about 200 kilos of boneless beef.
- During the three years the cow consumes nearly 1300 kg of grains such as wheat, oats, barley, corn, dry peas, and other small grains.
- The cow also consumes 7200 kg of roughages such as pasture, dry hay, silage, and other roughages.
- 14% of all cattle are fed back to cattle as part of protein-fortified feed
- 12-16 pounds of grain and soy are needed to produce one pound of grain-fed beef
How Much Beef Do We Waste As A Food Product
Wasted food essentially equals wasted water, land, energy, resources and all other things that goes into making that food
About 14 to 20% of meat food products are wasted.
- Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy, and 35% for fish.
- Of 22 food groups studied, fruits, vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes (39 percent of total) were wasted most — followed by dairy (17 percent), and meat and mixed meat dishes (14 percent).
- Meat and mixed meat dishes accounts for around 14% of all food waste, compared to Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounting for 39%
- Globally, 20% of produced meat is wasted.
- Wasting meat is particularly troublesome because it is the most resource-intensive of foods. Not only is a lot of water and land thrown away with the meat, but also the life of an animal.
Pesticide & Fertiliser, & Chemicals Used To Produce Beef
Agricultural chemicals can be used for both:
- The feed grown for cattle
- And, on the animals themselves to prevent pest infestations and diseases
There’s also veterinary drugs and potentially hormones to consider.
- [Livestock like cattle can be treated with pesticides to prevent infestation or disease]
- Pesticide residues are found in meat and animal byproducts
- Veterinary drugs and heavy metals can also be found in meat
- The Environmental Working Group estimates that … 167 million pounds of pesticides are used each year just to grow food for animals in the United States.
- For glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in the world, residues allowed in animal feed can be more than 100 times that allowed on grains consumed directly by humans, and the amount of glyphosate allowed in red meat is more than 20 times that for most plant crops.
- Applying fertilizers to hay and pasture fields to stimulate plant growth is a common practice to substantially increase forage yields
Pollution, & The Environmental & Wildlife Impact Of Producing Beef
Some of the environmental issues related to beef farming might be:
- Land and soil degradation
- Greenhouse gas emissions
- Fertilizer (reactive nitrogen) and manure run-off – leading to water pollution
- Waste pollution
- 5 million acres of rainforest are felled every year in South and Central America to create cattle pasture [and] cattle ranching has destroyed more Central American rainforest than any other activity
- 70% of cleared forests in Panama and Costa Rica are now in pasture
Overall Environmental Impact
- You can calculate the environmental costs of cattle farming per nutritional unit, calorie or gram protein
- Raising beef cattle is far more environmentally costly than poultry, pork, dairy or eggs.
- Farming cattle releases five times more greenhouse gases and uses six times as much nitrogen as the average of other animal products.
- When compared with staple plant foods, these ratios roughly double.
- By comparison, pork, poultry and eggs are all roughly on the same level of environmental cost.
- In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and the levels of nitrogen discharge from fertiliser run-off or manure, dairy is comparable to pork, poultry and eggs.
- Reactive nitrogen is environmentally important because it is the most common cause of degradation in freshwater ponds, streams and lakes, and around coastlines where fertiliser run-off washed into rivers reaches the sea.
Calories, Proteins & Efficiency Of Beef Production
Some people argue that grain feedlots fatten up livestock quicker, and so this is more environmentally friendly because animals don’t live as long to burp, fart and excrete manure – all of which emits greenhouse gases like methane
Time spent on the farm before slaughter is a variable in efficiency, and so is the type of feed and feeding method (as well as the quality of the feed).
Generally though, beef can be some of the most inefficient livestock.
- Efficiency in livestock varies hugely.
- Chickens and pigs convert grain into meat at rates of two or three to one (ie, it takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken).
- The ratio for lamb is between four and over six to one
- Beef starts at five to one and goes as high as 20 to one.
- A cow in America or Europe will need to eat somewhere between 75kg and 300kg of hay and other dry matter for each kilo of protein.
- In most of Africa, it will need 500kg or more.
- On the dry rangelands of east Africa—in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia—the figure is up to 2,000kg, because the land is so poor.
- In these places, switching from traditional pastoralism to feeding cattle with grain would dramatically improve efficiency.
- The meat yield per cattle has increased by approximately one-third since 1961
- The efficiency with which various animals convert grain into protein varies widely.
- With cattle in feedlots, it takes roughly 7 kilograms of grain to produce a 1-kilogram gain in live weight.
