Essay: Sustainability of the Beef Cattle Industry and Beef Consumption in Australia and Globally

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  • Sustainability of the Beef Cattle Industry and Beef Consumption in Australia and Globally
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Australian’s possess an obsession with meat, consuming a whopping 92.5kg per person per year, well above the Global Average of 34kg (OECD, 2017). Of all forms of animal protein beef is arguably the most celebrated in western culture. It is subsequently viewed as a status symbol in many developing countries; causing global beef demand to spike with the emergence of wealthy middle class in many such societies (McAlpine, Etter, Fearnside, Seabrook, & Laurance, 2009). With this it is becoming increasingly obvious that the beef industry as it is, is simply not environmentally sustainable long term. Requiring more water, more land and more energy than almost any other food product, the planet simply does not possess the resources to bear this demand. A reduction in beef cattle production would be beneficial from an ecological perspective. This essay will discuss the production of beef regarding its sustainability in Australia and in a global context. In order to do so it will firstly attempt to provide a comprehensive definition of sustainability and summarise the resource requirements of the industry. Finally, this essay will consider potential changes to the industry and social beef consumption behaviours limit the impacts of beef production upon the environment without damaging social and economic sustainability.
Sustainability is an important though abstract and difficult to define concept. As a result, it is often reduced to a mere adjective, used to describe reusable coffee cups and market eco-friendly products. However, the idea of sustainability in its essence is very broad and very simple, describing the ability of a process to be maintained indefinitely without depleting or adversely impacting it surroundings. True sustainability encompasses the elements of society, the economy and the environment and their continued development, while recognising that each of these elements are interconnected and must remain in balance with one another. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission, (known also as the World Commission on Environment and Development) created what is widely regarded as the first official definition of sustainability as the ability to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Further discussion in this essay shall refer to sustainability in this context. Sustainable agriculture is broadly considered to be agriculture that can continue eternally, (Heitschmidt, Short & Grings, 1996). This ideally should involve the most efficient use of resources to minimise environmental degradation while producing an outcome most favourable to society when all costs are considered (Tilman, Cassman, Matson, Naylor & Polasky, 2002). Given that the majority of the worlds agricultural producers operate within capitalistic environments sustainability ideals are often deprioritised in order to maximise profitability and satisfy social demand. An obstacle the beef industry must overcome if it is to become sustainable.
Beef production impacts negatively upon all major ecological systems on the planet, effecting air, soil and water quality, ocean health, biodiversity and accounting for the largest use of land globally (Eshel & Shepon,2014). Though all agricultural production, particularly livestock related can be considered environmentally harmful to a degree, beef production exhibits the largest environmental footprint. Requiring almost 30 times more land, 10 times more water and producing 5 times more greenhouse emissions and reactive nitrogen than the poultry, pork, dairy or egg industries, all of which are mutually comparable (Eshel & Shepon, 2014). The process of producing a single kilogram of consumable beef from birth to plate releases the equivalent of 25kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, bread production, in comparison, releases only 1kg (Evans, 2014). These discrepancies lie in the huge methane output, low feed conversion rate and massive daily feed requirements of cattle due to their status as ruminants; animals with a specialized stomach allowing them to ferment plant fibres which would otherwise be inedible, prior to digestion. Consequently, vast land areas are required for cattle, either to allow them to obtain sufficient energy via grazing, or to grow feed crops such as sorghum and soybean. Land itself is a finite resource and with one fifth of the world’s total land surface currently devoted to agriculture (Nuwer, 2014), a resource quickly reaching its peak. As the global population approaches 9billion new cultivatable lands must be utilised for food production, land which is increasingly being sourced from deforestation and land clearing, most notably in the Amazon rainforest. This in itself represents a slew of environmental issues. Given the obscenely low resource input to output ratio of the beef industry, perhaps it should be considered that these resources could be used more wisely and sustainably elsewhere.
In the effort to satisfy skyrocketing local and global demand, beef production in Australia is currently at an all-time high. The present national herd of 24.6million head outstrips Australia’s human population. Of this 24.6million, just over 45% or 11.2million reside in Queensland (Department of agriculture and fisheries, 2016). Consequently, Queensland predictably suffers the most severe ecological damage from the industry, for this reason I shall focus my examination on the effects of the Australian beef cattle industry upon the state of Queensland. This is not to say other areas have escaped significant environmental detriment either directly or indirectly from the activities of the industry, it is simply most widespread and well documented in Queensland.
As previously discussed one of the most damaging aspect of the industry the sheer volume of land it demands, this is particularly the case in Australia. In 2013, 129million hectares or 69% of Queensland’s total land area of 185.3million hectares was used for agricultural grazing (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013), most which was devoted to cattle. An additional 40 football fields worth of native forest and savannah land are cleared every hour (Evans, 2016). Clearing on this scale destroys the immediate natural ecosystem, increasing the risk of extinction. 600 species have been added to the endangered list in the past decade as a direct result (Evans, 2016). However, it also makes the land more vulnerable to erosion, an effect which is exacerbated by the cattle themselves, their activities compacting the soil and increasing surface runoff. This pollutes water ways, many of which discharge directly into the Great Barrier Reef marine park, wreaking havoc upon the precarious reef ecosystem. Most damagingly though is the burning of forests and cleared material, releasing 5million tonnes of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere above Queensland annually. Australian production comprises only a small fraction of the global beef industry and similar environmental issues are faced elsewhere.
