For the non-vegans and vegetarians among us, myself included, meat is a delicious protein source and a flavorful element of many recipes. But, the commercial production of meat is also a major source of carbon emissions; nearly 17% of carbon emissions are estimated to come from raising commercial livestock. Beef and lamb are by far the largest largest sources; a 2014 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggested that raising cattle produces 10 times the carbon emissions of other livestock, such as poultry or pork.
The research is very clear: decreasing your meat consumption will decrease the carbon footprint of your diet. But is there any eco-friendly way to eat a hamburger? Are there any cattle-raising methods that reduce the carbon footprint of cows? Can eating that locally raised, grass-fed beef that is so heavily advertised at natural markets let you cleanse your conscience while you enjoy that juicy burger?
In short: not really.
But, the long version of the answer is interesting, so I’m going to give the lengthier answer too. The life cycle of a cow being raised for meat can be divided into three phases: the calf-cow phase, where a calf grows and is being nursed by its mother, until it is weaned at the age of 6-10 months, the growth phase and feedlot finishing. For both conventionally raised and grass fed cattle, the first two stages usually take place in a pasture, where the animals graze and are fed minimal grain (although there is some variation in specifics of the second phase). Conventionally raised cattle are fed grain and kept at a feedlot (which is an area with a high density of cattle where the animals are housed and fed grain) during the finishing phase, usually the three months before slaughter. Grass fed cattle, which currently comprise only 3% of cattle produced in the US, are finished in a pasture. This process takes significantly longer than feedlot finishing, in which the cows are slaughtered at 20-28 months of age.
There are a number of reasons to prefer grass fed beef over conventional beef; the meat tends to be more nutritious for human consumption, the animals are healthier and require fewer drugs to stay that way and the meat is tastier. But, the environmental benefits are less clear, and are highly dependent on the specific grazing approaches taken by ranchers.
One study published in 2012 found that conventionally raised beef actually produced lower greenhouse gas emissions than grass fed beef due to the increased productivity of meat production in the feedlots. Another study, published in 2018, suggested that the use of a specific grazing technique, called adaptive multi-paddock grazing, could help reduce carbon emissions from cattle raising. The technique, in which a high density of cattle are grazed in a pasture at intervals that allow vegetation recovery, could promote carbon sequestration and help balance out carbon emissions. The net effect of the carbon sequestration from the growth of the vegetation reduces the emissions of the cattle growth by about about half. Both of these studies, however, are controversial and don’t refute the fundamental fact that beef consumption is carbon intensive.
The Food Climate Research Network has assessed a large body of research and reached the same conclusions: any way you slice it, raising cattle, whether conventionally or on pastures, is going to generate a lot of carbon emissions. (The FCRN website has a lot of really interesting resources about all kinds food production- I recommend checking it out if you’re interested!)
This research was eye opening for me, and has made me more motivated to cut back on my meat consumption in general, and especially on beef consumption. To keep it simple, my plan is to note each week how many meals I eat that are: vegan, vegetarian, non-vegetarian or beef/lamb. Out of 21 meals in a week, I’ll aim to eat beef once per week or less, eat other meat at only 3 meals per week, and try eating vegan for 5 meals per week (I love cheese, so this will be a challenge). Here’s what my notebook page looks like (after only two meals…):
This feels like a sustainable eating pattern for me given my current lifestyle (but does represent a reduction in my current meat eating level- I think I usually eat about 14 out of 21 meals vegetarian currently), so we’ll see how it goes! I’ll report back on how it’s going in a month.
Would you go vegetarian for environmental reasons?