Health

Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Beef?

Inside the quest to make beef more appetizing to climate-anxious Canadians.

Green graphic with illustration of cows at a barn.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

On any given day when Sean McGrath walks out his door and sets foot on his land, he’s met with a spectacular view of the surrounding Canadian prairie.

“Even on a day like today—snowy and cold—it doesn’t fail to take my breath away,” he says. “I can’t articulate it better than that. I want this place to be better when I go than when I started.”

McGrath is the fifth generation of his family to own and operate Round Rock Ranching, a sustainable cattle ranch in Vermilion, Alta. The ranch is situated mainly on native grasslands, where cattle are grazed year-round in patterns that support the health of the landscape. The grasslands’ plant and animal biodiversity is considered and protected, and water pollution is reduced through preventive measures, such as keeping cattle out of wetlands and using off-site water systems that run on solar power.

Even still, climate change is waiting in the wings. In recent years, McGrath has noticed increased volatility in weather patterns—extreme weather events, drastic temperature fluctuations—that makes managing the herd and the land more difficult. When faced with this stark reality, it’s encouraging to see his passion for sustainability. But do these sorts of practices actually have a tangible impact on reducing beef’s environmental footprint?

Green graphic with text and an illustration of carbon emissions.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

It’s no secret that the global beef industry contributes to a host of environmental concerns, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—starting with methane gas. As ruminants, cattle are able to digest large amounts of grass, but in order to derive nutrients from it, they have to chew, swallow and bring it up several times. During that process, they expel methane gas through belching, some of which gets released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. (Over a 20-year period, methane traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide does.)

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that the livestock sector accounts for 14.5 percent of all global manmade GHG emissions; cattle, in particular, contribute to 65 percent of livestock’s emissions.

In 2019, Canada’s total GHG emissions totalled 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent—a figure that has seen a net decrease of 1.1 percent since 2005. Agriculture, including crops and livestock, accounts for 10 percent of our total emissions. Emissions specifically from livestock digestion are responsible for 3.3 percent of that figure.

Canada has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and some improvements have been made in the beef industry. A study from the University of Manitoba and the Canadian federal government compared Canadian beef production GHG emissions from 1981 to 2011, and found that the amount of GHG produced per kilogram of beef declined by 14 percent over those three decades.

Green graphic with text and an illustration of a cow's face..

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

But there are other issues. Globally, cattle raised for dairy and beef cause significant water pollution, due to runoff from manure that ends up in surrounding waterways. Management practices, like those McGrath employs, can reduce water pollution, but not all farmers use them.

The sheer amount of land required to raise cattle also leads to another consequence of the industry: deforestation, which results in the destruction of habitats and loss of biodiversity.

Deforestation is especially concerning in places like the Amazon rainforest, where 17 percent of the forest has been destroyed in the last 50 years, largely due to human activity. Claudia Wagner-Riddle, an environmental science researcher and professor at the University of Guelph, says this specific problem is one that’s more global in scope: “In Canada, deforestation happened hundreds of years ago, so it’s not a current issue.”

Still, when beef is compared to plant-based protein sources, the differences in the resources required for production are glaring. The World Resources Institute reports that beef production requires a whopping 20 times more land per unit of protein, compared with what’s needed to grow crops like lentils or beans.

Green graphic with text and an illustration of a tractor.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

Given the environmental toll beef takes, there’s a strong argument to be made for eliminating it from our diets altogether. Kaitlyn Mitchell, a lawyer at Animal Justice—Canada’s only national animal law advocacy organization—points to a 2020 study from the University of Michigan and Tulane University that says that the United States alone could save 2.4 billion tons of GHG emissions by 2030 if beef consumption were cut by 90 percent, and all other meat and dairy were cut by 50 percent.

“The science is clear that we have to eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, our consumption of beef in particular,” says Mitchell. This is in line with the EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet, which was developed by scientists to provide dietary recommendations that are good for our health and the planet’s. It says that we should be eating no more than 98 grams of red meat (pork, beef or lamb) each week.

But Canadians still eat a hefty—though declining—amount of beef. In the past 40 years, annual consumption has decreased by just over 10 kilograms per person, from 28.72 kilograms in 1980 to 18.03 kilograms in 2020.

“What we’re noticing is that Canadians are still fully committed to beef,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. Even with this long-term decrease, our 2020 consumption habits clock in at 347 grams per week, more than three times the EAT-Lancet recommendation.

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(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

With many Canadians seemingly unwilling to give up red meat, sustainable beef might—in theory—make an impact. The term is defined by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) as “a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals and progress.” The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), which is a member of the GRSB, operates under a similar definition.

“The founding members of the CRSB had a vision to create this collaborative space for sustainability conversations, with the idea of continual improvement in beef production in Canada,” says Anne Wasko, CRSB chair and co-owner of Bar 4 Bar Land and Cattle Inc. in Eastend, Sask. “As beef producers, we want Canadians to know that we all share the concern about the climate.”

