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Conventional beef production found to be more environmentally friendly than organic, grass-only beef production

“Carbon footprint” is the latest buzz phrase among the public this winter, with particular attention being given to the environmental impact of livestock production.

“Carbon footprint” is the latest buzz phrase among the public this winter, with particular attention being given to the environmental impact of livestock production.

Alex Avery, the director of research and education at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, recently completed a study comparing the environmental impact of conventional beef production compared to organic, grass-only beef production. Here, he shares highlights from his research:

For years, beef producers and most consumers, as well as scientists from all over the world, including the World Health Organization, recognized that growth promotants used in beef production not only improved efficiency but also were safe for both the environment and beef consumers.

The Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues (CFGI) recently conducted an in-depth environmental impact analysis of an Iowa State University (ISU) study comparing two production methods —— conventional, grain-based beef production using growth-promoting technologies and organic, grass-only beef production. The results were surprising, especially for the environmentalists who would like to believe an often-cited 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Report that claims beef production – and all livestock production, for that matter – are primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The CFGI scientific analysis found that conventional beef production methods are more environmentally friendly than organic, grass-only production.

The ISU study found that because of increased production efficiency that growth promotants deliver, conventional production systems are three times more land-efficient than the organic-grass-only system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent. By utilizing safe, FDA-approved technologies, beef producers actually are producing more pounds of beef per acre of land and are significantly reducing the amount of CO2-equivalent emissions from methane gas produced by cattle. Producing more food with less land is critical when we consider the burgeoning world population, world hunger and increasing world demand for beef and other animal proteins.

Since only about 40% of the world's land mass is suitable for the production of food, feed and fiber to feed the world's growing population, it is critical that we use our farming resources – especially land – as efficiently as possible. Plus, environmentalists all over the world are increasing their efforts to conserve biodiverse natural habitats, which means increasing productivity is our only realistic and responsible option.

According to a 2008 paper in Science magazine, clearing additional land for agriculture causes the release of significant CO2 emissions from the soil and lost forest growth. These researchers estimate that each acre of land cleared for food production results in 10,400 lbs/acre/year of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases over the subsequent 30 years (based on estimated emissions from each type of land converted to cultivation in the 1990s). Using data from Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Hudson Institute analysis demonstrates that conventional grain-based beef production's three-fold greater land use efficiency over organic, grass-based finishing results in even lower overall greenhouse gas emissions than directly attributable to beef production.

EPA scientists recognize that beef production contributes only 2% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions compared to 80% for fossil fuel consumption. This recent ISU/CFGI research shows us that by maximizing production efficiency by using safe, available growth-enhancing technologies, we can minimize emissions even more. Growth promotants help make food more affordable for consumers, and help the beef industry and consumers have an even greater positive impact on the environment. Increased production efficiency means more beef per acre of land, which means fewer acres will need to be cleared for cultivation, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.