Meat & Livestock News

Debating the Carbon Footprint: New Study Challenges Grass-Fed Beef’s Environmental Edge


  • New research challenges the perceived lower carbon footprint of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef, suggesting productivity per acre is key to reducing emissions.
  • The study’s methodology and conclusions spark debate over environmental, animal welfare, and regional production differences.
  • New Zealand’s grass-fed beef production, known for its lower environmental impact, contrasts with the study’s findings, highlighting the need for comprehensive research methodologies.

In the realm of scientific inquiry, the publication of a study often marks the beginning rather than the end of a debate, especially when it pertains to as complex and globally relevant an issue as climate change. This principle is vividly illustrated in recent research scrutinised by Allan Barber in an article for Beef Central, which revisits the long-held belief regarding the environmental footprint of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef.

The research, conducted by the California-based Breakthrough Institute, examined 100 beef operations across 16 countries, employing a novel approach to evaluate soil sequestration and the carbon opportunity cost of land use. Surprisingly, the findings suggest that the carbon footprint of grass-fed cattle might be 42% higher than that of their grain-fed counterparts, a conclusion that pivots away from conventional wisdom.

This assertion, however, is not without its critics. The study posits that the most efficient beef production comes from operations that maximise output per acre, thereby implying a preference for intensification. Yet, this perspective overlooks the multifaceted benefits of free-range farming, such as biodiversity and animal welfare, and fails to consider the unique challenges faced by producers in less fertile regions.

In New Zealand, a country renowned for its grass-fed beef, the environmental credentials of its agricultural practices have been a source of pride. Research by AgResearch, commissioned by Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ), has previously highlighted the lower environmental footprint of New Zealand’s beef and sheep meat, attributing this to the carbon-rich soils typical of the region.

Andre Mazzetto of AgResearch points out that New Zealand’s farming practices, which do not deplete soil carbon, stand in contrast to those in other regions, such as the US, where soil carbon stocks must be actively replenished.

Critiques of the Breakthrough Institute’s study include its small sample size, lack of regional variation consideration, and omission of short-lived gases like methane, which are significant in grass-fed production.

Moreover, the study’s focus on northern Australia’s arid conditions as a basis for its conclusions on grass-fed production starkly contrasts with New Zealand’s lush pastures, further complicating direct comparisons.

The debate underscores the importance of a holistic approach to evaluating agricultural practices, one that encompasses not only carbon footprints but also biodiversity, animal welfare, and the socio-economic realities of different farming communities.

As the conversation evolves, entities like BLNZ and AgResearch remain committed to ensuring that future research methodologies capture the full spectrum of factors influencing sustainable beef production.