The Price of Beef

Published on 5 May 2021 at 16:11

Beef and dairy cattle are one of agriculture’s biggest emitters of GHG (greenhouse gases) and cutting down on consumption of both could reduce such emissions. Since the bovine accounts for 15% of global GHG, American foot site Epicurious has ceased publication of beef recipes. But is beef the easy target? Is using an international figure fair when most of the GHG from agriculture derives from developing countries? 


Above agriculture in the GHG figures are areas of transport, energy, manufacturing, and anything else that rely on the fossil fuel industry. The agriculture sectors are included as a collective of agri-food, forestry, land use, livestock, and deforestation.


Researchers have concluded that if a whole 10% of the United States of America became vegan, emissions would be reduced by 0.26%. In other words, unmeasurable. If all The United States switched to veganism, those rates would rise to just above a 2% reduction. 


If all of Ireland went off beef alone there would a reduction a total of 1.9% in Ireland emissions production. If veganism rose from 4.7% to 10% in Ireland, increasing a reduction in beef consumption by removing another 5.3% of beef eaters, would see not noticeable difference. There are various other calculations but in short, they are unrealistic and do not lead to any meaningful conclusions. Which draws to the purpose of unrealistic conversations and further unrealistic expectations. 


Other figures, publications, reports, and documentaries about the environmental impact of livestock agriculture focus on GHG, water usage, and land usage. Many present findings that are inaccurate and lead to incorrect conclusions, as is often the case with very visual pleasant graphs. 


Water is an essential substance to life and agriculture. Agriculture uses around 44% of all water in Europe with Industry coming in second at 40%. But a blanket water usage does not give a clearer picture, as Poore & Nemecek (2018) graph illustrates Emissions, Land and Water use of varying agricultural produce. But the types of water use changes; Bluewater is that which is found in freshwater lakes, groundwater, and aquifers. Green water, on the other hand, is rainwater. The usage of water is known as a Water footprint.   


Recent studies have examined the water footprint of beef, and the results depend on the type of beef. Typical beef’s water consumption was 94% green water, and grass-finished beef consumed 97% green water.


 For comparison, beef uses up to 100 gallons of water per pound, while rice uses up to 449 gallons per pound. Other such information is widely available. 


Additionally, crops require irrigation and are more water intensive. As seen in Chile were the growth of avocados drains the national drinking water supply. (blue water) 320 litres pre avocado, Almonds are another heavy user of the water supply network. This water consumption also comes down to inefficient methods. 


Other ill-informed criticisms of agriculture are that crops grown to feed livestock would be better suited to feeding those in need. Unfortunately, 85% of crops for animal feed are unsuitable for human consumption. Also, much of the waste from wheat farming, almond farming and other human consumption crop waste is used to feed cattle and other animals. Involving the bovine and the sheep in the form of the food chain and waste upcycling. Where animal manure is 50% of fertilizer, and organic crops use manure exclusively as fertilizer.  But productive crop tonnage indeed feeds more per kg than beef. Crop farming, however, is more emissions-intensive than livestock farming. 


Land usage is another common gripe of those who argue its alternative usage possibilities, more land for more efficient crop production yields that could feed more and provide more ‘environmentally’ friendly foodstuffs. Unfortunately, around 1/3 of the land is arable, and the rest is only suitable for livestock grazing. In Ireland, 90% of agricultural land is used for grassland due to our climate and positioning. Crops, in this case, would require more labour and capital cost. But that is not excluding the possibility of vertical-indoor farming. 


Reducing personal consumption has considerably no effect on emissions when compared to emission levels either nationally or internationally. Ireland’s beef enterprise is an export-driven market that does not fluctuate based on our tastes, even if 10% abstain from red meat. 


There are many proposals to reduce herd emissions, ranging from reduced consumption, herd reduction, more efficient farming, and technology.


 Soil mapping allows for increasing crops yields and efficient land and fuel usage, keeping costs down. Eating local produce is another proposal that cuts down on emissions. Still, critics say it does not go far enough as it only reduces transport emissions of livestock produce. 


Cow burps (enteric fermentation) are one of the largest methane by producers, which occurs when cattle eat grass and digest it, breaking down and fermenting the carbon and burping out methane. While methane contributes to greenhouse gases, it is not the biggest but remains one of the most challenging as it occurs naturally from decomposition. The largest GHG is, of course, carbon dioxide from fossil fuel usage. 


Agriculture is an indigenous industry to every country, and innovation in methods, practices and technological innovation will lead to new ways of agriculture and how we can improve our current practices. When it comes to livestock efficient methods persist when the lowest number of livestock yields the greatest output.  



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