According to a University of New South Wales study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, Beef produced in feedlots has a smaller carbon footprint than meat raised exclusively on pastures. The study also found that the greenhouse gas impact of Australian beef and sheep meat production is equal to or lower than that of livestock raised in many countries.
The life cycle analysis of Australian meat production, by the Sustainability Assessment Program at the University’s Water Research Center, found that feedlot beef production generated slightly less greenhouse gas per kilogram of meat than grass-fed beef. Results from one of the New South Wales supply chains studied showed feedlot production had a carbon footprint of 9.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of “hot standard carcass weight”–the unit of measure used in the industry. Grass-finished beef produced 12 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of hot standard carcass weight.
Commissioned by Meat and Livestock Australia, this study looked at three operations, including a beef producer in New South Wales, a sheep meat producer in Western Australia, and a Victorian organic beef producer. It found sheep meat had a carbon footprint ranging from 7kg to 8kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kg hot standard carcass weight.
Feedlot beef production, in which cattle are “finished” by being fed a diet of grain for the few months preceding slaughter, is often criticized for the resources and energy it consumes. However, study co-author Matthias Schulz said the feedlot had been found to produce meat more efficiently, effectively offsetting the greenhouse impact of the additional transport and feed production needed.
“Grain-finished cattle have a more efficient weight gain which completely offsets their higher individual carbon footprint,” he said.
“The other main reason for the better greenhouse performance of grain-fed beef is the superior digestibility of the feed and the associated reduction in methane emissions, and these digestion-related methane emissions are the main source of greenhouse gas from the livestock industry.”
The study also found Australian operations compared favorably when comparing data from Australian beef and sheep meat operations to studies conducted in Europe, the UK, the U.S., Africa, and Japan.