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Raising beef cattle on grass can create a higher carbon footprint than feedlots, new study suggests

  • Feedlot cattle have a smaller carbon footprint than pasture-raised cattle because they grow faster and produce higher meat yields, a new study has found
  • This is important for countries that must balance the demand for beef with maintaining a fragile environment.
  • However, grassland ranchers argue this is a short-sighted approach to take, and that, holistically, grass-fed cattle are better for the environment.

The popularity of grass-fed beef owes much to the claim that the meat from cattle raised on pastures is superior to corn-fed beef. Many people may feel better knowing they just ate meat from an animal that spent its life on a picturesque green pasture, rather than packed into a dreary prison-like feedlot.

But would those people still feel good about their choice if raising grass-fed cattle actually turned out to be worse for the environment?

A new study suggests that might be the case. An analysis of emissions from different cattle-raising systems shows that producing beef using feedlot cattle results in a significantly smaller carbon footprint compared to grass-fed cattle, scientists reported recently in Science of the Total Environment.

Cattle produce 41 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. They also require large amounts of land and water. Understanding their environmental impact is particularly important for regions like the Brazilian Amazon, where the environment is fragile but cattle ranching is a major part of the economy.

The global demand for beef is growing. Photo by A.C. Moraes.
The global demand for beef is growing. Photo by A.C. Moraes.

To assess how different cattle systems affect the environment, scientists from the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California, and Oregon State University compiled data on the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production techniques around the world.

The team concluded that placing cattle in feedlots, where they eat corn-based feed for at least the last few months before slaughter, greatly decreases the carbon footprint of beef production. Cattle reared this way produce more meat per animal, on average, and they need less space compared to purely pasture-raised, grass-fed cattle.

Some environmentalists suggest that the way to reduce the cattle industry’s impact on the environment is to encourage people to stop eating beef. But “it’s very hard to change our consumption habits, and demand [for beef] is growing,” study coauthor Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation at the Breakthrough Institute, said in an interview.

Instead, Blomqvist and his colleagues suggest the industry needs to keep using feedlots while working on “reducing their environmental impact.” In places like the U.S., he said, the abundance of corn and the high price of land make feedlot operations more profitable and better for the environment than raising cattle in pastures.

Some agricultural scientists say the presence of a corn belt in the U.S. makes feedlot cattle more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. Photo by Greg Goebel.

But the issue is contentious, and not everyone agrees with the study’s findings.

“I think the feedlots are destructive,” Chris Kerston, director of events and public outreach at the Savory Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in an interview. Kerston was a grassland farmer for many years and was not involved with this study. The Savory Institute promotes grass-fed cattle production as a way to holistically manage and improve grasslands.

Kerston said the availability of corn doesn’t mean feedlots are the best choice. “Ecologically, that’s a short-sighted view,” he said. “We need to start producing food the way nature intended.” He said most of the “great breadbaskets of the world” are all former grasslands that, if restored, can sustain grazers and sequester carbon in the grass and soil.

Brazil might be a good candidate for increased feedlot production of beef. Photo by A.C. Moraes.
Brazil might be a good candidate for increased feedlot production of beef. Photo by A.C. Moraes.

But Alison Van Eenennaam, an agricultural scientist at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved with this study, told Mongabay she appreciates that the authors “push back on this simplistic notion that grass-fed is good and corn-fed is bad.” Statements like that, she said, “are childish in terms of the real complexity of agriculture.”

The authors realize that while feedlots work well in the U.S., that approach may not be best elsewhere. “Even though environmental performance would be better and emissions lower, that doesn’t mean the right thing to do right now is to build feedlots everywhere,” Blomqvist said. For instance, Australia lacks a corn belt to produce the crops required for feedlot cattle.

Brazil, on the other hand, might be a good candidate to increase feedlot production. “We’re right at that threshold over the last decade where, in more and more places, the feedlots are starting to get a little more economical,” Blomqvist said. “You don’t just make this change overnight. It might be a long-term goal.”

Grass-fed beef production generates more greenhouse gas than using feedlots. Photo by Scott Bauer.
Grass-fed beef production generates more greenhouse gas than using feedlots. Photo by Scott Bauer.


Swain, M., Blomqvist, L., McNamara, J., & Ripple, W. J. (2018). Reducing the environmental impact of global diets. Science of The Total Environment610, 1207-1209.

Kimberly Hickok (@kimdhickok) is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other Mongabay stories produced by UCSC students can be found here.


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