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Are cows killing the planet? The truths and myths behind British beef production

Date Published: 24/01/2024

Every type of food and farming system has some environmental impact, but it is essential to scrutinise the regional data, rather than making sweeping judgements based on global averages. It’s also important to recognise that sheep and beef production do have a carbon footprint, but also to share what the industry is doing to reduce this. Furthermore, all dietary choices are valid, as it is up to any individual what they choose to eat, and flexitariansim is presenting an opportunity for the UK livestock industry, not a threat.   

These were some of the key messages from Jude Capper’s lecture ‘Are cows killing the planet? The truths and myths behind British beef production', which was delivered at the RASE New Year Lectures in January 2024.

Jude Capper is a professor at the School of Sustainable Food and Farming, based at Harper Adams University, and also an independent livestock sustainability consultant. Jude's research focuses on modeling the sustainability of livestock production systems, specifically dairy, beef and sheep.

In the lecture she spoke about the impact of livestock production, the use of metrics to measure impact and some of the benefits of grazing ruminants. Read on for some highlights from the lecture, or view the full recording in the members’ section of the website.

All foods have an environmental impact

By 2050, we’ll need 50-60% more food for everyone on the planet. The agricultural industry needs to provide this while also reducing the environmental impact of food production and improving social acceptability.

Speaking at the RASE New Year Lectures, Jude shared that there is no one definitive sustainable system or food type that will be the solution to meeting the global requirement for food. She also stressed that we need to be honest about the impacts of food production.

“All foods have an environmental impact, even if you were to only eat foraged foods and roadkill,” she said. “Sheep and beef production do have a carbon footprint, and as an industry we’re doing things to investigate and reduce this, being honest about this is the best policy.”

Jude shared that she worked on one study carbon footprinting 350 beef farms throughout UK. “We need to be realistic about the opportunities, because all farms are different and what works for one system may not work for another,” she said. “But there is a lot that we can learn from the top 10% of farms, by looking at how they achieve the best KPIs and the lowest carbon emissions.”

Regional data, not global

Alongside advocating for honesty about the environmental impacts associated with food production, Jude also highlighted that global averages are meaningless when it comes to comparing the environmental impacts of different food types.

“Media articles tend to focus on the beef, but the often-quoted figures are based on a scientific paper which took data from 199 countries,” she said. In Western Europe, the carbon footprint associated with beef was calculated to be 18kg of carbon per kg deadweight, while this figure was 29 in north America and 73 in Latin America. “The global average of 47kg carbon per kg deadweight is meaningless,” said Jude.

Metrics matter

The metrics used to measure the environmental impact of different foods matter. Kg of carbon per kg of human digestible protein is a useful metric, which brings together the carbon footprint with human nutrition.

However, climate science is changing rapidly, and new metrics and data will emerge which will change the carbon footprints associated with different foods.

Feed efficiency data is often used to argue that eating poultry or pork is a better choice from an environmental perspective than beef or lamb. However, feed efficiency must take into account the competition for human edible foods.

“We can’t grow human food crops everywhere, in the UK 65% of land can’t be used for anything but grassland,” said Jude. “If we break down the data to land use efficiency from grassland and arable land we get a different picture, with meat from ruminants much more favourable.”

Removing cattle

Jude shared that removing cattle from pasture disadvantages grassland birds, because they associate longer grass and shrubs and trees with predators, so the presence of grazing ruminants helps maintain a habitat that enables them to thrive.

Furthermore, without cattle there would be no dung from cattle, which would vastly reduce the presence of dung beetles in their habitat. As well as delivering a myriad of ecosystem benefits, such as sequestering carbon into the soil, dung beetle larvae are a key food source for ground nesting birds. It is estimated that dung beetles save farmers in the UK £367 million per year.

Human dietary choices

Jude shared that all dietary choices are valid and it is up to any individual what they choose to eat.

Although it has received a lot of attention, the number of participants in Veganuary is relatively low. In 2023 there were 706,965 participants, which is about 1% of the UK population, or put another way, roughly twice the population of Coventry.

Jude highlighted that the rise of flexitarianism is far more significant, with 15% of people now making a more conscious choice, such as eating less meat but better. “This can be an opportunity for farmers in the UK, not a threat,” she said.

In summary, Jude’s lecture showed how understanding the metrics can help build a thorough understanding of the environmental impact of livestock. She highlighted that every type of food and farming system has some environmental impact, which is something that as an industry we need to be honest about. However, the industry is already working to reduce emissions associated with sheep and beef production, with opportunities to learn from the top 10% of farms which are achieving efficient production, and to benefit from the rise in flexitarianism among consumers. Watch the full lecture in the RASE member’s section of the website.