Beef production carbon emissions could be halved with modern techniques - study
Image credit: Dreamstime
The global beef industry could cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by as much as 50 per cent in certain regions through careful land management and production efficiency, a study has found.
A research team led by Colorado State University (CSU) looked at how it can achieve both faster cow growth per unit of GHG and enhanced land management strategies to increase soil and plant carbon sequestration on grazed lands.
Globally, cattle are responsible for about 78 per cent of total livestock GHG emissions, with a serving of chicken or pork estimated to be responsible for just 20 per cent of the emissions compared to an equivalent serving of beef.
This is partly because cows require much more land and feed to rear and they also output almost 10 per cent of anthropogenic GHGs as a by-product from their digestive processes
But the researchers found that a 46 per cent reduction in net GHG emissions per unit of beef could be achieved at sites using carbon sequestration management strategies on grazed lands, including using organic soil amendments and restoring trees and perennial vegetation to areas of degraded forests, woodlands and riverbanks.
Additionally, researchers found an overall 8 per cent reduction in net GHGs was achieved at sites using growth efficiency strategies. Net-zero emissions, however, were only achieved in 2 per cent of studies.
“Our analysis shows that we can improve the efficiency and sustainability of beef production, which would significantly reduce the industry’s climate impact,” said lead author Daniela Cusack, an assistant professor at CSU.
“But at the same time, we will never reach net-zero emissions without further innovation and strategies beyond land management and increased growth efficiency. There’s a lot of room, globally, for improvement.”
Researchers analysed 292 comparisons of “improved” versus “conventional” beef production systems across Asia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Latin America and the US. The analysis revealed that Brazilian beef production holds the most potential for emissions reductions.
In the studies analysed, researchers found a 57 per cent GHG emission reduction through improved management strategies for both carbon sequestration and production efficiency in Brazil. Specific strategies include improved feed quality, better breed selections and enhanced fertiliser management.
But the biggest impact was found in “integrated field management” which includes intensive rotational grazing schemes, adding soil compost, reforestation of degraded areas and selectively planting forage plants bred for sequestering carbon in soils.
“My home country of Brazil has more than 52 million hectares of degraded pastureland - larger than the state of California,” said co-author Amanda Cordeiro.
“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 the US, researchers found that carbon sequestration strategies such as integrated field management and intensive rotational grazing reduced beef GHG emissions by more than 100 per cent - or net-zero emissions - in a few grazing systems. But efficiency strategies were not as successful in the US studies, possibly because of a high use of the strategies in the region already.
One way to achieve net zero beef more easily could be through the use of lab grown meat, a burgeoning industry that is only just starting to reach commercialisation. It is expected to take several more years before the process is perfected, only reaching cost parity with traditional meat by 2030.
The UK government was recently warned that it needs to shift land use across the UK and change people’s eating habits in order to lower overall carbon emissions, which includes reducing the amount of beef that people consume.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.