Let's Talk Beef
Beef is one of the most popular meats in this country. Australia’s beef consumption ranks seventh in the world, with each person consuming around 19 kg each year compared to a global average of 6.2 kg. The area of grazing land operated by beef cattle/sheep businesses is estimated to be more than 324 million hectares; or 42% of the total area of Australia.
Yet, beef has a huge impact on our environment using extensive resources and emitting significant greenhouse gases.
Cows and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
As of June 2022, 16.4% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to agriculture–the third largest emitting industry behind the energy and transport sectors.
The Australian Government’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory cites the main sources of GHG emissions in agriculture as methane, nitrous oxide, manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soils and agricultural burning.
Cows, sheep and goats belong to a class of animals called ruminants. Ruminants have four stomachs and digest food in their stomachs instead of in their intestines, like humans. They produce methane as a by-product of this digestion process (enteric fermentation) in the form of burps, breathing and belching.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide thus is a significant contributor to global warming. Enteric methane produced by livestock (mostly beef and to a lesser extent sheep and goats) contributes 30% of the methane released into the Earth’s atmosphere each day, and is more than any other single methane source. In Victoria alone, enteric methane accounts for 68% of total agricultural emissions.
Cows and Water Intensity
The global average water requirement for producing a kilogram of beef is 15,415 litres, most of which is green water (naturally occurring rain or groundwater).
It is very difficult to provide a blanket assessment of the water intensity of beef production due to the variation in farming practices that affect how much water is used.
Industrial systems rely on grain feed, crops that are irrigated, fertilised and sprayed with pesticides and need to be transported. Whereas grass fed beef may exist solely on pasture that has been fed by rainwater, although irrigation systems may still exist on these farms.
Processing meat uses on average a further 8.75 litres per kilogram of meat. So although a fixed figure may not be available it is clear that there is a much larger water requirement for raising beef than other meat products and vegetables.
In Julian Cribb’s book, The Coming Famine (p.190), he calculated that using the same land area, you can obtain 12 times more food from vegetables than from legumes and 5 times more food than from cereals. If you factor in the amount of grain needed to produce meat, a single hectare of land can produce 29 times more food in the form of vegetables than in the form of chicken meat, 73 times more than pork, or 78 times more than beef.
Grass Fed Versus Grain Fed
Grass fed meat comes from animals that have only grazed on grass. They feed on a range of different types of grasses such as irrigated and fertilised pastures, native grasses and shrubs, legume based pastures, hay, sillage (fermented grass), and grain stubble after harvesting. The types of grasses available for grazing are dependent on climate, region and farm practices.
Grain fed meat comes from animals which are fed grass for most of their lives and then transition to grain-based diets for the remainder of their lives to speed up their weight gain and get them ready to sell to market much faster, roughly 50-120 days/10-15% of their lifespan. The current average time cattle spend in Australian feedlots is 105 days.
Grass fed beef finished in feedlots represents approximately 50% of beef produced in Australia.
There are around 400 accredited feedlots throughout Australia with the majority (60%) located in Queensland, followed by NSW with 30%.
For lot feeders to be able to market their beef as grain fed, feedlot cattle must be fed a predominantly grain based diet for a nominal number of days. Adherence to this requirement is delivered through the industry’s independently audited quality assurance program, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS).
Feedlot/grain fed beef has increased in popularity both in Australia and for export due to the industry’s ability to consistently meet market requirements in terms of quality and quantity (irrespective of seasons or droughts).
The Environmental Impacts of Grass Fed Versus Grain Fed
The environmental impacts of grain fed versus grain fed farming operations are complicated. Grain feeding produces less greenhouse gas emissions because the animals are fattened up quicker, live shorter lives and thus aren’t around for as long to produce as much methane. On the other hand, it has been proven that grazing operations sequester enough carbon in the soil to completely offset the emissions from the cows and that if this were well-managed it may help to mitigate climate change.
The efficiency and sense in growing all this grain and transporting it to feed animals, when it could be used for human consumption and to tackle issues of hunger must also be challenged. It takes 25kg of dry feed to produce 1kg of edible beef meat.
The feedlot industry has also been successful in raising more cows, more quickly, thus encouraging greater consumption of beef, which in turn poses significant environmental and human and animal health risks.
At the end of the day it’s an individual choice as to whether or not to eat meat or where to purchase it from. At Sustainable Table, we believe that if you choose to eat red meat you should opt for small amounts of grass-fed beef and lamb, preferably organic, from a small-scale farm. This is in part due to the ethics of raising animals in an environment as close to how they would in nature.
