We all know beef tastes great – but did you know that it can be sustainable too? Check out some answers to your most pressing questions when it comes to beef’s role in a healthy, sustainable diet.
Q: Is beef sustainable?
A. Yes! And U.S. beef farmers and ranchers are leaders in sustainable beef production.1 For example, the U.S. beef industry carbon footprint is 10 to 50 times lower than other regions of the world, due to things like better cattle genetics and better animal nutrition.1
If the rest of the world were as efficient as the U.S., global beef production could double while cutting the global cattle herd by 25 percent.1 This would result in more human nourishment with less strain on natural resources and fewer environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
Beef farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard, as they have always done, to care for cattle, protect the land, and preserve natural resources, while raising a naturally wholesome and delicious food.
Q: Is beef healthy?
A. Yes! Beef is both nourishing and sustainable.2,3,4 Decades of research shows that beef promotes health and helps prevent human nutrient deficiencies.
The nutrients in beef promote health throughout life.5-11 Protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins in beef help ensure young children start life strong, building healthy bodies and brains.5-8 Protein is also critical as we age. After 50 years of age, adults are at risk for losing muscle mass, leading to falls and frailty that affect their ability to age independently.9-11
It’s also important to keep in mind that plant-based protein products are often highly processed with added fat, sodium and other potentially unhealthy or unsustainable ingredients, which can reinforce unhealthy dietary patterns.12
Q: Why not choose other animal protein sources that are perceived to be more sustainable than beef?
A. No other protein source offers the same nutrient mix as beef. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef provides 10 essential nutrients in about 170 calories, including high-quality protein, zinc, iron and B vitamins.2
Environmentally, cattle do more than recycle – they upcycle inedible plants into high-quality protein.13,14 In the face of a growing global population, we need ruminant animals, like beef cattle, to help make more protein for less.13 Cattle generate more protein for the human food supply than would exist without them because their unique digestive system allows them to convert human-inedible plants into high-quality protein.14
Q: Would eating less beef be better for my health and the environment?
A. A balanced diet, which includes nutrient-rich foods from all food groups, including plant and animal foods, is important, as recommended by MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Most people are already eating beef within global dietary guidelines.15 Opportunities for a healthy sustainable diet will come from reducing food waste, including beef, eating fewer empty calories and enjoying more balanced meals.
And, in fact, eating less nutrient-rich meat may put your health and the planet’s health at risk – today and in the future.15-17 Malnutrition is a significant global public health issue, and data shows that countries with the lowest meat access have some of the highest rates of malnutrition.16,17 Further, iron deficiency is a U.S. public health concern among adolescent girls and women.18,19 Unlike plant foods, beef is a source of high-quality heme iron that is more readily absorbed by the body to help your body use oxygen and support improved energy.
Environmentally, cattle do more than recycle – they upcycle inedible plants into high-quality protein. Cattle graze on land that can’t be used to grow crops, meaning they expand the land available for human food production and do it while coexisting with natural ecosystems. For example, they reduce the risk of wildfires, while providing people with high-quality protein, something plant-based proteins can’t replicate.18,19
Q. Should we shift to eating more grass-finished beef for a healthier, more sustainable diet?
A. A great thing about the beef industry is that there’s a variety of choices for consumers. There’s a cut for every budget, taste preference and recipe. Similarly, farmers and ranchers have options in raising their animals, including using resources and land sustainably based on regionality, weather and resources available.
Tradeoffs occur in different aspects of sustainability when comparing grain-finished and grass-finished beef production systems. Grain-finished beef has a lower carbon footprint than grass-finished beef due to more efficient utilization of feed in the finishing phase, meaning cattle at feedyards convert feed to muscle at a very efficient rate; it’s also due to fewer days on feed and a greater amount of beef produced per animal. Grass-finished beef has a higher carbon footprint, due to a high forage diet (e.g., grass and hay), which causes cattle to produce more methane emissions from the digestive tract than higher-energy, grain-based diets. However, grass-finished beef has some sustainability advantages, as this system contributes to sustainable beef production by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can help to mitigate global climate change. Importantly, regardless of the finishing system, U.S. cattle spend most of their lives on grass and over 80% of what grain-finished cattle eat in their lifetimes is grass and other forages.
Q. Is beef a big contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions?
A. No. U.S. beef’s carbon footprint is 10 to 50 times lower than other regions of the world, due to improved productivity practices and scientific advancements, from better cattle genetics to better animal nutrition.1 According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle only represents 2% of emissions in U.S.20 All of agriculture, including beef production, accounts for around 9% of total U.S. emissions. By contrast, transportation accounts for 27% of emissions in the U.S., representing a far more impactful opportunity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.21
According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, if all livestock in the U.S. were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6%, or 0.36% globally. And, this would lead to an increase in use of synthetic fertilizer and increased soil erosion.4
Additionally, greenhouse gas emissions from beef production have declined over time. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization data, greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle declined 31% from 1975 to 2016, while beef production increased by 2%. Farmers and ranchers are committed to doing more with less and measuring their progress, while maintaining high standards of animal care.
As we work together to build a healthier, more sustainable food supply for ourselves and future generations, we are able to focus on changes that are science-based, practical and highly impactful, like improving global agricultural productivity, reducing food waste, decreasing over-consumption of empty calories and consuming balanced meals.