Improving the sustainability of beef production is a major challenge and one that is necessary to address in the fight against climate change. Due to its resource-intensive nature, beef production is the leading cause of deforestation globally and significantly impacts soil health, water usage, and net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Assessing the impact of beef production is complex, as there are many moving parts, but we can always start somewhere. From a consumption standpoint, luckily, there are ways we can all contribute to a more sustainable beef industry.
One key factor that leads to the unsustainable nature of the beef production industry is the growing global demand for beef. Demand for beef and other ruminant meats rose by 25% between 2000 and 2019 and continues to grow at a startling rate. A statistic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that the US alone produced 27 billion pounds of beef in 2019, and that the average American consumes about 55 pounds of beef per year. With the trend of increasing consumption, the USDA forecasts that the US is expected to produce 28 billion pounds of beef in 2022.
What impact do global growing demand levels have on the environment? To keep up with the rising demand and consumption levels, the amount of feed per unit of meat produced requires more land, increases carbon and methane emissions, strains our overused natural systems, and contributes to deforestation. In simple terms, the rising trajectory of global demand for beef is unsustainable.
Additionally, a secondary problem that follows consumption in the beef cycle is waste. From packaging, storage, spoilage, and other ways beef can be deemed inedible beyond just leaving behind an unfinished meal, it unsurprisingly is at the top of the food waste list. About 30% of food wasted in the US is connected to the beef industry, and the food waste GHG emissions in the US alone are equivalent to that of 37 million cars.
How can we help? We are all capable of adjusting our personal lifestyles to help lower the impact the beef industry has on the environment. Must we completely alter our diets? No. Would consuming less beef help? Yes. And can beef be produced more sustainably? Yes.
On a global scale, if beef consumption declined to about 50 calories a day, or 1-2 hamburgers per person per week, it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion and associated deforestation, as well as decrease food waste impact.
What can you do? Here are tips that can make our beef diets more sustainable:
- Choose grass-fed or pasture-raised meats. (Usually stated on the label)
- Set realistic goals to reduce beef portions.
- Try adding more plant-based options.
- Spread out a serving of meat over several recipes.
- Choose more resource-efficient sources of animal protein.
Beef production and the growing consumption levels come with sustainability concerns, but the solutions exist. While there is a lot more to the unsustainable nature of the beef production industry than personal consumption discussed above, addressing industry-level technology and supply chain issues requires engagement on a larger scale. On an individual level, we don’t have control of others’ diets and actions, but we are all responsible for our own. We encourage everyone to do their best in leading a sustainable lifestyle.
Photo credit: Denise Hager, Catchlight Visual Services / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo