Does removing beef from the diet improve health and environmental sustainability?


Last week, you may have seen the news creeping across your social media feeds that Virgin mogul and billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, announced he had given up consuming beef in the name of a healthier lifestyle and planet. I say kudos to him! We should all be striving to do more to reduce our environmental impact, try our best to consume food more modestly, and do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, out of all the (food and non-food) products consumed in our daily lives, is removing beef from the diet really making the biggest impact?

Compared to the numbers I have seen, Richard was a bit high on his estimates for the negative impact of cattle farming and ranching. I will give him one thing, there are other livestock species more efficient at feed to gain conversion than cattle, but that does not equate to beef cattle being harmful to our diets or the environment. There are several studies showing our environmental impact from beef cattle farming and ranching here in the United States has been significantly reduced over the past several decades. A 2011 study, that used data from the FAO, USDA and several private and public research institutions, shows that water required to produce 1 pound of boneless beef was reduced by 12% between 1977 and 2007, to 477 gallons of water. That’s significantly different than the 1,799 gallons quoted by Branson. Keep in mind, it’s not as if that water is used and disappears. It returns to be a part of the water cycle.

The same study shows significant improvements with modern farming and ranching techniques over the past 30 years. In 2007 compared to 1977, we are using 69.9% of animal numbers, 81.4% of the feeds, 87.9% of the water, and only 67.0% of the land required to produce 1 billion kg of beef. Our wastes, including greenhouse gas emissions, also were reduced during that same period by 12 – 18%, with a 16% smaller carbon footprint. Chances are, though, most readers are not here to see the numbers or read the science.

Ranchers are continually working to improve their skills and learn about new management techniques in classes like this range tour in Miles City, Montana. Photo credit: Montana Stockgrowers Association
Ranchers are continually working to improve their skills and learn about new management techniques in classes like this range tour in Miles City, Montana. Photo credit: Montana Stockgrowers Association

Earlier this summer, I traveled for a solid week across Montana, visiting ranchers who practice several different farming and ranching methods; raising beef cattle in conventional, non-hormone treated, and natural beef programs. Each of these ranching families was excited to show me their animals out on pasture; to show the comparison of range conditions, wildlife and plant diversity; and improvements in water quality made by implementing better management practices over the years.

Each of these ranching families is a great example of people across the country who are striving to continually make improvements in their family business. They are working to raise their animals and care for the land with integrity, and leave their environments in better shape than they found it so that the next generations can carry on the traditions of family farming and ranching. My travels may only have been in Montana so far this summer, but they are very representative of family businesses I have visited across the country over the past several years.

Whether you are consuming beef from conventional farms and ranches, or those marketing niche, label-verified programs, please know that beef cattle farmers and ranchers across the country are continually striving to make improvements. They have the better management tools than they did just a decade or two ago and they’re implementing them to be more sustainable; which can be defined as utilizing fewer resources, emitting less waste, and taking care of our environment so that it is in better shape that it was found.

Ranchers utilize several innovative management techniques, like improving water sources, to conserve and improve our beautiful rangeland environments like this scene near Havre, Montana.. Photo Credit: Montana Stockgrowers Association
Ranchers utilize several innovative management techniques, like improving water sources, to conserve and improve our beautiful rangeland environments like this scene near Havre, Montana.. Photo Credit: Montana Stockgrowers Association

The cattle ranching community is working to share these stories, through programs like the Environmental Stewardship programs in each state, and several other efforts through online blogs and local community efforts. This single post doesn’t even begin to touch on the claims Branson brought up in his decision to drop beef. The improvements that are being made on farms and ranches across the country are part of an overall story of what happens day in and day out, and one post won’t even begin to encompass it all.

If you’re going to make lifestyle changes to be healthier and to be a better steward of your environment, I’d encourage you to make those choices based on science-based and factual information, not solely in the shadow of a billionaire celebrity or trendy restaurant chain. We can all do our part and I hope you look at the many opportunities in your lifestyle to make those improvements; even options like your Virgin phones, planes, or trains.

(And for those of you who are beef devotees out there, despite the fact that this looks a lot like a CSR PR move, I don’t encourage you to lash out at Sir Branson for this announcement, but rather take it as an opportunity to talk about beef’s sustainability and environmental impact. Address some of the myths that your friends and connections may be asking questions about. Do your research on the evidence, suggest ways that cattle farmers/ranchers are working to improve the environment, and ways you can continually implement ideas that will help with that progress.)

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6 Comments

  1. Ryan as always a well thought out piece. I just posted the Tedx Foggy Bottom talk by Aysha Akhtar talking about how we treat our animals dictates our own survival. You are doing the same thing. I think you two should meet. BTW Trying to reach you for a speaking engagement. Hope you message me soon.

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  2. Great post, sir. I am from Costa Rica and share this same issue, always debating with people speaking against beef and dairy production. I am sharing with you an investigation about the effect in health of not eating beef, and the incidence of some diseseases by eating vegan or vegetarian.
    Greetings
    http://www.beefpoint.com.br/cadeia-produtiva/carne-saude/pesquisa-mostra-que-vegetarianos-tem-mais-cancer-alergias-e-desordens-mentais/?utm_content=buffer88bb1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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  3. Great point about water not being “used up” to produce beef. That is such a prolific misconception. Water is rarely “used up”, rather it just moves to different stages of the water cycle. Nice post.

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