By ACAM Partner - The Nature Conservancy

Photo credit:© Chris Helzer for TNC

Climate-friendly Beef System

January 12, 2022

Ranchers can help create a more climate-friendly beef system, according to a new study.

Beef Industry Can Cut GHG Emissions Up to 50% in Some Regions

New research highlights the important role that ranchers can play in driving climate solutions, while ensuring their livelihoods and way of life.

When managed well, livestock grazing on intact, working grasslands can help secure clean water, support wildlife habitat, and store carbon in the soil. Sustainable livestock agriculture is not only vital to grassland conservation, it’s helping to feed a growing world.

Globally, however, cattle produce about 78% of total livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But that number can be significantly reduced, according to a team of researchers led by Colorado State University (CSU). Their study, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production: A synthesis of life cycle assessments across management systems and global regions,” was published in Global Change Biology.

“By analyzing management strategies in the U.S. and around the world, our research reinforces that ranchers are in a key position to reduce emissions in beef production through various management strategies tailored to their local conditions,” said Clare Kazanski, co-author and North America region scientist with The Nature Conservancy.

The researchers completed a comprehensive assessment of 12 different strategies for reducing beef production emissions worldwide and found that the industry can reduce GHG emissions by as much as 50% in certain regions, with the most potential in the United States and Brazil.

There are many known management solutions that, if adopted broadly, can reduce, but not totally eliminate, the beef industry’s climate change footprint, according to lead author Daniela Cusack, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at CSU.

The researchers found that widespread use of improved ranching management practices in two distinct areas of beef production would lead to substantial emissions reductions:

  • Increased efficiency to produce more beef per unit of GHG emitted—growing bigger cows at a faster rate, and
  • Enhanced land management strategies to increase soil and plant carbon sequestration on grazed lands.

Overall, the research shows a 46% reduction in net GHG emissions per unit of beef was achieved at sites using carbon sequestration management strategies on grazed lands, including using organic soil amendments and restoring trees and perennial vegetation to areas of degraded forests, woodlands and riverbanks. Additionally, the research concluded an overall 8% reduction in net GHGs was achieved at sites using growth efficiency strategies. However, net-zero emissions were only achieved in 2% of studies.

“Our analysis shows that we can improve the efficiency and sustainability of beef production, which would significantly reduce the industry’s climate impact,” said Cusack, also a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “But at the same time, we will never reach net zero emissions without further innovation and strategies beyond land management and increased growth efficiency. There’s a lot of room, globally, for improvement.”

In the U.S., researchers found that carbon sequestration strategies such as integrated field management and intensive rotational grazing reduced beef GHG emissions by more than 100% —or net-zero emissions—in a few grazing systems. But efficiency strategies were not as successful in the U.S. studies, possibly because of a high use of the strategies in the region already.

Darrell Wood, a northern California rancher, is an example of a producer leading the way on climate-friendly practices. Wood’s family participates in the California Healthy Soils program, which incentivizes practices with a demonstrated climate benefit.

“As a sixth-generation cattle rancher, I see nothing but upside potential from using our cattle as a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Wood said. “Taking good care of our grasslands not only benefits climate, but also wildlife and the whole ecosystem that generates clean air and water. It’ll help the next generation continue our business, too.”

Although the research shows a significant reduction in the GHG footprints of beef production using improved management strategies, scientists don’t yet know the full potential of shifting to these emission-reducing practices because there are very few data on practice adoption levels around the world.

“We know with the right land management and efficiency strategies in place, it’s possible to have large reductions in emissions across geographic regions, but we need to keep pushing for additional innovations to create a truly transformation shift in the way the global beef system operates to ensure a secure food supply and a healthy environment,” said Cusack.

Additional co-authors on the paper are Amanda Cordeiro (Colorado State University); Alexandra Hedgpeth, Kenyon Chow and Jason Karpman (University of California, Los Angeles); and Rebecca Ryals (University of California, Merced).

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