Beef produces more carbon than any other meat, yet we still can’t get enough of the stuff. But can drastic changes in how we farm and eat turn things around?
Rebecca Cole didn’t have a typical childhood. Though she grew up in the 1970s, her family home lacked electricity. Their wooden house was tucked in a rural town in southern Costa Rica, where they read and worked by candlelight in the evenings.
On every side of her family’s small coffee bean farm was lush, dense montane rainforest, bursting with life. As a child Cole would run through the woods, the tree canopy above her obliterating the sky, clouds of termites buzzing past her dark hair. All around her, she could hear toucans, wood rails, and parrots calling. Deadly fer-de-lance snakes and jumping vipers lurked in the underbrush, and capuchin monkeys leapt through the trees.
But when Cole turned six, she began to notice her natural playground thinning. Bit by bit, the surrounding rainforest was being torn down. The reason? Land clearance for agriculture. Most of it to grow coffee, like her parents, but cattle ranches were starting to spring up around her too. Since the 1950s, almost 60 per cent of Costa Rica’s forests have been torn down and replaced by cattle ranches that now produce 85,000 tonnes of beef every year.
Although Costa Rica’s beef exports pale in comparison to the industry’s real powerhouses – Brazil exported almost two million tonnes of the stuff in 2018 alone – the country’s transformation tracks our growing global obsession with red meat. In 1970, the year Cole was born, the world produced 34m tonnes of beef. Now we’ve surpassed 74m tonnes every year, and production is projected to keep climbing past 88m tonnes by 2030.
All of this meat has come at a staggering environmental cost. There are roughly 1.5 billion cows on the planet, and turning those cows into meat is one of the most environmentally ruinous forms of food production in existence. Putting a precise figure on that impact is notoriously tricky – but one 2014 study estimates that beef production uses 28 times more land, 11 times more water and releases more carbon dioxide than poultry or pork.
Globally, livestock accounts for 14.5 per cent of all human-caused emissions with cattle making up almost two-thirds of that. And as the number of cows keeps going up, we’ve been tearing down forests to make room for them. During the 1990s, humans deforested an area the size of Portugal every year to make room for cattle ranches and space to grow crops that often end up feeding those same cows.
In the area where Cole grew up — San Vito, a town tucked into a valley 15 kilometres from the Panama border – coffee was king. But in 2002, the crop supply greatly surpassed the global demand and the price of java, the island’s main crop, plummeted. This forced many farmers to change tack, and nearly all of the clear-cut farmland is now used to raise beef. In some spots, the rainforests of Cole’s youth have been destroyed.
“I still own my family farm in Costa Rica, and it has one of the last remnant patches of forest left in the area,” Cole, whose experiences in Costa Rica would eventually lead her into a career in restorative ecology, says. “It has all been cleared.”
n 1958, Jim and Mary Beller were lumbered with an unusually demanding wedding gift. Jim’s parents had given the newlyweds a pair of cows. On their farm outside the tiny village of Lindsay, Nebraska, the couple diligently fattened up the cattle, sold them and used the surplus profits to buy three more cows. Once those three were fat enough and sold, they bought another five.
The Bellers repeated the trick over and over through the subsequent decades, eventually passing the farm on to their son, Terry. Now the farm is home to 6,000 Angus beef cows. What began as a small family farm has evolved, in the span of one generation, into a highly efficient modern feedlot: a system where cattle are held in a confined pen and fed calorie-rich food to encourage them to pack on weight in the months leading up to slaughter. This is the devastatingly effective formula behind the modern beef industry – more cows packed onto less land, getting fatter in shorter amounts of time.
Left to graze on pasture, a few hundred cows can spread over 1,000 acres of land. In a feedlot, as many as 100,000 cattle can be held on a patch of land half that size. And these cows put on weight in a fraction of the time it used to take. “My dad used to be happy with a two pound (0.9kg) weight gain per day,” Beller says. “Now we’re disappointed with a three pound (1.4kg) weight gain per day.”
This shift to feedlots – pre-dating the Beller’s wedding gift by almost a century – was only possible thanks to another industry burgeoning in late nineteenth-century America: the railroads. Before railways in the US began expanding dramatically in the 1870s, cowboys would herd cattle over long distances to the end-point of railways where they could be sent onwards into the meatpacking districts dotting every major city for slaughter. The longest of these journeys, the Chisholm Trail, stretched over 1,000 miles from ranches in Texas to railheads in Kansas.
