Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Cut CO2, Only Less Beef Will

I’ve got some bad news. If you thought avoiding the factory farms gave you a pass on your meat consumption, a new study suggests otherwise.

According to the 127-page report from the Food Climate Research Network, delightfully titled “Grazed and Confused”, grass-fed cattle produce essentially the same effect on the atmosphere as the factory-farmed variety, despite popular belief that more expensively-raised animals in ecosystems designed to mimic their natural habitats might cut total greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from methane.

To be clear, there are plenty of reasons grass-fed free-ranging beef might be an improvement over the other kind.

From a health perspective, the marbling of fat that American meat grading systems have come to expect and convinced us is desirable is actually an artifact of the force-fed, corn-stuffed, hormone-laden beef-production process. Grass-fed beef, along with raised bison/buffalo (also typically free-ranging), and wild meat options like deer, all provide a leaner alternative. While there’s still some uncertainty as to what effect artificial growth hormones in cattle have on the people eating them, if any, that’s one more worry you can tick off your list.

From a public health perspective, free-ranging meat has the advantage of not requiring huge amounts of antibiotics to stave off infection in crowded factory farms, which means we are no longer creating an evolutionary pressure for bacteria to become antibiotic-resistant superbugs and kill thousands or millions of people when one of them finally jumps the species barrier.

From an environmental perspective, a switch-over to free-ranging cattle could mean less overproduction of corn, which exhausts the land and is only made possible through synthetic fertilizers that are made from fossil fuels. It would also cut run-off of which causes algal blooms with cascading environmental effects on waterways, lakes, and oceans.

I talk about a number of these issues in a previous article on food sourcing, sharing the perspectives of food writers like Michael Pollan and ecological farmers like Joel Salatin. And all of these are great reasons to choose grass-fed beef over the factory-farmed variety. One final, obvious point, is that it is a much kinder life for the animals we kill for food, albeit less kind than simply choosing not to eat meat anymore.

But the one thing you can’t say, according to this new study, is that you can eat the amount of meat that North Americans tend to eat and hope to erase your dinner’s carbon footprint simply by switching to grass-fed. Raising and eating beef still contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change to a similar degree as the corn-fed stuff. So the only way to cut your effect on the atmosphere and the climate through your eating is to eat LESS meat (including, and especially, beef). This would also be good for most people, since North Americans tend to consume too much meat (and high-fructose corn syrup, though that’s another story).

Having said all that, this comparison assumes the amount of meat consumed does not vary between regular meat eaters and those opting for grass-fed meat. I’ve argued before that eating more expensive, ethically-grown and organically-produced meat might indirectly lower the environmental impact because people can afford to buy it less often. So if you’re already consuming less meat because you pay for this stuff, well, then carry on. I withdraw my objection.

Photo credit: a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattle#/media/File:Cow_female_black_white.jpg">Keither Weller/USDA

88 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill18 days ago

God made the animals and put them here. They are here for us to eat and enjoy.

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Anna R
Anna R19 days ago

Thank you

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Maria R
Maria R21 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Jeramie D
Jeramie D24 days ago

Stop eating animals, or eat less. You will be healthier and so will the planet and few animals will suffer.

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Sandra L
Sandra L29 days ago

Seems that we may be able to reduce or eliminate methane emissions from cows. https://foodtank.com/news/2017/06/seaweed-reduce-cow-methane-emission/

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Kimberly Wallace
Kimberly Wallace1 months ago

TY

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Jeramie D
Jeramie D1 months ago

Cows should be our friends and not food.

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Janis K
Janis K1 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Gerald L
Gerald L1 months ago

In most respects a fair commentary Joel, although a Self Propelled Ruminant is hands down using much less carbon than the mono cropping needed to feed 7 billion plus humans on a Plant Based Diet. Full Cycle Costs for Pharm Equipment from Iron Mine to Smelter and Steel Mill > Casting Plant tractor and implement manufacturing > Pumping Oil from the Belly of the earth to fuel all these steps from mining to Tractor Sales to Pharm Use.


Some ranches Do NoT even own a farm tractor, mower and baler in warm climates with No snow. Mixed farming with Rotational Grazing and a ready supply of natural manure eliminate the Nitrate pollution and mining of Potash. Black Carbon Emissions are overlooked with all the Industrial Processes for Mono-Cropping. Google; Black Carbon on Greenland Ice Caps. Truly shocking, and with more field tillage, open soils NoT covered in pasture grasses the more soil blows off in the wind.

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Darlene Buckingham
shawn arscott1 months ago

There is no justification to be eating red meat in today's day and age.

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