Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Not all kinds of beef are climate culprits

Beef production emits greenhouse gases and thus contributes to global warming – but not all types of beef production contribute equally to the problem.

2016.05.10 | Janne Hansen

Beef from dairy cattle production is much more climate-friendly than beef from extensively farmed beef production. Photo: Colourbox

Burp! Each time a cow, calf, heifer or bull burps it emits methane to the atmosphere. Methane gas is even more potent than CO2 regarding climate impact.

 

Even though burping is a natural part of ruminant digestion, there are differences in methane emission. An analysis carried out by the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University demonstrates that emission depends on production system.

 

- There are large variations in the environmental load of meat from different production systems, says Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University and one of the researchers behind the analysis. Some of the results appear in the table at the end of this article.

 

Significant differences between production systems

The scientists calculated life cycle analyses of 13 different types of beef production systems from the dairy cattle breed Danish Holstein and the two beef cattle breeds Scottish Highland and Limousin.

 

For the three different breeds there was a further division into production forms (organic and conventional) and into the meat from veal calves (8-12 months), young cattle (12-24 months) and beef cattle  (>24 months). The scientists calculated the carbon footprint in kg CO2-equivalents per kg meat produced. In relation to beef, methane typically constitutes half of the emission, and CO2 and nitrous oxide further constitute two major contributors.

 

The carbon footprint from calves and young cattle of the dairy breed were only a third of that from the beef breeds. For all types of meat from the dairy breed, there were only small differences in carbon footprint per kg meat, with the exception of meat from steers which had a far higher carbon footprint than from the other production types. More than two thirds of the Danish beef production comes from dairy cattle.

 

Beef production based on beef breeds is the least climate-friendly type of production. Typically, it is an extensive production system that can include elements of nature management. This production type may improve biodiversity, but contributes – to a much higher extent than intensive beef production based on dairy breeds – to greenhouse gas emission.

 

Research in climate-friendly burps

At Aarhus University scientists are examining methods to reduce the animals’ methane emissions. They take various approaches to the problem, including genetics, feeding and different production systems. However, there is an upper limit to everything, as Senior Researcher Troels Kristensen from the Department of Agroecology explains:

 

-  These initiatives may help reduce methane emission by 10-15 percent, but it will be difficult to reduce it further. We are talking about ruminants that still need to live a normal life.

 

The major part of agricultural greenhouse gas emission comes from the production of meat and other livestock-based food, but all types of food leave a carbon footprint. You can see the carbon footprint for individual food types here at the website of the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. Please note that the carbon footprints include all parts of the food chain (production, processing and transport) until the product reaches the supermarket. In addition, the carbon footprint is indicated per kg food product, and the individual food products may differ significantly as to the content of energy, protein, vitamins etc. per kg food product.

 

Also read “The environmental impact of beef”. This article is based on the report ”Environmental impact of beef by life cycle assessment (LCA) – 13 Danish beef production systems”, available for download here.

 

For further information please contact:

Senior Researcher Troels Kristensen, Department of Agroecology, e-mail: troels.kristensen@agro.au.dk, tel.: 8715 8014

 

Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen, Department of Agroecology, e-mail: lisbeth.mogensen@agro.au.dk, tel.: 8715 8025

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

   

 

 

 

 

Carbon footprint as CO2-equivalents per kg meat produced in different production systems:

Production type

Greenhouse gas emission (CO2-equivalents/kg meat)

Danish Holstein (dairy cattle production)

 

Danish calf

10.6

Young bull

10.6

Steer

19.8

Dairy cow

11.3

 

 

Limousin (intensive beef cattle production)

25.8

 

 

 Scottish Highland (extensive beef cattle production)

36.8

 
 

 

   
   
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   
DCA, Agro, Cattle