Perceptions of Grass-Fed and Natural Beef Industry's Sustainability called into Question, According to Study
By Julia Bridgforth
“I am a choice-atarian,” Chris Sullivan stated as he sliced the Albacore tuna fillet that we had just pulled off the hand line. As the Head Chef on the SSV Robert C. Seaman’s, Chris, the resident hippy onboard, thinks about food stability and sourcing frequently, especially as he provisions in foreign countries. They galley was dancing back and forth with the waves as I watched his expert knife skills slash the pink and blue muscle of the animal that was flapping around just ten minutes earlier. The pots and pans made a song without rhythm as they clashed together and the cilantro that had been stored for four weeks, since our last port stop, flew to opposing sides of the cutting board. Chris lives a particular diet which is sensitive to animals rights and environmental concerns. “I prefer local, grass fed meat without added hormones.” Such is the perception of today’s consumers about the sustainability of varying beef production methods. In the trending world of farmer’s market outings and locally sourced, grass fed meat, the perception of natural (hormone free) and grass-fed beef is one of sustainability and forward thinking, however, a new study might make us take a second though before we Instagram a picture of that trending grass-fed burger with the caption “#sustainable”.
Especially with environmental concerns and a heavily growing population, the conventional bovine industry is constantly under scrutiny for its questionable animal welfare, human health, and environmental impacts. The global population is predicted to increase to 9.5 billion people by the year 2050. The bulk of the growth will occur in India, China and Africa, which also have rising per capita income. With more wealth comes an increased appetite for higher quality animal proteins which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), will require a 70% increase in food production in order to sustain the growing population’s demand. The environmental impacts of an increased production includes the growing scarcity of water and land, and the industry’s carbon footprint.
A study conducted by Judith L. Capper, compared the environmental impact of conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production systems. Conventional production is the intensive system that PETA loves to hate. Picture cows in small pins, getting shot with growth hormones. “Natural” is defined in the study as free of growth-enhancing technology (GET), which means that the animal conditions do not have to be improved, but the cows are no longer receiving steroid doses. The grass-fed system means that the cows have a foraging-based diet rather than grains and corn, basically “free-range cows”. The study used a deterministic model in order to calculate the sustainability of certain sub-systems such as: animal longevity, feeding systems, and the overall carbon footprint. Capper primarily utilized the AMTS Cattle Pro computer software to create models of growth rates and dietary supply. The results were counter-intuitive to today’s mindset about meat production.
When comparing animal systems of raising and slaughter, productivity is the largest driver of environmental impact in order to fulfill the consumer’s demand for beef. In the conventional system, the average cow would be slaughtered at a weight of 569 kg at 464 days old. Natural cows are 519 kg and 464 days old, while grass-fed cows are 486 kg and 679 days old. Slaughter weight in congruent with the number of cows necessary, which means that heavier cows reduces the number of cows that are bred for hamburgers. To put the meat to cow ratio in number perspectives: in order to produce 1 million kg of beef, the conventional system needs 7 million cows, natural production requires 8.25 million cows (17% increase), and grass-fed farms has to feed and slaughter 12.5 million cows (77.5% increase). *It should be noted that the study is based on computed models, and that individual farms may vary.
“Grass-fed beef would be environmentally advantageous if competition for food/feed crop a defining criteria, however, the quantity of land required for differing production systems must be taken into consideration.”
In the debate about animal feed, the issue of land use is a primary concern. With a growing population, there will be a increased demand for land used for things like industry, recreation and urban sprawl. Capper states in the article, “Efficient land use is crucial for agricultural sustainability.” Therefore the conventional system seems the most sustainable of the three as the natural system requires 22.4% more land while grass-fed farms need 80.8% more land. However, there is another debate which raises the question of using grains and legumes for animal feed when they could be directly used to feed humans. There is an approximate 1 kg of meat gained from 30 kg of feed, and so as the population increases questions regarding the efficiency of the system are likely to stir. Capper puts both into perspective by saying, “Grass-fed beef would be environmentally advantageous if competition for food/feed crop a defining criteria, however, the quantity of land required for differing production systems must be taken into consideration.”
Within both animal and crop production, water use is a major environmental concern. Between agricultural, industrial and urban needs, water is being sucked from aquifers faster than the falling rain can fill them. It is thought to be the primary limiting factor in terms of agriculture production. Since a certain amount of water must be partitioned out for each animal, the conventional system again would be the most effective in terms of reducing water use since there are fewer animals needed. Natural systems use an average of 17.9% more water than the conventional while grass-fed farms use 302% more of the dwindling resource. The grass-fed model is run under the assumption that about half of the pastures used for the cows are irrigated. It decreases dramatically when the model reduces field irrigation, however, at the threshold of 9.7% of pastoral irrigation, the grass-fed system becomes less environmentally-desirable than conventional.
“The grass-fed system had a carbon footprint with an increase of 67.5% compared to the conventional system and would be the equivalent to adding 25 million cars to the road on an annual basis.”
The carbon footprint of the beef industry is highly debated and is often mis-represented in the media. The more intensive production of beef, the less carbon emissions, as demonstrated by the 17.4% increase for natural and 67.5% for grass-fed. “The grass-fed system had a carbon footprint with an increase of 67.5% compared to the conventional system and would be the equivalent to adding 25 million cars to the road on an annual basis based on an average mileage and carbon emissions per mid-sized automobile from US EPA,” Capper states in her article. Although feed and animal transport are thought to be major contributors of the industry’s carbon footprint, but in all of the systems it provides for less than 1% of the system’s impact.
Although the conventional system appears to be the most sustainable option, there are still a plethora of problems within the industry past efficiency. It is time to acknowledge that the trending grass-fed production system is not as environmental sound as it projects, and make the choice to evade all meat, not certain kinds of meat. None of these systems are preferable for the world’s growing population, and the time to consider a full shift away from the beef industry and towards a better solution.
Cited: “Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems” by Judith L. Capper