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By Nicole Rossi
  • Department of Global Development
  • Climate Change
  • Environment
  • Food
A new study shows that it’s possible for the beef industry to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions without increasing costs and still meet global demand for meat. But the strategies to achieve this outcome are largely dependent on what cows consume, where beef is produced, how land is managed, and ways neighboring nations work together — with major implications for borderless agricultural policies that best protect the environment.

Beef, which is responsible for more than $245 billion in economic activity each year and supports 600 million smallholder farmers, leaves a major environmental footprint globally. A research team led by The University of Queensland with support from Cornell developed a tool to assess sustainable beef production and optimize production at fine spatial resolutions. By evaluating the economic and emissions impacts of different cattle feeds at different locations around the globe, the researchers formulated a framework to guide and inform industry sustainability efforts for sustainable climate action.

The findings

Large emission reductions of 34-85% annually could be cut without increasing costs to the beef sector. This can be achieved by opting for more efficient feeds and production areas, and restoring forests in areas where production is inefficient. But to realize the biggest gains in sustainable and economical production, nations will need to collaborate far more than they do now, according to the researchers. Open trade and trust between nations is the key to optimizing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for the same economic costs as current beef production. Acting independently, countries can still see significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of up to 70% by changing feed composition and relocating production to the most efficient areas within the countries. But reductions of up to 83% become possible through relocating production globally and using trade to distribute the more efficient beef. These results highlight the potential for improvements in the way beef is produced to help meet the global sustainability goals.

Why it matters

The beef industry has a complex road ahead to improve its environmental footprint. Global beef production and consumption represents around 40% of all livestock emissions. It is also an important agricultural commodity encompassing about 19% of total global livestock production and responsible for livelihoods of nearly 600 million smallholder farmers in the developing world. There will be continued global demand for beef and there are a huge number of livelihoods associated with it. According to the researchers, this tool could ultimately be used to help governments and industry develop more effective policy and strategy.

What the experts say

“We have mapped out the most efficient locations around the world to produce beef and the maps change when factors are altered, such as how much society values reducing emissions over reducing production costs. This has given us an unprecedented insight into the ‘what, where, and why’ of beef production at a global level and decisions about the future of the industry can be informed by inputting trade-offs and opportunities. The extent to which we reduce emissions and production costs depends on our values or preferences as a society.”

“There’s potential for improvements in the way we produce beef to achieve sustainability goals. Free markets must be functional and production will have to relocate to regions where crop yields tend to be higher and emissions intensity of beef production is lower. This together with healthy and sustainable consumption levels could increase the sustainability of food systems. It will require a highly interconnected, trusting and peaceful world for some of these strategies to be feasible.”

  • Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems and global change in the Department of Global Development at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Cornell Atkinson Scholar

Study authors

Adam C. Castonguay, Stephen Polasky, Matthew H. Holden, Mario Herrero, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Cecile Godde, Jinfeng Chang, James Gerber, G. Bradd Witt, Edward T. Game, Brett A. Bryan, Brendan Wintle, Katie Lee, Payal Bal & Eve McDonald-Madden.


Cornell, The University of Queensland, the University of Minnesota, Wageningen, CSIRO, Zhejiang University, The Nature Conservancy, Deakin University and the University of Melbourne

Read the full study:

Navigating sustainability trade-offs in global beef production"

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