Given that factors like soil and weather vary across provinces, Wasko notes sustainability can look different from one ranch to another. However, the CRSB does have a certification program to recognize such practices. Cattle producers can voluntarily have their operations audited by a third party to see if they qualify for certification, which consists of meeting requirements across five categories, including natural resources, community impacts, and animal health and welfare.

The requirements include specific criteria, such as providing adequate space for cattle to move freely and access feed and water. Other requirements, however, are less precise, such as making an effort to reduce waste and being aware of carbon sequestration practices (more on this later).

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(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

In 2018, the United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) was called out in a letter signed by more than 50 organizations, including representatives from the American Grassfed Association and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. They called the USRSB’s assessment guidelines “vague, weak and inadequate for reducing and minimizing impacts and enabling vitally needed progress.”

Animal Justice’s Mitchell says the CRSB has the same problem, and that their requirements simply don’t set the bar high enough.

“The CRSB’s certification requirements are vague in many respects, so it really opens the door to greenwashing and humanewashing, duping consumers into supporting an industry that has truly devastating environmental impacts,” says Mitchell. “Efforts to legitimize sustainable beef production using weak performance measures, in effect, gives the beef industry social licence to continue their operations.”

Green pull quote graphic with text and a photo of a woman.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

Since the CRSB’s certification program launched in 2017, some big names have pledged to source a portion of their beef from CRSB-certified sources, including McDonald’s Canada, Harvey’s and Walmart.

Wasko says an estimated 17 percent of Canadian cattle herds are on CRSB-certified ranches and farms, like her own. However, not all farms that employ sustainable practices are certified. “I’ve got neighbours that do exactly the same thing as we do, but they’re not certified or audited,” she says. Likewise, McGrath’s ranch is certified through a different organization, Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+), which launched in 2016 and grew out of an educational program initially started by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. VBP+ is now a certification body for the CRSB, and ranches and farms that have achieved VBP+ certification are also recognized as CRSB-certified.

Mitchell says that a lack of across-the-board standards is part of the problem: “We just don’t have any true regulatory standards in Canada right now to allow people to understand, in a meaningful way, where their meat or other animal products are coming from, how they were made and what the environmental implications of those products are,” she says.

Aside from the CRSB, the Canadian beef industry as a whole is working toward a number of sustainability goals—including maintaining native grasslands, guarding wetlands and reducing GHG emissions by 33 percent on every kilogram of beef produced—by 2030. The goals were developed by seven national beef organizations, including Canada Beef and the CRSB.

Green graphic with text and an illustration of a cow.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

“I would call these robust action items [with] very specific timelines,” says Wasko, noting that progress will be assessed through a scientific study. An update is slated to come in the CRSB’s 2023 National Beef Sustainability Assessment report. (These industry-wide goals, it’s worth noting, are not mandatory.)

Wagner-Riddle says it’s a positive thing that the industry has created the GHG targets, and that sometimes a lack of specifics allows flexibility.

“In general when organizations set targets, they don’t want to be overly prescriptive, because we do have such a variation in farms, soil and climate, so how we get there, we need to leave a bit open,” she says. “One farmer may be able to achieve [emissions] reductions through feed quality, while another farmer may do so by improving soil carbon sequestration.”

Maintaining Canada’s native grasslands—which are home to an estimated two to three billion tons of carbon—is perhaps the most compelling argument for beef sustainability.

“We don’t raise cattle as much as we grow grass,” says Bryan Gilvesy, who owns and operates Y U Ranch in Tillsonburg, Ont. (Gilvesy’s ranch employs sustainable practices but is not CRSB-certified.) “There’s a relationship between livestock and grass that is beneficial for both.”

The grass Gilvesy is talking about just happens to be part of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, it’s estimated that more than 70 percent of Canada’s Prairie grasslands have already been lost.

Green graphic with text explaining that Canada has lost 70% of its Prairie grasslands.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

“One thing that’s missing in conversations about where we’re going as a planet is the importance of grasslands as an ecotype. We cannot afford to lose our grasslands,” says Gilvesy. “And if you look at the relationship between the grasslands and how bison used those grasslands . . . we’re just trying to mimic those natural systems.”

These systems have been in play for hundreds of years, says Wagner-Riddle, noting that much of the carbon originally stored in the soil was put there by plants through a process known as carbon sequestration.

“Plants uptake carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which goes into the plant biomass then into the roots, and when that material dies off, it becomes part of the soil’s organic matter,” says Wagner-Riddle. “It’s important that the soil doesn’t get disturbed [because] if you overwork the soil and kill the grass, then that carbon is returned to the atmosphere.”

Cattle can help this process by eating the grass (in effect harvesting it), which initiates more growth. When cattle excrete, they also fertilize the land by providing certain nutrients that the plants need, which helps the roots store more carbon in the soil over time. If cattle are moved to different grazing areas regularly, it gives the grass time to regrow and complete this cycle.

