Why is Beef Production Bad for the Environment?

Beef production has become an incredibly contentious topic in recent years. On one side, you have climate activists and environmentalists who claim that cattle are an environmental catastrophe. On the other side, you have beef producers and consumers who feel they are being unfairly attacked.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Beef production does have real negative impacts on the environment, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. However, some of the claims made against the beef industry are exaggerated.

In this article, we’ll take an objective, fact-based look at why and how beef harms the environment.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The number one reason beef is considered bad for the environment is the large volume of greenhouse gases emitted during production.

There are a few main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle:

  • Methane from cattle burps (enteric fermentation): When cattle digest their food, they produce methane gas which is released when they belch. This accounts for the majority of emissions from beef production.

  • Methane from manure: Storing and managing all the manure from cattle also releases methane over time.

  • Nitrous oxide from fertilizer and manure: Nitrous oxide is an extremely potent greenhouse gas also emitted through manure and fertilizer use.

  • Carbon dioxide from land use changes: Converting forests and other land to pasture releases large amounts of CO2 stored in vegetation.

According to a recent study, producing 100 grams of protein from beef releases around 50 kg of CO2 equivalents when you account for all greenhouse gases. This is several times higher than plant-based protein sources like beans or lentils.

Over the last several decades, studies have differed quite a bit on how much various greenhouse gases from cattle actually impact climate change. However, current research using the GWP* metric indicates beef production emits around 0.55 lbs of CO2 equivalents per pound of beef.

While not as high as some past estimates, this is still substantial when considering the average American eats around 1 lb of beef per week.


Another major concern with the beef industry is extensive deforestation, especially in areas like the Amazon rainforest.

At this point, around 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is to clear land for cattle ranching. Since forests store huge amounts of carbon, cutting them down releases all that CO2 back into the atmosphere.

There are also huge losses in biodiversity when forests are replaced with cattle pasture. When land is converted for beef production, species like jaguars, macaws, and monkeys lose their habitat.

It’s important to note that deforestation due to cattle ranching mainly applies to beef production in tropical regions like Brazil. In temperate climates like the U.S., most beef cattle are raised on existing pasture or rangelands.

However, imported beef still contributes to deforestation pressures in tropical countries.

Other Environmental Impacts

While climate change and deforestation are the most talked about impacts, beef production creates other environmental issues:

  • Water pollution: The huge amounts of manure from cattle farms can pollute nearby waterways. Runoff from fertilizers can also contaminate water.

  • Soil degradation: Turning forests and grasslands into cropland for cattle feed can degrade soil health over time. Overgrazing pastures also compact soils.

  • Water usage: It takes around 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef. The water is used for drinking, servicing animals, and irrigating cattle feed crops.

  • Biodiversity loss: Converting habitats like grasslands and forests into pasture eliminates the native plant and animal species originally living there.

  • Air pollution: Some cattle farms release particulate matter, VOCs, and other hazardous air pollutants from manure. However, ranching contributes far less to air pollution compared to problems like transportation and electricity generation.

The Beef Industry Response

The beef industry has pushed back against many of the claims about the environmental impact of cattle.

For example, they argue that cattle play an important role in maintaining grassland ecosystems that can store carbon. They also point out that a decent portion of cattle are raised on marginally productive lands not suitable for growing human food crops.

However, while these points are valid, they don’t negate the fact that beef still has a significant environmental footprint, especially in terms of climate change.

The industry has taken some steps to improve sustainability, like developing new cattle feed additives to reduce methane emissions and better manure management strategies. However, substantially reducing the environmental impact of beef likely requires people to also eat less of it.

Should You Stop Eating Beef to Help the Environment?

Given the environmental issues around beef production, is it necessary to give up burgers and steaks to help the planet?

The answer isn’t black and white. Beef can be part of an environmentally sustainable diet, but in moderation.

Replacing a few beef-heavy meals with more chicken, plant-based proteins, or meatless options per week can still make a significant difference. You don’t necessarily have to go completely vegan or vegetarian, unless you want to.

When you do eat beef, choosing grass-fed, pasture-raised beef may be a bit better environmentally than conventional feedlot beef. However, this type of beef has supply constraints that limit how much it could scale up.

At the end of the day, cutting back on beef consumption, even by a modest amount, is one of the most impactful diet changes individuals can make for the health of our planet. By doing so, you send a message to the market that beef needs to adopt more sustainable production practices.

The Bottom Line: Beef’s Environmental Impact Must be Reduced

Clearly, beef production must become more sustainable for us to maintain a healthy biosphere capable of supporting 10+ billion people by 2050.

However, rather than attacking and defending beef based on moralistic arguments, we need solutions backed by science and data. Demonizing beef eaters won’t change minds and foster progress.

With more innovation and investment, cattle ranching can utilize practices like rotational grazing, silvopasture, methane inhibitors, and composting that drastically reduce negative environmental impacts.

But making enough progress likely also requires tempering our appetite for beef a bit through smaller portions and increased diversity in protein sources. An occasional hamburger or steak within a balanced, mostly plant-based diet should be perfectly sustainable.

The path forward requires ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, and policymakers working together with good faith. With open and honest dialogue, the North American beef industry can become a model for sustainable food production.

Why beef is the worst food for the climate


Why is eating less meat good for the environment?

For instance, replacing beef with beans in the US could free up 42% of US cropland and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 334 mmt, accomplishing 75% of the 2020 carbon reduction target. We summarise the evidence on how overconsumption of meat affects social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Is fish or beef worse for the environment?

One high meat-eater replacing that meat with fish would save the emissions equivalent of about 6,000 miles driven over the course of a year.

Why are cows bad for the environment?

Cattle play a colossal role in climate change: As the single largest agricultural source of methane, a potent planet-warming gas, the world’s 940 million cows spew nearly 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — much of it through belches and droppings.

What is the problem with beef?

Red and processed meats do increase health risks. In spite of what the Annals of Internal Medicine study suggests, Dr. Hu says that an accumulated body of evidence shows a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death.

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