Buying from farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture or other systems that focus on connecting producers with eaters is the best way of ensuring the animals have been raised in a way that aligns with your environmental and ethical beliefs.
How to Source 100% Grass Fed Beef
For grass fed cattle producers wishing to use ‘pasture fed’ as a marketing claim, the peak representative body for the grass fed cattle industry, Cattle Council of Australia has a ‘Pasture fed cattle assurance system (PCAS)’. The standard requires;
‘Cattle to have never been fed separated grain or grain by-products and have continuous access to graze pasture with the diet. The Diet is derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.’
The PCAS also has an additional set of assurances that producers can subscribe to, which verify that the animals have had a lifetime free from Hormonal Growth Promotants and lifetime free from antibiotics.
The Difference Between Organic and Grass Fed Beef
Organic beef can be sourced from the grass fed beef production chain, however the vast majority of grass fed producers are not certified organic or biodynamic. This is because they may still use chemicals for fertiliser, weed and insect control, and for animal health management.
If you are looking for meat that has been produced without synthetic chemical inputs then look for organic certification logos, shop at an organic butcher or buy from a producer at a farmers’ market or direct from those who can assure you that they follow organic agro-ecological farming principles.
Regenerative beef is raised using a holistic approach that aims to improve soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function. Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that focuses on improving soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function, with the aim of creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the land, animals, and people. This approach is particularly well-suited to beef farming, as cattle play an important role in maintaining soil fertility and promoting biodiversity.
One of the key principles of regenerative agriculture is the use of rotational grazing. This involves moving cattle through a series of pastures, allowing each pasture to rest and recover between grazing periods. This helps to promote healthy grass growth, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil fertility. By rotating cattle through different pastures, farmers can also promote biodiversity, as different plant species thrive in different conditions. This creates a more resilient ecosystem that is better able to cope with climate change and other environmental pressures.
Regenerative agriculture also emphasises the use of natural inputs, such as compost, manure, and cover crops, instead of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. This reduces the environmental impact of farming, as well as improves soil health and the nutritional quality of the meat. Cattle raised on regenerative farms are typically given access to natural grazing pastures and may not receive antibiotics or growth hormones. The meat from regeneratively raised cattle is generally considered to be more nutrient-dense, with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and other beneficial nutrients.
In addition to environmental benefits, regenerative agriculture practices can also lead to improvements in animal welfare. Cattle raised on regenerative farms are often given access to natural grazing pastures and may not receive antibiotics or growth hormones.
Regenerative beef farming is still a relatively new approach in Australia so it may be difficult to source this type of beef. However, momentum is building as more farmers recognise the benefits of sustainable, holistic farming practices. When you’re next at the local farmer’s market, have a chat with farmers to understand the types of regenerative practices they are using.
Common Terms to Understand
Grass fed or pasture-raised beef
Grass-fed or pasture-raised beef refers to meat from cattle that have been allowed to graze on natural pastures and consume grass and other forage for their entire lives, rather than being confined to feedlots and fed a diet of grains and other supplements. Pasture-raised cattle are often raised in more humane and environmentally sustainable conditions, which can be a factor for some consumers when choosing meat products.
For grass fed cattle producers wishing to use ‘Pasture fed’ as a marketing claim, the peak representative body for the grass fed cattle industry, Cattle Council of Australia has a ‘Pasture fed cattle assurance system (PCAS)’. The standard requires;
‘Cattle to have never been fed separated grain or grain by-products and have continuous access to graze pasture with the diet. The diet is derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.’
Grain-fed / feedlot beef
Feedlot beef comes from cattle that have been raised in confined feeding operations, where they are typically fed a diet of grains and other supplements to rapidly increase their weight and muscle mass. This type of cattle farming is designed to maximise efficiency and output, but it can come at a cost to animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and potentially even the quality and safety of the meat produced.
The industry standard requires cattle to remain in a feedlot for 100 days (young steers for 70 and heifers for 60) in order to be sold on the domestic Australian market as ‘grain fed’.
Organic and biodynamic beef must comply with the Australian Certified Organic Standard. Farms, abattoirs and butchers can apply for certification. Animals must be fed a varied natural diet, while feedlot feeding and force feeding is not permitted. Feed supplements such as grain are permitted, but must be certified 100% organic. This means it has been grown without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals including pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, placing emphasis on soil health to maintain production systems.
Certified organic meat must also be free range, and the cattle industry prohibits the use of hormone growth promotants (HGPs), limits vaccine use and there are also strict rules about antibiotic use. Live export is also prohibited under organically certified operations.
Biodynamic farming incorporates organic principles and places emphasis on maintaining balance in the soil, noting the importance of caring for not only animals and plants, but also the soil from which they are able to grow. Practices include spraying microbial preparations on pastures to promote soil health and rotational grazing.