Green graphic with text and an illustration of a cow.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

The quality of grass can have an impact on sustainability, too. “If something they’re eating is of poor quality, they have to [chew and swallow] it over and over again to get any nutrition out of it, bringing up more methane,” says Wagner-Riddle. “But if it’s good-quality grass, that’s more sustainable in the sense that their emissions are reduced.”

Wagner-Riddle notes, however, that if cattle were hypothetically removed from this equation and the grasslands left undisturbed, the carbon would stay there. But Nature Canada reports that much of Canada’s native grasslands are on land owned by farmers and ranchers, so simply leaving the land alone is not a realistic solution.

“There isn’t a more responsible use of those lands,” says Johanna Wandel, associate professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo. “You shouldn’t be plowing them, and you can’t really use them for crop production because they don’t have the right conditions. So it’s a very compatible land use.”

Just how much rotational grazing offsets cattle’s GHG footprint, however, is up for debate. Farmers for Climate Solutions, a national farmer-led coalition, estimated in a 2021 report that a potential 302,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent could be mitigated during the 2021–23 growing seasons if rotational grazing were adopted at a rate of five percent per year. (It also noted that infrastructure and planning would be needed to support widespread implementation.)

Green graphic with text and an illustration of grass..

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

According to the CRSB, there’s currently no practical way for individual farmers to measure their on-farm carbon balance obtained through sustainable practices, though it says it does track how much carbon is stored in land managed by Canadian beef producers nationwide. However, it’s important to point out that the CRSB does not currently require carbon sequestration practices like rotational grazing to be implemented for a farm to achieve certification. Instead, only awareness of such practices is necessary.

“The CRSB adopts a continuous improvement model,” says Wasko. “There are 24 indicators in the program, encompassing all areas of beef sustainability—carbon is one of [them]. We know that starting with awareness then shifting to adoption leads to more successful outcomes.”

Wasko says the CRSB is reviewing the program and is open to feedback, but Mitchell thinks that carbon sequestration should have been a priority from the start. “Sustainability should be something that actually has teeth and is meaningful, but when we have pivotal environmental problems and all that they’re requiring is awareness of those problems . . . that’s not sustainability,” she says. “When you really get down into the details and look at [the requirements], there’s not a lot that’s targeted and measurable. And I don’t think that consumers understand that.”

When grasslands are properly cared for, it can have a positive ripple effect on the entire ecosystem. Both Gilvesy and McGrath are involved in a program known as ALUS, which helps farmers protect and enhance the ecosystems on their land. This might include things like creating pollinator habitats or filtering water to reduce pollution. “[All of this] contributes to a resilient food system, especially in the face of climate change,” says Gilvesy.

Creating resilient food systems is certainly positive. But one major drawback—both nationally and globally—is that we simply do not have enough land to raise all beef sustainably at current consumption levels. “Shifting to grass-fed cattle to solve the climate crisis won’t get us anywhere, and, in fact, you’d see clearing of land that should be forest, for grazing,” says Wandel.

And that brings us back to the fact that we just can’t keep eating as much beef as we have been. “Even when cows are farmed using low-impact methods, the production of beef still results in more GHG emissions than even the highest-impact plant protein,” says Mitchell. “What we’re talking about here is not just tweaking things, but drastically changing our farming methods while also drastically reducing the amount of [animal] products we’re consuming.”

Green graphic with information about beef consumption in the United States.

(Illustration: Carmen Jabier)

And so—if one thing’s certain—it’s that the problem is complicated, and striking a balance is likely the most realistic solution for most of us. If we can reduce the overall amount of animal products we consume and buy fewer but more sustainable versions of those products, we can reduce our individual impact.

“I don’t think the beef industry and our current consumption habits can be defended in the climate crisis, but I’m not all or nothing,” says Wandel. “Beef as something we’re entitled to five nights a week? I think it’s indefensible. But eating beef generally, as part of a sustainable lifestyle, is totally defensible.”

Wagner-Riddle also notes that we can’t just zero in on one thing when it comes to how our actions affect the environment: “[If you’re] eating less meat but still wasting food and energy, driving everywhere . . . [climate change] is just such a complex problem and we can’t focus on one solution.”

If eating sustainable beef is a part of the solution for you, then the best place to look for it is at a nearby farm, if possible. You can also check with farmers’ markets and locally owned butcher shops or grocery stores to see if they stock beef from local and sustainable sources. Either way, it’s important to ask questions, like what the ranch is doing to sequester carbon or reduce water pollution, to ensure it actually meets your sustainability expectations.

“You’ve got to do your own homework,” says Gilvesy. “There’s a lot of language that’s used rather liberally in marketing to beef consumers. Make sure you’re not being greenwashed.”

Yes, sustainably raised beef may cost more than conventionally raised, but, as with many consumer items, cheaper products often come with greater long-term environmental costs.

“If you’re purchasing something that’s not sustainable—beef or otherwise—you are deferring those costs to society and the environment,” adds McGrath. “In the overarching big picture, it has to be sustainable to be affordable. There is no other option.”

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