Beef has a sustainability problem. Is this the year the industry finds a fix?


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the trends that will shape the food and beverage industry in 2022.

Beef is not sustainable: That’s what critics charge and what many consumers want to see change.

The statistics around the meat’s environmental footprint are attention-grabbing. Globally, livestock contributes 14.5% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions, with beef responsible for the largest share, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations. The livestock industry was responsible for the second-largest share of emissions of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas said to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — in the U.S. in 2019, according to the EPA. Global methane emissions from cattle, meanwhile, have risen by more than 10% since 2000, according to Statista data

“We all worry about what this future looks like, and we all feel extreme pressure to mitigate these impacts in a very real way,” said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a researcher of sustainable cattle herding methods.

While demand for beef remains high, with sales last June rising 12% above the 20-year average, according to Gro Intelligence, consumer attitudes may be shifting against the protein over the longer term because of its large environmental footprint. Studies have shown growing interest among U.S. consumers in limiting meat intake based on the industry’s impact on climate. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 49% of people who were reducing their consumption of meat cited environmental reasons as a major factor. Meanwhile, the rising popularity of plant-based alternatives, whose production is said to emit anywhere from 30% to 90% less greenhouse gases than animal-based meat, has also added pressure for the beef industry to address the sustainability of its protein.

In response, beef providers have recently begun to set goals to reduce emissions by tapping approaches like regenerative farming and methane-cutting feed. And in the year ahead, these efforts and a search for other solutions are only expected to ramp up as the industry seeks to win over skeptical consumers and governments grappling with climate change. At the same time, some critics argue that meat producers are ignoring some compelling — if costly — options for addressing the problem, demonstrating the complexity of making beef truly sustainable.

Industry efforts target emissions

As a first step, many of the largest beef processors have set goals to cut their emissions, with each relying on a mix of measures to hit its target. 

Last year, Brazilian beef giant JBS committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040 across its global supply chain. To do so, it is investing $1 billion on projects targeting greenhouse gases, including $100 million by 2030 to help its producers implement regenerative farming practices. It also has vowed to eliminate illegal deforestation from its supply chain by 2025. This is after The Guardian published a 2020 report that JBS was being supplied by a cattle farm linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon. 

Cargill aims to cut beef emissions across its North American supply chain by 30% by 2030, through practices like regenerative farming. And in 2021, Tyson announced it was targeting net zero emissions across its global operations and supply chain by 2050, in part by eliminating deforestation and sourcing beef from producers verified by BeefCare, a program that audits farms and ranchers to ensure they are following sustainable practices.

As major beef processors set their individual targets, the industry is also trying to collaborate with other stakeholders on the the issue. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has a membership portfolio that includes not only big beef producers, processors and their suppliers but also retailers, environmental groups and academic institutions. 

Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of GRSB, said that the entity was formed around goals that industry leaders thought were critical to stop temperatures from rising, providing specific principles for different areas of the globe that produce beef based on their climate. He said that the organization finds common ground in wanting to prevent climate catastrophe, both personally and for the beef industry’s sake.

“We won’t be able to be in business if we don’t stop climate change,” Petre said. “Nobody will be in business.”

Petre said one area the industry is focused on is feed additives, which have the potential to prevent methane production in the cow. In November, JBS SA announced it was partnering with ingredients giant Royal DSM to use its new feed additive, Bovaer, which is said to suppress the enzyme that produces methane in beef cows and reduce emissions by up to 90%.

“We won’t be able to be in business if we don’t stop climate change. Nobody will be in business.”

Ruaraidh Petre

Executive director,  The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

Hugh Welsh, president of DSM North America, said the company is currently working with JBS to see how the additive can best be implemented in its supply chain, but did not indicate how long this process could take. However, he noted that the FDA has not approved Bovaer for use as a feed because it determined that the additive does not offer nutritional benefits to the animal. Instead, the agency has classified it as a drug, which means it will likely go through a potentially longer approval process.

“There’s no regulatory pathway for a feed ingredient with an environmental benefit,” Welsh said, adding that the company is currently trying to figure out if the feed provides a nutritional benefit to cattle. “It might improve the energy efficiency of the animal,” he said.

Petre with GRSB also pointed to genetic research being conducted to identify which cows have a lower residual feed intake, which could lower emissions. In July, Cargill announced it was participating in the Dairy Beef Accelerator, a three-year program that will examine the benefits of crossbreeding beef and dairy cows to create hybrids that have improved feed efficiency.

“There’s a lot of promise, but those things are really just coming to the stage of commercialization now,” Petre said.

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Nikola Stojadinovic via Getty Images


Regenerative agriculture rises

As these longer-term efforts roll out, one common approach that many big beef processors and producers have embraced to address emissions is regenerative agriculture. Broadly speaking, these are farming practices that restore the soil and water used for food production by sequestering a critical mass of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to nonprofit Regeneration International. They include the use of cover crops, for example, that prevent the release of carbon from land that is being used to raise beef cattle or grow ingredients for feed. 

In September, Cargill announced it would pay farmers to expand or implement regenerative agriculture practicesThe beef giant said it will involve sustainable grazing practices to “harness the potential of cattle,” and restore soil to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The adoption of regenerative agriculture by meat companies has happened very rapidly, according to Petre with GRSB. While there is research pointing to the positive benefits of sequestering carbon, he said they are not fully known because “regenerative” practices are defined differently by various companies.

“It’s kind of being used as a panacea in a way,” Petre said. “Regenerative [agriculture] has become really popular, almost before we have the evidence to say, ‘These are the things to concentrate on.’ ”

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