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  • Writer's pictureWatlington Climate Action Group

The beef with grazing

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

Tom Robinson examines the impact that meat production makes on the environment and finds the common objections to change may not stand up to close scrutiny.

Agricultural land use is one of the most overlooked elements of climate change, yet its impact, as a result of our relationship with specific foods, is rarely discussed. With the Earth’s population set to increase from 7.9 to 9.8 billion by 2050, global food systems will have to adapt accordingly, and so too will our dietary habits.

At the most basic level, it’s simply a case of numbers.

1,000 years ago, agriculture occupied an estimated 4% of the world’s habitable land. It now accounts for 51%, as well as over two-thirds of global freshwater use. The impact on biodiversity has been catastrophic, with researchers believing the expansion of agriculture to have been one of humanity’s largest and most damaging impacts on the environment.[1]

Contemporary Western diets are based heavily around animal products which require an ever-expanding quantity of farmland. Combining grazing pastures with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land use. This is important because while livestock occupies most of the world’s farmland it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of the protein.[2]

Thanks to the team at Oxford University that runs it is very easy to see in the accompanying chart what stands out. The environmental cost of certain foods, particularly red meat, is simply unsustainable given the climate crisis and rapidly increasing populations

[1] Our World in Data: [2] Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers

Confronted with such data, people tend to raise three points.

First is that crops also occupy a lot of land, especially with the growing demand for crops like soy to satisfy the vegans’ love of tofu. But the reality is that three-quarters of global soy is fed to livestock with only 7% going to human consumption. The rest is (alarmingly) used for biofuels.[3] As a result, it takes almost 100 times as much land to produce one gram of protein from beef or lamb, versus peas or tofu.[4] If a magic switch could shift the world’s population to a plant-based diet, current data shows that we would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%.

Second, people highlight that pastureland is unsuitable for edible crops and grazers make good use of it. The research suggests, however, that with a shift in dietary patterns, we could easily feed everyone in the world a nutritious diet on existing croplands (since they are currently dominated by the production of animal feed), while unusable pastureland could return to its natural state, greatly improving biodiversity and carbon sequestration. And while there may be a role to play for grazing livestock, it is still hotly debated as to whether the positives outweigh the negatives.[5]

Thirdly, some point out that it’s more about where your food comes from and how it is grown. Once again, the data shows this is also misleading. Taking the example of beef, transport typically accounts for less than 1% of its greenhouse gas emissions. Whether you buy it from the farmer next door or from far away, it is not the location that makes the carbon footprint of your dinner large, but the fact that it is beef.[6]

The ‘how’ is even more surprising. Organic, pasture-fed grazing animals, which some argue play a key role in environmental regeneration, actually have the highest land use and emission statistics of all. While the practice is infinitely preferable to industrial ranching from an ethical standpoint, the reality is that even the best estimates find they can only offset 20-60% of their own emissions[7] but require considerably more land. If the world were to adopt a diet typical in New Zealand - heavy on pasture-fed beef and lamb - we would require an entire additional Earth.

None of this is to say we need to abolish grazing livestock as a farming practice entirely. There are many lower-income areas where it is an essential livelihood and can be a key source of nutrition in parts of the world where diets lack diversity. Having lived in a number of such places I can attest to how essential a part of life livestock can be. However, in the Western world, where we do not face such hardships and base our choices on taste rather than necessity, it might be worth considering how the land might be better used.

[3] Our World in Data: [4] Our World in Data: [5] Grazed and Confused: [6] Our World in Data: [7]

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