- For pork, the figure is close to 4 kilograms of grain per kilogram of weight gain,
- For poultry it is just over 2
- And for herbivorous species of farmed fish (such as carp, tilapia, and catfish), it is less than 2.
- Cattle that are grass or hay fed might convert at different rates i.e. the type of food an animal eats affects how quickly they put on live weight (extra kilograms)
Potential Animal Cruelty Issues Related To Beef Production
Some of the potential animal cruelty issues might include:
- Ear tagging
- Nose ringing
- Tail docking
- Tongue resection (calves)
- High stocking density (feedlots)
- Restricted movement (feedlots)
- Veal crates
Value Of The Beef Industry To The Economy
Beef is a major part of the agricultural industry, and is worth a lot to the economy, as well as providing a lot of jobs.
- Beef and rice are the two leading agricultural products in the world.
- The global value of cattle meat in 2012 was $336 billion US dollars
In the United States…
- 2016 Forecasted Economic impact: $67.56 billion in farm cash receipts for cattle and calves
In Australia in 2018…
- Gross value of cattle and calf production per year: $16.8 billion
- Amount of beef and veal produced each year: 2.5 million tonnes
- Beef industry accounts for 55 per cent of all farms with agricultural activity
- Australians eat on average 26kg of beef per person per year
- Australians spend $8.5 billion on beef per year
Why Beef Production Is Important To Society & Our Diets
Beef farming can have an impact on the environment, but the environment can also have an impact on beef farming.
Additionally, there’s the social and economic value of beef farming.
- The effects of climate change, water and land shortage, and rising population will all impact agriculture into the future, and agriculture is so important to food security and employment as well.
- Putting these issues together with the other impacts and factors of beef farming, and it becomes clear why we need to make a decision on what the best beef production practices are going forward
The Asterisk On Reporting Beef Production Data
There are may variables in the final beef product.
Not all beef products are the same or have the same footprint.
How beef is farmed and processed, and where it is farmed and processed matters:
- Agricultural practices differ state to state, farm to farm and country to country
- When agricultural practices differ, the impact of those practices is going to differ – some impact is going to be mostly positive, whilst other impact is going to be mostly negative
- This is why looking at one set of data or the wrong set of data must be misleading
- If you want the most accurate data and to know exactly what you are look at – you have to look at it on a level of a singular farm, and ask how the cattle are farmed exactly, and what goes into each stat
- Some producers may put profit as their first and only priority, whilst other producers may consider the environment, sustainability, efficient resource usage, the health and well being of animals, and other factors. Some producers use different methods and processes than others.
- For example…
- Grain fed cattle are raised much differently to grass fed
- Feedlot and factory farm farming is different to open grazing (some farms do both, and how long the animal spends in each impacts total input/resources given to the animal)
- The US beef production system is much different to the Australian beef production system. For example, you can get an idea of the Australian beef system here: https://sustainabletable.org.au/all-things-ethical-eating/beef/
- Developing countries face much different challenges to developed countries
- When considering a stat like how much water a cattle uses – a cattle drinks water, but water also goes into growing the feed it eats – you need to know which water stat you’re looking at
- Different countries have different amounts and types of land (grazing vs crop land) to use
- Different countries have different amounts of water reserves to use
- 1 gram or 1 kilogram of food (if comparing meat vs another meat or meat vs vegetables for example) is not the same – one meat might produce more calories or a complete protein vs for example a vegetable with less calories and an incomplete protein for 1kg
- Different technology presents advances in efficiency with resources and input provided to farm animals
…all of these variables are going to have different impacts and are going to provide different considerations for the best and most sustainable farming practice going forward.
These figures and this information is of a general nature and not reflective of all agricultural producers.
Further exclamation of this point:
- Data used in agricultural reporting is from individual farms, typically one or at most a handful.
- But farms differ markedly geographically, from season to season and year to year, and are thus not necessarily representative of the big picture.
- For example, Grazing cattle in the arid to semi-arid western US uses an enormous amount of land, but little or no irrigation.
- Grain-fed feedlot cattle, by contrast, use much less land, but require cultivated grains that depend strongly on nitrogen fertiliser.
- How these cattle are farmed makes a big difference on the impact they each have
Other Stats On The Production Of Livestock As A Whole
- Livestock accounts for between 8% and 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions, depending on how you account for changes in land use (when the Amazon is cut down for pasture, carbon emissions rise).
- Livestock uses a third of all available fresh water in most countries.
- Livestock uses water inefficiently: you need about 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef but only 1,250 litres for a kilo of maize or wheat.