But these exhausting journeys – with cattle herded up to 40km a day – caused the cattle to lose weight dramatically, arriving at stockyards so emaciated that they were difficult to sell. A Detroit-based meatpacker, George Hammond, spied an opportunity in all this weight loss. If cows were slaughtered before transport, he reasoned, farmers could avoid that weight loss altogether. Inspired by cooled rail carriages that allowed fresh fruit and veg to be carted over long distance, Hammond bought the patent for a refrigerated carriage that would keep meat fresh on long rail journeys. In 1869, the first delivery of meat in a specifically-designed refrigerated rail carriage, stuffed with ice from the Great Lakes, made the 1,100km journey from Detroit to Boston.
Ten years later Hammond’s railcars – which had an unfortunate tendency to tip over on tight bends – were improved by Gustavus Swift, a meatpacking mogul who had worked his way up in the industry from small-time butcher to one of the dominant figures in Chicago’s booming Union Stock Yards. It was Swift who popularised the idea of fattening cows in feedlots to bring them up to a weight fit for slaughter, killing and processing them before sending the meat to large urban centres. Swift’s realisation made him a millionaire many times over – three years after his death in 1906 his company was valued at a $250m dollars – and gave birth to the modern industrial feedlot.
By the 1950s and 60s — when the Bellers were starting out — feedlots were well on their way to becoming the dominant method of cattle rearing. Now, 97 per cent of US beef comes from feedlots. Most cattle spend their first eight to 16 months on pasture before being sent to be “finished” in a feedlot for the last four months or so. Though the feedlot was perfected in the US, the technique has been exported around the globe and is becoming more common in major producing countries like Brazil and Argentina.
Packing cows into ever-tighter spaces and cramming them with chow had a predictably huge impact on how quickly and efficiently producers are able to get cows ready for slaughter. Cows should be about 550 kilograms before they’re sent to the slaughterhouse, and in a purely grass fed industry, it took cattle three or four years to get to that point says Ron Gill, an animal science professor and livestock specialist at Texas A&M University. Now most cows are slaughtered before they reach 18 months.
But food alone can only get cows to grow so quickly. Male cows – bulls – are typically castrated before they get to three months to make them less aggressive and easier to handle on the farm. This has the unfortunate – from the farmer’s standpoint – side-effect of lowering their testosterone and progesterone production, making them grow more slowly. But in 1947 William Dinusson, a graduate student at Purdue in Indiana found that injecting cows with growth hormones could increase daily weight gains by 20 per cent. By 1954, the first hormonal implants for use in beef were approved in the. Now the practice is standard across most of the industry.
All of this added up to a dramatic increase in the amount of beef available. The number of cows on American soil jumped nearly 40 per cent from the 50s through the 70s. If you were driving through rural Missouri in 1965, you’d see roughly nine cows in the fields for every kilometre. By 1975, you’d see 15. The surge in supply led to a drop in prices, which, along with rising affluence and the spread of the modern supermarket, meant people started eating a lot more beef.
A housewife flipping through a copy of Good Housekeeping in the 1960s was as likely to encounter ads promoting beef as cleaning products or beer. The American Meat Institute would line magazines and newspapers with ads extolling beef as nutritious, abundant, and wholly American. “This is not just a piece of meat,” one such ad boasted. “This is something a man wants to come home to, something that helps children to grow, something that makes women proud of their meals.”
This was not so much a new romance with meat, but a return to an American tradition that had been interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II, says Roger Horowitz, a historian of American food and author of Putting Meat on the American Table. “There’s an association that eating meat, especially beef, is part of being an American,” Horowitz says. Beef consumption in the United States reached an all-time high in 1975, with the average American packing away 40kg of beef that year. Consumption then tapered off slightly, but has remained steady for the last few decades with most Americans consuming around 38kg annually – around the weight of an average 12-year-old boy. And globally beef is in the ascendancy too.
In China, beef consumption has slowly crept up over the last three decades. In 1990, beef consumption per capita was just 0.64kg, but by 2017 it had risen by six times to just under four kilograms. Although pork’s position as China’s favourite meat is under no threat at all, taken as a whole China’s beef consumption is second only to the US, and it’s rising. “People forget about this sometimes: there’s just more people,” says Jayson Lusk, head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University in Indiana. “Population growth is occurring in low to middle income countries, so there’s more people wanting more food.”
