Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

The environmental impact of beef

The production of beef affects the climate, environment and biodiversity, but the effects depend on how the meet is produced. There is a large scope for reducing the environmental impact per kg meet produced by increasing the utilisation of the animal into new edible products not conventionally produced.

[Translate to English:] Der er forskel på klimaaftrykket i kødproduktionen afhængig af produktionsform. Skotske Højlandskvæg har en positiv effekt på biodiversiteten. Foto: Colourbox

It is no secret that the production of beef has a large impact on the climate. What is less known is how the different beef production systems, on which on which the steak on our plate is based, affect the climate and the environment and on which part of the production chain you should focus to reduce the impact on climate and the environment.


Scientists from Aarhus University have calculated how different beef production systems affect the climate and environment as part of a project by the Danish Agriculture and Food Council that assesses the total environmental impact of veal and beef meat production, with financial support from the Danish Cattle Levy Fund.


The results, which have been published in a report by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture, show that veal and beef from dairy cattle has a smaller impact on the climate per kg meat than from beef breed cattle. The production of dairy-based beef also results in lower eutrophication per kg meat produced. Meat from beef breeds, on the other hand, is better for biodiversity. Regardless of production form, the largest contribution to the environmental impact by far is from the primary production with a much smaller impact from the slaughter process.


Differences in environmental load

The scientists carried out life cycle analyses of 13 different beef production forms from  one dairy cattle breed (Danish Holstein) and two beef cattle breeds (Scottish Highland and Limousine). 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 examined the effect of the different production forms on a number of environmental impact categories per kg edible product (i.e. meat and edible by-products) leaving the slaughterhouse. They calculated the carbon footprint in kg CO2–eq. emission, fossil energy consumption, eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) measured in kg NO3–eq. and loss of biodiversity.


- There are large variations in the environmental load of meat from different production systems. The different types of meat also have different rankings depending on the environmental impact category, says Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University.


The analysis showed that the carbon footprint and  nutrient enrichment of meat 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 and nutrient enrichment per kg meat, with the exception of meat from steers which had a far higher climate footprint than from the other types.


The type of feed grown has an impact on biodiversity. Generally, a higher biodiversity is achieved with permanent pasture – particularly if it is grazed – than with an annual crop such as a cereal. When looking at the impact on biodiversity of beef production, there is only a very small impact for most types of beef.

There is a small loss of biodiversity when producing beef from the dairy breed and a small increase in biodiversity when producing beef in an intensive suckler cow system with Limousine, and in the extensive production with Scottish Highland Cattle there is a large positive impact on biodiversity because of the size of the area grazed.


Scope for improvements

There is scope for reducing the impact on climate and environment from beef production. Since the largest impact in veal and beef production is at the primary production stage, any innovative measures must take place here. The slaughtering process is already very energy and resource efficient.


- However, when an animal is slaughtered, only about half of its live weight ends as edible products. If you are able to increase the proportion of the live weight that is utilised, this will have a significant impact on the climate and environmental load per kg edible product of beef production, says Lisbeth Mogensen.


The report ”Environmental impact of beef by life cycle assessment (LCA) – 13 Danish beef production systems”, DCA report no. 61, April 2015 can be downloaded here.


For further information, please contact: Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen, Department of Agroecology, e-mail:  lisbeth.mogensen@agro.au.dk, telefon: 8715 8025