No added hormones (hormone growth promotants – HGPs)
This refers to cattle that haven’t been injected with slow-release hormone growth promotants (HGPs) – a common practice to speed up fattening before sale. The World Health Organization and the Australian government allow the use of HGPs in animals for human consumption, however, the EU has banned this practice.
HGPs can improve growth rates by 15-30%, but it reduces marbling, which contributes to flavour. Coles has stopped selling fresh beef with HGPs, while Woolworths have stated that only their organic grass fed range are HGP-free.
Ethical Concerns Around Raising Cows for Consumption
Animal welfare in abattoirs
Regulation of abattoirs happens at a state or federal level, depending upon whether the abattoir is used for export or domestic purposes.
Export abattoirs require the presence of an on-plant veterinarian to monitor animal welfare standards. Domestic abattoirs are under the jurisdiction of state and territory governments. In domestic abattoirs there is no requirement for an on-plant veterinarian and the standards for animal welfare and auditing requirements vary between jurisdictions.
Although best practice standards are always the aim, there have been countless exposés on what really happens at abattoirs and there are times when animals suffer unduly.
In their 2021 assessment report on the animal welfare standards in abattoirs, the RSPCA states that there is little to no transparency around animal welfare standards or auditing of slaughtering establishments, especially in domestic abattoirs and knackeries. The report makes numerous recommendations including the requirement of dedicated Animal Welfare Officers in all domestic abattoirs, and the installation of CCTV.
Age of slaughter
Regardless of how well an animal has been cared for during its life, the reality of eating animals is that they will be killed long before they would die naturally. The process of sending them to slaughter can involve long journeys by road and a stressful death. The natural lifespan of cows is 15-20 years. In Australia, the average age of slaughter is 4.8 years for female cows and 1.8 years for males.
Feedlots are designated areas that intensively house cattle in open pens and feed them a diet of grain to fatten them up quickly for slaughter. Grain fed cattle spend 10-15% (60-120 days) of their lives in feedlots.
The main animal welfare concerns around the feedlot production system is that cows are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours or exist on a diet they would traditionally find in nature, thus impacting digestion and possibly increasing stress.
Inadequate shelter for animals in feedlots is also a concern. The Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle require that feedlots undertake an assessment each year for the heat load risk and implement appropriate actions to manage ongoing issues. It also requires that the feedlots have a documented Excessive Heat Load Action Plan and must implement appropriate actions in the event of a heat load emergency. Provision of permanent shade for all cows is not a legal requirement. In 2020, the Australian Lot Feeders Association launched a voluntary initiative asking all feedlots to provide cattle with shade by 2026.
Accredited feedlots are audited on an annual basis for animal welfare, environmental and food safety issues. The program is independently owned and managed by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme. Government representatives oversee any issues that arise. But the audits are only announced to the feedlot owners, and results are not made public.
The increasing centralisation of abattoirs in Australia means more cattle are facing lengthy journeys. The Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines – Land Transport of Livestock specifies mature, fit cattle may be transported for 12 hours without water and 36 hours without food. The maximum time off water is 48 hours for cattle and goats over the age of six months and sheep over the age of four months
Water deprivation can cause clinical, physiological, behavioural and emotional stress for animals. The majority of livestock studies focus on the clinical and physiological effects of water deprivation such as clinical dehydration and body weight loss. There is little research available on the behavioural or emotional effects of water deprivation.
In Australia, the beef and veal export market includes live animal export and domestically slaughtered and processed chilled or frozen meat. The question arises as to why Australia exports live animals when other options are available. Some of the reasons that live export remains popular to international markers include cultural and religious preferences for locally and freshly slaughtered meat, as well as a lack of refrigeration and chilled supply chains.
In 2022, over 600,024 beef cattle were live exported (including dairy cattle). The primary markets for exported Australian livestock in 2022 were Indonesia and China.
Studies and personal accounts continue to highlight poor welfare conditions for live animals being exported live by air and sea. Beyond that, once animals are sold at market in the destination country they are often transported in abhorrent conditions and killed while fully conscious, without stunning. Particularly with cattle, it is often a challenge for workers who are not used to dealing with animals of such size – footage has been captured of tails being broken and cows being bludgeoned to death with sledge hammers in the absence of more appropriate equipment.
Questions to Ask When it Comes to Beef
- Has it been produced locally and is it grass fed and organic?
- When did I last eat red meat and is there a good plant-based replacement?
- Can I request a less popular cut to save pennies and to ensure the whole animal is being used? Such as tri-tip, chuck, silverside, brisket + shin