Is Beef Becoming More or Less Environmentally Friendly?

Another report has surfaced, this time from a study in the British Medical Journal.  The study authors call for reduced meat consumption because, among other things, it would be “climate friendly.”  While reduced beef consumption might lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to take a broader look at historical production trends.  There seems to be a bit of a romantic notion floating around that if we just turned back the clock 30 or 40 years, we would have more “sustainable” agriculture. 

Because much of the greenhouse gas emissions occur at the cow-level, it is useful to look at what has been happening to the number of cows in the US over time.  What you find when you look at the data is that this year, “U.S. cattle inventories fell to the lowest in 60 years.”  Fewer cows means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  Why do we so rarely hear that in the news?

Another glossed-over fact of beef production in the US is the incredible gains in efficiency that have occurred in recent decades.  Below is a graph I complied using USDA data on the total US cow and calf inventory, total beef production, and US population.

Back in 1975, there were 0.61 cows per person in the US.  Today, that number is only 0.29.  That's more than a 100% reduction!  That reduction, which has the benefit of reduced greenhouse emissions, has been accomplished all while producing more beef.  Back in 1975 only about 179 lbs of beef were produced per cow in America.  Today, the figure is 288 lbs.  We’re getting 109 lbs more from each cow than we did back in the 1970s. 

Just something to think about when you hear about the environmental problems with beef production and our “sustainable” past.