Some form of beef production occurs in almost every country worldwide, generating equally damaging impacts upon the local environment in each of these locations. Similarly, these impacts arise from the land, water and energy requirements of the industry, paired with the direct greenhouse gas output of the cattle. Many countries, particularly developing countries, lack sufficient regulations or incentives to limit environmental damage and promote sustainability within the industry. This often results in raucous exploitation of wild lands and resources, driven by unregulated agricultural sectors focussed primarily on increasing productivity. Thus, promoting social and economic sustainability at the expense of the environment (Kessler, Parkins & Huddart-Kennedy, 2016). The beef cattle industry of Brazil provides a particularly good case study of the harmful ecological outcomes of an industry driven by government and socioeconomic factors.
Brazil, boasting a herd 74million strong, is the largest beef producer in the world. Since the 1980s land for grazing and feed crop growth has been primarily sourced from the Amazon rainforest, with an average of 1.9million hectares cleared anually (McAlpine et al., 2009). This is facilitated by legislation considering clearing to be an effective usage for land and the initial step towards proprietorship under Brazilian law, thus making it 5-10 times more valuable to clear forests than to preserve them. This predictably poses a massive threat to local biodiversity but could also have unprecendented global impacts long term. Deforestation risks throwing the South American evapotranspiration balance, (the ratio of evaporation to transpiration), off kilter, significantly reducing rainfall and prompting a continuous cycle of self perpetuating forest degradation. Ultimately resulting in the destruction of the Amazon, the release of approximately 200million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the permanent removal of an important carbon sink (McAlpine et al., 2009). Despite this, cattle ranching is seen as prestigious and valuable in Brazil amoung many other societies, creating an expanding global supply base with a deepening ecological footprint to match.
During the past 40 years global beef consumption per capita has increased by 60% (Tilman et al., 2002). Although it is unviable for this trend to continue, it is equally unviable to stop beef production altogether, even if this represents the most beneficial course of action from an environmental perspective. The beef industry contributes billions to local and global economies, for instance raising an average of $5.1billion anually in exports in the state of Queensland alone (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). The industry provides a livelihood and source of disposible income to countless individuals world wide, thus allowing them to participate in the local market. In this way beef aggriculture contributes both directly and indirectly to economic prosperity, promoting social sustainability and development in the process. It is therefore integral for the industry to transition to more environmentally sustainable processes without disrupting these positive outcomes.
Scientific solutions such as gentic modification, selective breeding measures and dietary supplementatin (Maia de Souza et al., 2017) which improve efficiency throughout all aspects of the industry are increasing being pursued. One highly promising potential solution known as enteric methane mitigation involves the integration of small amounts of specific species of seaweed and algea into cattle feed, with the effect of reducing methane produced during fermentation. When tested by Australian researchers in townsville the red macroalgae Asparagopsis taxiformis exhibited significant methane reduction, virtually eliminating output when administered at a dosage of over 2% (Kinley, de Nys, Vucko, Machado, & Tomkins, 2016). However, targerting social behaiviours associated with the purchase and consumption of beef products alongside industry improvements must not be overlooked.
Consumer behaivour, particularly in western societies such as Australia, is exacerbating the environmental impact of beef cattle farming by allowing a monumental amount of perfectly useable product to go to waste. Beef cattle weigh an average of approximately 800kg, depending on breed among other factors. Each beast yeilds around 180kg of useable mass, of which only 4 kilograms is considered premium cut (Evans, 2016). Unfortunately these mere 4 kilograms are highly sought after while demand for the remaining 176 kilorams is very low. Conversly, eating the whole animal and adopting a approach to beef similar to the way Native American’s approached bison hunting and consuming would limit both wastage and environmental deriment (Evans, 2016). The power to achieve this rests largely in the hands of the consumer; while there is little demand for the offal and other less glamourous cuts there is little incentive for production to change. As it stands today, the seperation between Australian consumers and the beef production process is so large that it becomes easy to overlook the fact that the plastic wrapped product was once a living and breathing animal. This contibutes to the idea that eating beef is an entitlement rather than a privilege. A societal shift towards a more responsible approach to beef eating can only be achieved through greater public awareness of the beef industry itself and the range of product available
The beef industry is characterised by high water, energy and land use, low resource efficiency and a monumental contribution to global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Subsequently, significant damage to local and global climates and ecosystems has already resulted, and is set intensify as global population along with demand for beef continue to increase. Quite plainly the current fashion of beef production is not sustainable from an environmental perspective. This must be remedied while simultaneously preserving the various positive contributions of the industry toward social and economic prosperity if production is to continue. Promoting a more mindful approach towards beef and meat consumption in general in society represents the first step toward achieving sustainability. An endeavour in which western societies possessing the means and the largest ecological footprints should lead the way.
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Brundtland Commission. (1987). Our Common Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. (2016, June 20). Queensland’s beef product. Retrieved June 06, 2017, from
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Eshel, G., & Shepon, A. (2014). Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(33), 11996-12001. doi:10.1073/pnas.1402183111
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Kinley, R. D., de Nys, R., Vucko, M. J., Machado, L., & Tomkins, N. W. (2016). The red macroalgae Asparagopsis taxiformis is a potent natural antimethanogenic that reduces methane production during in vitro fermentation with rumen fluid. Animal Production Science, 56(3), 282-289.
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McAlpine, C. A., Etter, A., Fearnside, P. M., Seabrook, L., & Laurance, W. F. (2009). Increasing world consumption of beef as a driver of regional and global change: A call for policy action based on evidence from Queensland (Australia), Colombia and Brazil. Global Environmental Change, 19(1), 21-33.
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