- About 50% of the habitable land on earth is being used for agriculture
- Of that, about 77% is used for livestock, and 23% for crops
- The world gets about 17% of their caloric supply, and 33% of their protein supply, from this livestock farmed land
- One-half of the Earth’s land mass is grazed by livestock
- As a comparison, only 2% of US cropland produces fruits and vegetables
- Livestock matters because it is the biggest land user in the world. More land is given over to grazing animals than for any other single purpose.
- Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people.
- Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses.
- In the United States, just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California.
- By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.
- To feed just one omnivorous human requires more than three acres of land while it takes one-sixth of an acre for a vegan.
- The earth has about 7.68 billion acres of arable land
- By 2050, we are expected to have around 9 billion people on earth
- Taking into account the types of agricultural land available, how many calories and proteins we can produce – these are some of the maths we have to consider in the future for sustainable agriculture and farming to support the world’s people
Feed & Resource Use
- About a third of the world’s crops are fed to livestock animals
- 70% of US grain production is fed to livestock
- 64% of US cropland produces livestock feed
- About one third of the world’s commercial fish catch is fed to livestock through fishmeal and fish oil
Resources used in the production of livestock:
- 33% of world’s fish catch
- 38% of the world’s grain harvest
- 50% of all the water used in the US
- 60% of Brazil’s grain harvest
- 70% of US grain harvest
- 80% of US corn harvest
Almost half of all energy expended in US agriculture
Approximately 8 million pounds of poultry manure are fed annually to California’s beef cattle
50% of all the antibiotics used in the US are fed to animals, and 80% of them are used to promote growth, not to treat disease
12-16 pounds of grain and soy are needed to produce one pound of grain-fed beef
$3.7 billion subsidized animal feed grains in 1995. They are the US’s most heavily subsidized crop
- A new study has found that out of the 20 million tons of fish caught by commercial industries a year for purposes other than eating, about 90 percent are, in fact, food grade.
- While this might not seem incredibly shocking at face-value, when you learn that these perfectly edible fish are being turned into fishmeal and fish oil, which is primarily used to feed farmed fish or factory farmed animals, such as pigs, and chickens, you’re likely to start scratching your head.
- Because of over-consumption of fish, all 17 of the world’s major fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits.
- One-third of the world’s fish catch is fed directly to livestock.
- Roughly 20% of all currently threatened and endangered species in the US are harmed by livestock grazing.
- At least 100 animals are added to the endangered species list each year
- More than 60% of the world’s rangelands were damaged by overgrazing during the past half century
- As much as 85% of rangeland in the western US is being degraded by overgrazing
- Overgrazing is by far the most pervasive cause of desertification
- 35 pounds of topsoil are lost in the production of one pound of grain-fed beef
- Between 19 and 22% of all threatened and endangered species are harmed by livestock grazing
- Roughly a fifth of all the world’s pasture has been degraded by overgrazing.
- Manure produced by all farm animals in the US annually is roughly 10 times the waste produced by the human population
- Factory farms are the biggest contributors to polluted rivers and streams in the US
- 1,785 water bodies were impaired by feedlot pollution in 39 states in 1993
- About 60,000 miles of streams in the US have fisheries impaired by feedlot pollution
- Animal agriculture is a chief contributor to water pollution. America’s farm animals produce 10 times the waste produced by the human population.
- Meat, poultry and dairy products contain the major source of pesticide residues in the western diet
- 95% of human exposure to the potent carcinogen dioxin comes from consuming meat, poultry and dairy
- Something like 1.3 billion people depend in some way on raising animals
- The business of raising livestock accounts for a third of global agricultural GDP
Calories, Proteins & Efficiency Of Producing Livestock
- Animals provide a third of the protein in peoples’ diets
- Meat is an inefficient source of calories. It accounts for 17% of global calorific intake, but uses twice that amount of land, water and feed.
- There is an enormous spread of efficiency throughout livestock farming, not just between different animals.
- Milk is far more efficient than meat: it takes five times as much feed to produce protein in the form of meat than in milk.
- Milk is more efficient as a source of protein than meat as well
Health & Disease
- Animals form a significant reservoir of diseases that affect humans; avian flu, the best known example, is far from an isolated case: 60% of human diseases are shared with animals and three quarters of new infectious diseases of people were first found in animals.
- Livestock species contribute directly and indirectly to deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gases, global warming, desertification, erosion and human obesity, and virtually anywhere you go in the world, the damage done by ruminants, pigs and poultry, and those who grow feed crops for them, is visible on the land.
- There are also biodiversity issues caused by livestock
You can see general stats on livestock production at: