Sustainable beef’s present and future

by Carlos Marcelo Saviani, Global Sustainability Director at dsm-firmenich Animal Nutrition & Health

The beef supply chain is often criticized for its negative impact on the environment. Yet beef is a nutrient-dense food that provides essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that are important for human health.

In many parts of the world, beef is an important source of protein and a staple food for millions of people. Beef represents US$245 billion in economic activity each year and supports 600 million smallholder farmers in developing countries.

With global beef production and consumption representing around 40% of all livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, environmental sustainability is a key element to be considered in beef production. What is often missed is that actors across the industry are making considerable efforts to make beef more sustainable.

The least efficient beef farm can have an environmental footprint up to 50 times larger than the most efficient one

Using the right numbers

Often, discussions about sustainable beef use historic figures from various places and then averaged to arrive at a global estimate of the environmental impact, commonly measured in carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2e). Every farm is different. While some are modern and highly efficient, others are less so.

There are a lot of peer reviewed studies, already available, showing a huge variation in the beef footprints per country, but most importantly, per farm. The least efficient beef farm can have an environmental footprint up to 50 times larger than the most efficient one, depending on the animals' diets, levels of productivity and efficiency, feed additives, grazing methods used, manure management systems, levels of land conversion and other factors.

Figure 1. Emission intensity of different beef production systems | Source: FAO Livestock Carbon Footprint report 2023

The red dot indicates the global average value, and the box indicates the lower and upper quantiles, the vertical bar the median value.

For example, beef production in the USA, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.7% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions nationally, versus over 20% in some other countries.

Current sustainability efforts in the beef value chain

The beef industry, across the board, is making huge efforts to measure, report and reduce their environmental footprints. There are many multi-stakeholder initiatives connected to the global and national beef sustainability roundtables, e.g., the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef just to mention one, as well as company-specific initiatives focused on sustainable beef.

In many cases, beef meatpackers and retailers are already taking bold actions on sustainable beef, working alongside ranchers, feedlots and their associations, input suppliers, universities, consultants, NGOs, start-ups and innovators.

Nearly all of the major beef meatpackers (Cargill, Tyson, JBS, Marfrig, Minerva, etc.) and beef products´ sellers (retail and fast food firms such as Walmart, McDonalds, Yum, Costco, Ahold, Tesco, Casino, etc.) have made Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) commitments to not only reduce their GHG emissions, but some even to become carbon net zero in the next decades, including their scope 3 emissions (the GHG footprint coming from their suppliers, beef producers).

Banks who also count beef’s environmental footprint in their scope 3 calculations are providing green loans to finance those actions or help their customers on the ground in implementing sustainability solutions, thereby reducing the environmental footprint of farming as well as their own financed emissions.

New entrepreneurial initiatives, like Sustell™, Athian, Regrow, Agoro, Truterra, Indigo, Bayer Carbon Program and others were born to measure, report and/or validate in a credible way those footprint reductions on the ground but also the carbon captured by the farms´ soils that are producing the feed and the animals. Until quite recently, carbon sequestration had not been considered in most of the beef greenhouse gas accounting.

They also allow for value to be created and shared with feed and animal producers that are doing the right thing at their farms to reduce the beef and other agricultural footprints.

Consumers can already purchase beef products on the shelves of supermarkets or in restaurants around the world with verified sustainability or carbon net zero claims—and many are able and willing to pay a premium for such products.

This creates a virtuous cycle as consumers opt for more sustainable choices and companies and farmers improve their sustainability to meet demand.

A non-exhaustive list of beef sustainability initiatives:

You can find the complete list of national sustainable beef roundtables at the GRSB site.

90% of what beef cattle eat is not edible to humans

Beef in circular agriculture

If you look at what animals eat, for all the talk of grain finishing, less than 10% of beef lifetime diets are made of grains. 90% of their diets are made of grass, forage and agriculture residues, by-products that would be wasted if not for the ruminants that can digest them.

Grazing, responsible for over 80% of the beef weight produced in the world, is the only economic, and therefore sustainable way, to keep grasslands intact and avoid their conversion to crops or to allow for food production in marginal lands not suitable for agriculture.

Cattle, in those cases, are mimicking of what bison and other herbivores used to do, fertilizing the soil, stimulating the growth of the grasses (with their hoofs, acting as aerators), supporting the life of a myriad of insects and their respective food chains, literally with their blood and tears, but also with their rich manure. It is the first regenerative agriculture activity implemented at scale, long before the term was even coined!

That´s the case of the northern great plains of the US or the Pampas region of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Grasslands, normally intermediated by bushlands, trees, parcels of forest, wetlands, etc., are home to important biodiversity, integrated to the livestock rooming them. They are home to birds, all kinds of insects, amphibians, reptiles and other mammals.


The current state of sustainable beef is a mix of challenges and positive changes. While the beef industry gets criticism for its impact on the environment, it is also making efforts to become more sustainable. It is important to use accurate and local data when talking about sustainable beef because every farm is different. The industry is working together through initiatives and commitments to measure and reduce its impact on the environment. Big players like meatpackers and retailers are joining in, and there are new projects measuring and validating improvements on farms.

Consumers can now choose beef that has been proven to be sustainable, and this is encouraging companies and farmers to do better. The way cattle graze is also helping keep grasslands healthy and supporting wildlife. Despite challenges, the beef industry is heading in a positive direction, working towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.

Published on

13 March 2024