Beef: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
Beef accounts for more greenhouse gases than anything else we eat. Raising beef is generally very resource intensive, and cattle flatulence and manure release methane into the atmosphere. Plus, people love burgers and steak. Our vast and increasing demand for beef amplifies the issues surrounding beef. But a growing scientific and agricultural consensus is moving toward the opportunity around improving beef production, and there are studies about both climate beneficial beef and the potential of carbon ranching to play a major role in reversing global warming.
The question of whether or not we should eat beef touches on complicated and politically charged topics: class, pollution, animal welfare, public health, and more recently, regenerative agriculture, not to mention industrial food and even international trade. There is actually no simple answer about whether eating beef is good or bad. Everyone at Zero Foodprint eats beef, for instance. But there’s a lot to be gained from understanding the ins and outs of the issue. Read on and decide for yourself.
Feedlot Beef vs. Pastured Beef
There are about 319 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 92 million head of cattle. That’s a lot of cattle, and unfortunately for our health, our soil, and the welfare of the cows, about half of them reside in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). Some argue that well-managed feedlots raise beef more efficiently, resulting in faster growth to market size and less time for cows to produce emissions. But the efficiency is the result of extreme animal density, and expensive shortcuts: those calves are fattened with unnatural diets consisting of grain and corn, commodity crops artificially subsidized with $3.86 billion per year in taxpayer dollars. Most troubling from a climate perspective, according to the Government Accountability Office, a single CAFO can produce as much as 1.6 million tons of manure each year—more than the sewage waste from a city the size of Philadelphia.
But the 760 million acres of rangeland on which cows—grassfed or grain fed cows (before they go into the feedlot) reside, represents a monumental opportunity for improved carbon drawdown. Cows digestive systems are designed to process grass. In nature, cattle move across the range, eating and fertilizing as they go. Cows produce 50–70 pounds of manure a day, which can play a vital role in healthy pastures when distributed naturally. An emerging practice called “carbon ranching” involves rotating cattle across grassland to optimize root growth and soil biology in a way that mimics the natural interaction between ruminants and the land. The result is more soil organic matter—living and dead plants, organisms, and microorganisms—which can in turn hold more carbon. And studies are also showing that applying compost can jumpstart and amplify the benefits.
Depending on the study and the geographic area, the emissions for “pastured beef” (100 percent grass fed) can vary considerably. Some studies have shown pastured beef under less rigorous grazing management to have emissions comparable to feedlot beef. Other studies have shown that well-managed grazing can actually sequester as much as 3 metric tons C02e per acre per year (the equivalent of the emissions from over 300 gallons of gasoline).   That would mean the cows are helping to store more carbon in the soil than they are emitting through digestion.
In fact, there is also a strong body of scientific work around the false approach to methane accounting which assigns a 25-34X potency compared to CO2, but ignores the half-life and cumulative potential—methane from herds that are about the same size is not actually accumulating, whereas carbon continues to accumulate for hundreds of years, depending on the carbon cycle. This is an emerging area in environmental and agricultural research and we hope to incorporate new data as findings are made public. But in a nutshell, there are crucial differences between feedlot beef and pastured beef. The former is a significant contributor to climate change and the latter could be a major part of the climate change solution.
How Zero Foodprint Looks at Beef
Given the environmental impact of feedlot beef and its widespread consumption, we think it’s important to be as specific as possible in calculating its carbon footprint. Zero Foodprint chooses to ask what kind of production method and to assign values based on the prices of individual cuts of beef. Certain cuts of beef are more valuable than others. Think ribeye versus ground beef. The dollar amount paid to a rancher is based on the total value of all the various parts of the cow. But we think that treating the cow as one single commodity ignores how people cook and eat beef.
As opposed to other methods that account for carbon footprint as a factor of total mass, volume, or calories, this methodology utilizes an economic allocation based on market pricing of cuts of beef, assigning different carbon footprints to different cuts of beef. We feel that this approach is the most relevant to the restaurant industry and consumers. It incentivizes cooks to use the whole animal, not just prime cuts, and rewards those who work with less popular parts of the animal.
Using standardized pricing data from the USDA, and in conjunction with Origin Climate, we’ve created the following guide showing both the absolute values and the proportional carbon footprint of various cuts of beef.
Viewed through an environmental lens, conventionally raised beef, which represents the vast majority of beef, is not climate friendly. Moreover, based on the way Zero Foodprint calculates the carbon emissions of beef, prime cuts—ribeye, filet mignon, strip steak, etc.—have significantly higher carbon footprints. Sorry!
But let’s withhold judgment. Eating beef is a part of our diets that most of us aren’t willing or able to give up. Here are some more moderate actions you can take, if you’re concerned with how your beef eating affects the climate: 1) choose pastured beef instead of feedlot beef; 2) replace prime cuts with cheaper cuts; and 3) resolve to make beef as delicious as possible when you cook it or eat it. And view the land in the beef industry as an opportunity for improvement—those corporations are likely to sell the beef to another person or country if you don’t buy/eat it.
As for the longer view, there is the aforementioned movement toward carbon ranching, wherein cows play a vital role in the sequestration of carbon by converting unproductive rangeland to perennial prairie. Click here to keep up to date with carbon ranching and The Marin Carbon Project.
Knowing is half the battle,
 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
 CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. It standardizes the global-warming impact of different greenhouse gases.
 Teague, WR. “The Role of Ruminants in Reducing Agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America,” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. March-April 2016.
 Stanley, Paige. “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems,” Agricultural Systems, May 2018.
 This economic allocation methodology is outlined in The International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) guideline 14044 and is related to the approach developed by The British Standards Institute regarding Life Cycle Analysis of products with multiple co-products, as outlined in the Publicly Available Specification (PAS 2050).