But even as developing countries – where beef consumption has gone from 4.2kg per capita to 7.1kg in the last 50 years – are starting to discover a taste for red meat, the biggest demand still comes from western countries where we’re eating much more than we nutritionally need. The average American eats more than five times the beef eaten by someone in a developing nation. In Australia, it’s 25kg per person, while Europeans stick to a modest 10kg annually.
With the demand for red meat growing around the globe — and many of us already gobbling up more than our fair share — the strain that this industry has on our environment is becoming impossible to ignore.
Imagine tucking in to a nice steak. You’ve gone for a generous 225 gram cut, a tasty treat to enjoy at the end of a long day. It has a solid 56 grams of protein, as well as an alphabet of vitamins and minerals. And producing it pumped the same amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as burning through seven litres of petrol in your car.
“Beef is probably the single most climate-destructive food there is,” says Jonathan Foley, a global environmental scientist and the executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that promotes solutions to fight climate change.
Of course, we need to have food to eat, but when it comes to climate impacts, all foods are not created equal. Within the 24 per cent chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions accounted for by agriculture, forestry and other land use, beef plays an outsized role. “Even the most efficiently-produced beef is going to be a lot more impactful from a land or greenhouse gas perspective than the least efficient plant-based protein,” says Janet Ranganathan, vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organisation.
To produce just one kilogram of protein from beef, we create the equivalent of 300kg of carbon dioxide (when factoring in the impact of other greenhouse gases, like methane). That means for a feedlot like the Bellers’s in Nebraska, their 6,000 cows are producing the equivalent of 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide every single day. That’s the same as 2,000 homes’ energy for an entire year.
So why are cows so bad for the planet? It mostly comes down to land needed to raise cattle and grow the crops that feed them. Often, farms are built in place of forests that would have locked away carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Just as Cole witnessed the jungle around her home in Costa Rica hacked away in the 80s and 90s, forests around the globe were chopped down at a rate of 94,000 square kilometres every year, and most of that land was cleared in order to graze cattle or grow the crops to feed them, according to the FAO. In satellite images of the region surrounding Cole’s farm that she shared, you can see the steady disintegration of the forest. In an image from 1947, the area is almost a solid block of dense tree cover. In another from 1960, blocks of white start to hack away at the forest. By 1980, huge swaths of cleared land have turned the once lush forest into a hunk of Swiss cheese.
Now, more than 33m square kilometres of land is used for grazing livestock around the globe — that’s a quarter of the planet, not including the ice-covered bits. Tearing down rainforests to make grazing land is a double whammy for climate change. Not only does it remove these valuable, carbon-sequestering forests but it also increases the amount of cows being farmed. And even without chopping down forests, simply having more cows on the land contributes to global warming.
A single cow can burp and fart as much as 190 litres of methane into the atmosphere every day. We tend to focus on the effects of carbon emissions in our atmosphere because we produce so much of it, but methane is much more potent when it comes to trapping heat. The same goes for nitrous oxide, a lesser-known greenhouse gas that’s released when crops, much of which are used to feed cows, are over-fertilised.
“When you do the numbers, raising beef especially is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, without a doubt,” Foley says. “Other than the cows, the other two are dumb things to be doing. Why are we clearing a rainforest? Can’t we help farmers grow food on adjacent land that has already been cleared?”
Just off the shores of Lake Missaukee in northern Michigan, 180 cows roam over 810 acres of natural grassland. Other than some locally-grown hay, these cows eat nothing but the foliage that grows on the ground — foliage that’s never supplemented with fertilisers to help it grow. Instead, they’re continually rotated to new pastures, which allows fields where they’ve already mowed down the grass to recover, and new species of plants to grow. These cows are part of a years-long experiment in how to make beef production less damaging to the environment.
“We tried to more aptly mimic how natural migrating ruminants graze,” says Jason Rowntree, an associate professor of animal science at Michigan State University, who leads the research. “I’ve yet to see a model that beats photosynthesis, grass, and the ruminant of a cow. It’s the most balanced energy conversion I’m aware of.”
Left to their own devices, cows actually benefit the land, like any other animal interacting with its ecosystem. Grazing cows encourage new plant growth, prevent erosion, and improve soil health. When soil is healthy, the bacteria that live in it can more effectively lock away greenhouse gases, including methane. It turns out that cows, when not subjected to a highly-industrialised agricultural system, are actually pretty good at neutralising their own existence.
