When it comes to the impact of food, I think we can all agree that different food has different impacts. Other than that, it doesn’t seems like there is much we can agree on.
For example, when it comes to beef, many will say that beef is the worst food item for the planet in terms of carbon production, water use, land use and resource use, while others will argue that much of the evidence behind this theory is not accurate.
So which is it? The answer may actually be both and in this article I’m going to show you why.
The Carbon Impact of Beef
Almost every argument against the consumption of beef due to its impact on climate change shows a chart that looks something like this.
This chart shows various food items and the climate impact to produce one kg of each food. It also shows how each stage of a particular foods supply chain contributes to its total impact.
So for example, you can see the total carbon impact to get one kg of tomatoes as well as the total carbon impact to get 1 kg of potatoes.
Not only do these two food items have a different impact, but where exactly that impact comes from in its supply chain is different as well.
The supply chain impacts included here are everything from things like land changes, farming, feed, processing, transportation, sales of food, and packing.
Basically, everything required to create that food and get it to you.
As you move across this chart, you see impact of each food item rising and all of the sudden, beef appears and its carbon impact is towering over all other food items, with several of its supply chain stages being larger than the entire impact of other food items.
While this data is completely valid, it doesn’t tell the full story.
The True Carbon Impact of Beef
The values shown in this chart are all based on average conditions from farms around the world. This also means, these numbers are biased towards the most popular farming conditions and the impact of farming can change drastically based on how farms are managed.
For example, a large part of the impact of beef is caused by land use changes, which for beef means land is cleared of all its trees, shrubs, and other biomass to make land available to grow corn and soy to feed cows.
As this happens, there is less vegetation available to remove carbon from the atmosphere and some carbon is also released as the soil is disturbed.
The issue with the data in the chart above is that it shows the impact of just that, cows raised on corn and soy fed.
However, not all cows eat corn and soy. In fact, cows don’t naturally eat these foods at all.
Cows have only started eating these and other foods as humans began to feed it to them in order to produce larger cows at a lower cost.
In a more natural setting, cows eat grass and other vegetation they find while grazing. That means, the massive impact of clearing land for cow feed is completely avoided.
If cows are allowed to graze in a managed way in they can feed off the land without completely destroying it. Under this farm management system, cow manure is left on the land to contribute to plant growth, which the cows can then eat.
This means little to no fertilizer or feed is need, lowering the impact of beef significantly. In fact, this process is so efficient that one study found you could potentially have a net reduction in carbon emissions from eating pasture raised beef as a result of all the newly grown vegetation that wouldn’t have existed without cow manure and proper management.
While this is just one study, it shows something very important. That is, as always, sustainability is not a one size fits all approach and beef is no different.
Beef can definitely have a major impact on the climate when raised outside of its natural habitat and natural diet. The further beef is raised from its natural habitat and diet, the more energy and resources are needed to make up for where nature is lacking, causing its impact to become higher and higher.
Also, raising beef off the land and allowing it to eat a diet that is better suited and closer to its natural habitat is more humane. These cows are often happier and healthier, which means they are often healthier for humans as well.
Defining A Sustainable Food System
On the topic of nutrition, another reason why this chart fails to show the entire story is that beef contains many nutrients and vitamins that either cannot be found in non-animal products or are found in much lower quantities.
The only reason why the debate about beef is so important is because we need to create the most sustainable food system possible. This means creating a food system that is best able to meet our nutritional needs with as little impact as possible. However, these charts often show food production based on mass, not nutrition.
For example, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, beef is actually an efficient way to get Zinc and certain B vitamins, and this data is for beef from cows with all of the farming manage issues mentioned earlier.
If we consider beef from regenerative sources, beef would be the most efficient way to obtain nutrients. However, even beef raised with less of an impact would significantly improve its carbon to nutrient production, and even make it less impactful than many other foods.
Water Consumption Data Is Misleading Too
Water consumption is also a highly debated topic when it comes to the impacts of beef however, it follows a similar trend to carbon. Not only is significantly less water required since no feed needs to be grown, but if done properly and in suitable locations, little to no irrigation is needed.
This is because plants are being managed and their roots are allowed to grow deeper into the soil and develop healthier root systems that retain water better.
In other words, I think this chart is a better representation of the failures of our global food system rather than a representation that all beef is bad.
While this article could go on much longer about the failures of our current food system and how poorly we capture its range of impacts, the point is the same. Beef and all other food items that are grown and raised the right way will have a lower impact.
If you are not able to obtain these foods from proper sources you may want to cut them out of your diet or at least lower your consumption of them. Many of these foods may be more expensive now, however we must vote with our dollar to show food suppliers that we want change.
Again, sustainability is not a one size fits all approach. The impact of an item or an action for you may be different than someone else and If you’d like to learn more about figuring what most sustainable lifestyle is for you, check out this article next.