Grass-fed beef is not eco-friendly, report finds

Grazing livestock on grassy pastures is not as environmentally sound as the idyllic image suggests and assumptions that meat production must grow to meet rising protein demand needs questioning, a report has claimed.

Grass-fed beef is no better for the environment than other forms of commercial feeding, claimed the report, titled Grazed and confused?, because carbon captured by grass is offset by livestock emissions of the ozone-harming gas methane.

This is the conclusion researchers from distinguished institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, have concluded in an extensive study aimed at providing evidence-based answers to the quandary: is grass-fed beef good or bad for climate change?

The answer from the researchers is in the negative.

“We’d like to emphasise that our report looked only at the issue of grass-fed beef in relation to one concern, climate change,” Dr Tara Garnet, the report’s lead author, told this site.

“There are, of course, many other issues to consider if one is to form conclusions about the merits or otherwise of grass-fed systems – other environmental aspects, as well as concerns around animal welfare, jobs and livelihoods.”

Garnet explained the report’s central finding: “Managed grazing in some contexts can cause carbon to be sequestered in the soil – and at least can provide an economic rationale for keeping the carbon in the ground. But at an aggregate level, the overall potential – depending on the level of ambition – would offset 20%- 60% of emissions from grazing systems; 4–11% of total livestock emissions; and between 0.6 and 1.6% of total annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – to which of course livestock also substantially contribute.”

Emissions reduction a ‘balancing act’

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) livestock board chairman Charles Sercombe welcomed the report’s “refreshing” acknowledgment that farming benefits humanity, but questioned the study’s “very narrow remit”.

“Across the diversity of livestock systems in this country, our farmers work hard to improve the productivity and efficiency of the entire farm business, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. 

“But they do this as part of a balancing act, managing their local environment and landscapes, including the carbon stored in the soils, hedges and trees, which are typical of many of this country’s grass-based systems, producing a quality, safe and affordable product valued by consumers, as well as maintaining farm business profitability.

He said the NFU understood the “scientific uncertainties” around how much carbon soil can capture and suggested it “makes sense” to consider livestock and grassland when managing emissions that make the Earth hotter.

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