A study published last year demonstrated that the emissions produced by beef raised this way were completely offset by the greenhouse gases sequestered in the soil as a result of having the cattle on the land. Advocates of this kind of farming have a catchy refrain: it’s not the cow, it’s the “how.” If we change the system around producing beef, we can greatly reduce the impact it has on the environment. But raising beef in this way requires more space and time — some experts estimate about one acre per cow — and with rising demand for red meat around the world, it’s really only a partial solution.
Despite being a decades-long vegetarian and a former environmental lawyer, Nicolette Hahn Niman runs a beef ranch. It all started when she fell in love with a farmer.
As an attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, a water conservation organisation, Niman was leading a project on finding ways to reform the beef industry to reduce its climate impact. She began to spend a lot of time with farmers, and it didn’t take long for her view of the industry to begin to shift. “I was increasingly starting to rethink the narrative I had in my head,” Niman says.
Niman was impressed by those in the industry working to develop more sustainable ways of raising beef, including her future husband, Bill. After two years, she quit her job, moved out to the ranch, and started raising cattle. She still doesn’t eat meat, but she doesn’t expect the world to stop, and would rather focus on promoting sustainable practices than tapping out altogether. They use traditional farming techniques, like rotating cattle onto new pasture so another one can regrow, to help the environment where the cows are raised stay healthy.
“If everybody just turns away then that does nothing to build the better system we desperately need,” she says. Being pickier about how the beef we do eat is raised will help chip away at the climate costs of meat, but ultimately there is only one solution: eat less beef — a lot less. With billions of people to feed, and the majority of cattle still raised in climate-intensive systems, drastically reducing our consumption is the only way to make eating meat sustainable.
So how much do we need to cut back? Last year, a study from the University of Oxford found that people living in more developed countries need to decrease their beef consumption by 90 per cent if we hope to keep global temperatures below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. For the average American that means cutting down from 38kg to just four kilograms a year — about two hamburgers a month. Considering McDonald’s reportedly sells 75 hamburgers every second, that kind of reduction would be a drastic lifestyle change for the average westerner.
Instead of forgoing burgers altogether, meatless meat could help fill the gap left behind by beef. Plant-based products designed to mimic the flavour and texture of meat, like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, are becoming more widely available. In the US, Burger King just announced it is rolling out Impossible Burger whoppers nationwide, while Beyond Burger meat products are expanding to 50 countries around the globe.
Other startups want people to switch to lab-grown beef which would offer the same taste and nutritional makeup as meat, without the environmental footprint. By extracting stem cells from a real animal, and bathing them in nutrients and growth factors it’s possible to turn a cluster of cells into something that resembles ground beef – more or less. In 2013, the Dutch professor Mark Post created the world’s first lab-grown burger, and since then a handful of cultivated meat startups have joined the race to scale-up lab-grown meat production.
Frontrunners in this race, like Memphis Meats, which is focusing on making lab-cultivated meatballs and chicken breasts, have attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding. And – according to the companies themselves – they’re on the cusp of bringing products to market: last autumn, Just Foods invited journalists to taste test its lab-grown chicken nuggets, which it hopes to have on the market later this year. But no clean-meat company has yet been able to ditch its reliance on a decidedly beefy product: foetal bovine serum – a nutrient-rich mixture harvested from cow fetuses that’s used feed lab-grown meat. If firms can’t swap FBS for a vegan alternative, the clean meat future may be further away than they hope.
In Costa Rica, where so much rainforest was destroyed to make room for cattle, the jungle is slowly starting to come back. Through incentive programs, the country witnessed the replanting of almost a quarter of the forest that was lost. Heavily degraded pastureland has been reduced by 60 per cent, and the amount of sustainable pasture with trees has increased almost five-fold.
Cole’s family farm now serves as a mini conservation area for its remaining patch of jungle, and she spends her days researching new methods for restoring the rainforest. Her innovations have included repurposing coffee bean pulp as a natural fertiliser, and a technique where small islands of trees are planted throughout a clear cut landscape. Over time, those islands grow, and start to connect, rebuilding the forest that once stood there.
“There’s a lot of hope,” Cole says. “But there’s also a great sense of urgency.”