Not all hamburgers are created equal. How beef cattle are raised can significantly affect a burger’s climate-change “hoofprint.”
The worldwide appetite for meat and poultry has tripled in the past 50 years. In the United States alone, some 3 million cattle are slaughtered every month to feed our hunger for beef, along with 10 million pigs and 9 billion chickens. The global demand is projected to surge as populations grow and incomes rise, making meat more affordable.
To satisfy our hunger, “growing” meat has largely shifted from family farms to mass-production facilities — concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) — in recent decades.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and EPA define CAFOs as confinement facilities holding more than 1,000 beef steers, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, or 100,000 chickens for 45 days or more in a year and with vegetation on less than half of the ground cover.
These large-scale industrial-agricultural facilities raise animals in high-density confinement and provide feed rather than allowing for grazing.
CAFOs are incredibly efficient. For example, in 1920, a free-range chicken required 16 weeks to reach 2.2 pounds; in a CAFO on a comprehensive nutrient management plan (CNMP), a chicken can now grow to 5 pounds in seven weeks.
Most U.S. cattle spend the first nine to 15 months of their lives on pastures, and then are “finished” on feedlots during the last months of their lives. There, they consume a diet of corn and grains that fattens them quickly, bringing a higher price at slaughter while keeping consumer prices low.
Today, an estimated 90 percent of animals farmed worldwide — and 99 percent of U.S. livestock — are raised on CAFOs, factory farms, or feedlots.
Mass-production CAFOs are great at producing meat for the masses, but their environmental — and ethical — impacts are significant.
Challenges of Growing Meat
Is feedlot-finished beef or traditional pasture-raised beef better for the environment? The comparison is complicated. Consider the following factors.
Land use: Traditional cattle ranching requires expansive pastures for grazing — and this has environmental advantages. There’s a symbiotic relationship between grazers and grasses.
When animals forage, they churn up soil, opening areas for seeds to root. This results in healthier, more productive soil that turns from a carbon source into a sink that absorbs methane and nitrous oxide, offsetting some of the emissions generated from the grazing livestock.
In contrast, cattle that are confined to CAFOs have minimal access to land for grazing. Some producers (especially in South America) are converting forests and peatlands to pastureland, but this drives deforestation, which has adverse effects on climate.
Feed supplies and antibiotic use: Pasture-raised cattle find much of their own feed, which they help propagate, while keeping livestock on CAFOs requires the production and transport of large quantities of feed. Eating all that corn can lead to liver abscesses in cattle, so antibiotics are added.
Cramped CAFO environments are also breeding grounds for disease, requiring further preemptive antibiotics. By some estimates, farm use accounts for about 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States.
Research cites overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations as contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a threat to both human and animal health. A 2019 study in Science found that antibiotic resistance in chickens and pigs has more than doubled since 2000 while remaining at a static, high level among cattle.
Greenhouse-gas emissions: Reducing emissions is key for cooling our planet, and animal husbandry contributes 42 percent of agricultural emissions in the United States. Some 44 percent of livestock emissions are in the form of methane, a greenhouse gas, which traps more than 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Cattle are the prime source, accounting for 65 percent of the total. Much of this stems from enteric fermentation (a.k.a. belches). As a result, some data suggest that raising more animals in shorter time periods on CAFOs may reduce these emissions.
Other research points to pasture-raising as better at reducing greenhouse gases once emissions from feed production and transportation are considered.
Toxic waste: Pasture-feeding allows manure to naturally fertilize, as nutrients from animal feces — like phosphorous — feed the soil and crops.
Crowding large numbers of animals together can turn this natural asset into a huge liability. Unlike human waste, livestock excrement isn’t treated before it’s discarded. Poorly managed waste, along with animal carcasses and uneaten feed often found in CAFOs, can foul surface and groundwater.
Waste runoff from feedlots can send nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways. This may cause eutrophication — a process that adds plant nutrients and reduces oxygen — resulting in algal blooms and dead zones that endanger aquatic life.
Nitrogen from feedlot manure also threatens human health. A 2020 report by the Environmental Working Group, for example, found that in some 95 percent of Minnesota’s agricultural counties, “nitrogen from manure combined with nitrogen in fertilizer exceeded the recommendations of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency . . . [and] is the major cause of nitrate pollution in drinking water, which is linked to elevated rates of cancer.”
Eating meat and poultry has become something of a complex act. And shopping for it is not so simple either. The following tips can help you consider your options — and even support your own health and well-being.
Rethinking the Meat You Eat
To be a conscientious carnivore, keep these tips in mind the next time you’re weighing your options.
Buy small, buy local. Meat-producing emissions are less about transport and more about production. Thus, the traditional “eat local” advice isn’t necessarily better for the environment, because it still takes more carbon inputs and natural resources to raise meat than it does vegetables and grains. But supporting small, local farms is a good place to start. They tend to manage pests and weeds without chemicals and maintain more transparent practices. They also often plant more diversified crops than large-scale monoculture operations. Both practices are better for the climate. You can find pasture-based farms by state at www.eatwild.com.
Seek grassfed beef. Look for meats sporting the green label from the American Grassfed Association, a third-party organization that certifies that the animals were 100 percent grassfed and grass-finished. Similar labels from other groups denote pastured pork and poultry. This also guarantees the animals were never treated with antibiotics or hormones and were raised and harvested humanely.
Go organic. Choose USDA-certified organic if you want meat from cattle that were fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, were never administered antibiotics, and were raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors. Note, though, that this does not mean that the animals had unlimited access to grass.
Support regenerative agriculture. The Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label ensures the farm meets the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness, following regenerative agricultural principles, which include increasing the diversity of plant species, no-till farming, eliminating chemical usage, living in harmony with wildlife, and animal integration.
Eat “alternative” meats. Poultry and fish tend to generate fewer emissions than beef, pork, and lamb. To find sustainably raised fish, look to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app (www.seafoodwatch.org).
Try faux meats. Many a carnivore has become a fan of the new generation of meat alternatives, including substitutes like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, as well as seitan, tempeh, and other options. (For more on faux meats, see “What’s Up With Fake Meat?“.)