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Can grass-fed beef truly be carbon neutral?

Article-Can grass-fed beef truly be carbon neutral?

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The jury is out on grass-fed beef—which has been touted as a carbon sequestration tool—and whether it can truly be carbon neutral, since grass-fed cattle are said to produce more methane over their lifetimes compared to their grain-fed counterparts.

As consumer interest in sustainability and environmentally friendly food production grows, the food and beverage industry is increasingly focused on carbon footprint during the product development phase.

One area of particular interest is grass-fed beef, which has been touted as a carbon sequestration tool. There are conflicting opinions, however, on whether grass-fed beef can be truly carbon neutral, considering grass-fed cattle produce more methane over their lifetimes than their grain-fed counterparts.

Higher carbon footprint of grass-fed beef

Grass-fed cattle require more time to reach market weight, so they spend more time consuming grass, which leads to greater methane production from enteric fermentation, according to EPA. Methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted by grass-fed cattle, is more concentrated than other GHGs, which means it contributes to climate change at a higher rate in the short term. It also dissipates in the atmosphere more quickly than other GHGs, such as carbon dioxide.

This characteristic of methane presents an opportunity for impactful short-term climate change mitigation strategies, as reducing methane production could have immediate and significant effects on reducing the overall GHG impact. Research shows grass-fed cattle produce more methane than grain-fed cattle, which raises concerns about the potential short-term climate impact of grass-fed beef production. It is essential, though, to weigh this short-term concern against the long-term benefits and potential carbon sequestration of regenerative agriculture practices.

Variability in data

The scientific literature on the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef is varied, with some studies suggesting a positive, albeit small, impact on reducing emissions. This discrepancy in findings may stem from differences in carbon accounting methods, particularly in relation to carbon sequestration.

Critics of “carbon-negative meat” studies argue that the variability in the datasets and the limited knowledge of the carbon cycle, especially below-ground carbon dynamics, make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. They emphasize the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental impacts of various beef production systems and argue for more robust and standardized methods to evaluate them.

The bigger picture: Regenerative agriculture practices

Regardless of the carbon sequestration potential of grass-fed beef, regenerative agriculture practices are a necessary shift in agricultural management, and they offer numerous benefits beyond carbon emissions reduction. These practices can improve biodiversity, soil health, water management and pollution reduction, among other advantages. While the label of “carbon mitigation tool” might make regenerative agriculture more marketable, the focus on carbon neutrality alone may distract from the wider benefits of these practices.

The question of whether grass-fed beef can be truly carbon neutral is a complex one, and the scientific literature has yet to reach a consensus. Challenges in carbon accounting and the lack of a standardized method for measuring carbon sequestration make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. It is essential, however, to recognize the broader benefits of regenerative agriculture practices, which extend beyond carbon emissions reduction.

As the food and beverage industry continues to focus on sustainability as part of its product development strategy, it is crucial to consider the full range of benefits that regenerative agriculture practices can offer, rather than focusing solely on carbon neutrality. By embracing a more holistic approach to sustainable food production, we can better support the health of our planet and its inhabitants.

Leah Wolfe enables a wide range of stakeholders to better understand their roles in building a better food system. As head of regenerative education & content for HowGood, she helps provide deeper insights into the intersection of regenerative agriculture, actionable data and consumer trends.

HowGood is an independent research company dedicated to providing the most comprehensive insights into product sustainability, which harnesses the power of over 600 unique data sources to analyze more than 33,000 ingredients, chemicals and materials. By mapping the global supply system across eight core environmental and social impact metrics, HowGood delivers an actionable view of any ingredient or product's impact.

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