Evidence continues to mount that the world will not meet its climate goals without major changes to food production and consumption. If food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not reduced, keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees C — or even 2 degrees C — will slip out of reach. Despite this urgent need to reduce emissions, food system emissions are still on the rise.

Food systems contributed between one-quarter and one-third of global annual GHG emissions over the past decade. A major source of food-related emissions comes from beef production, specifically from the agricultural production process (including the digestive process, wastes and feed production) and from clearing land for new pastures, which releases carbon previously stored in vegetation and soils. Taken together, annual emissions from beef production amounted to about 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010, roughly on par with the total annual emissions in India, the world’s third-largest GHG emitter. Beef is also one of the world’s most resource- and emissions-intensive foods, with land use and GHG emissions 7 times higher than chicken and 20 times higher than beans per gram of protein.

Shifting high-beef diets in a plant-rich direction and reducing food loss and waste are two critical ways to reduce emissions associated with beef consumption. But the emissions intensity of beef production systems — that is, the emissions produced per kilogram of beef — varies widely around the world, meaning a significant amount of emissions can also be reduced by improving beef production. Beef production will likely continue far into the future, as global beef demand continues to increase and the majority of the world’s pasturelands cannot grow crops or trees. To make this ongoing production more sustainable, it’s essential to reduce beef’s production-related climate impacts.

How can beef producers reduce emissions while simultaneously reducing pressures on forests and other carbon-rich, biodiverse ecosystems? How can companies who purchase large amounts of beef incentivize beef production with reduced emissions? And how can purchasing companies credibly measure and report emissions reductions in their supply chains? Let’s dive into some of the opportunities for producers and buyers alike to reduce emissions.

Reducing Emissions from Beef Production: Improving Practices and Technologies

Emissions from beef production systems come primarily from enteric methane (“cow burps”), manure management, feed production (whether pasture- or crop-based) and land clearing. There are four main opportunities for beef producers to reduce emissions, which altogether could reduce emissions from ruminant livestock by up to 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050:

1. Improve efficiency and productivity.

One of the greatest opportunities to reduce emissions from beef production is to improve efficiency. “Improved efficiency” can refer to more efficient land use, reducing pressure to clear more land; fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced; and more efficient use of feed. To boost efficiency without compromising animal welfare, producers can develop more digestible feeds, improve feeding practices, plant pastures with improved grasses and legumes, breed cattle for higher growth rates, improve veterinary care and improve grazing management.

These types of efficiency improvements have reduced beef production emissions intensity over time. However, absolute emissions — the overall emissions from beef production — have continued to climb. Additionally, productivity gains from efficiency can increase profit, which may lead producers to expand their business in a way that clears more land. Therefore, productivity gains need to be accompanied by local ecosystem protection to avoid a “rebound effect” of additional land clearing.

2. Reduce enteric methane emissions.

While efficiency improvements also reduce enteric methane emissions per kilogram of beef produced, additional technological interventions could further reduce enteric methane emissions. Enteric methane inhibitors — which are feed additives that prevent the formation of methane in the gut — are among the most promising options. These include the chemical 3-NOP, as well as seaweed.

Preliminary studies show that these additives can reduce enteric methane by 20% to 98% without adverse effects on animal health or productivity. Researchers have also identified that enteric methane intensity is a genetic trait, and are developing methods to breed animals for reduced emissions. However, these technologies are still under development.

3. Improve manure management.

Better management of animal wastes can reduce both methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Examples of improved manure management include more frequent waste removal from the barn and covering the tanks containing semi-solid waste. Using animal wastes as a source of nutrients for crops also reduces the need for applied synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which avoids the emissions from manufacturing and transporting those fertilizers.

In some countries, policies have focused on the use of anaerobic digesters. Digesters collect manure to produce biogas, which is then burned to generate electricity. In addition to cutting down on the emissions from animal waste, this approach can benefit the climate through avoided fossil fuel consumption. Pilot projects in Denmark on digester use have been largely popular, although emissions reductions per ton of carbon are costly. In addition, maize fodder crops are commonly added to the digesters. The land use necessary for these crops can reduce the amount of carbon that can also be stored on the land, which can increase overall greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Stabilize and sequester carbon in vegetation and soils.

It’s widely accepted within the scientific community that increasing soil carbon improves soil health, and practices that do so are commonly referred to as “regenerative.” In places where soil quality is poor and output of beef per hectare is relatively low — which is prevalent in the tropics — practices such as rotational grazing and silvopasture can boost yields of beef per hectare and sequester additional carbon in soils and vegetation.

However, the mitigation potential of carbon sequestration on grazing lands is likely limited, and impacts of improved management practices on soil carbon are hard to predict. Because soil carbon storage is difficult to measure and monitor, care must be taken to ensure climate benefits are real and permanent. Additionally, in areas where soil quality and output of beef per hectare are high — which is more prevalent in high-income countries — practices that build on-farm soil carbon may have a smaller global climate benefit, or even a net climate cost. For example, if a “regenerative” practice requires more land per kilogram of beef compared to the national average — as is the case in one prominent U.S. study — then the local climate benefits of soil carbon sequestration must be weighed against the likely carbon losses off-farm to clear additional land to maintain beef production.

Reducing Emissions from Beef Purchasing: Engaging Suppliers, Improving Traceability

Companies that purchase beef also have several options to encourage more sustainable beef production. For these companies — such as food manufacturers, retailers and food service providers — beef production emissions show up as “scope 3” emissions that result from activities in their supply chains. Here are three opportunities for beef purchasers to reduce emissions:

1. Engage with suppliers to reduce emissions across beef supply chains.

The best practice is for companies to engage the beef suppliers that contribute the most to their scope 3 emissions. Companies should figure out and implement the most effective approach to collaborate with their suppliers to help them adopt the types of production practices listed above. Approaches can include setting standards for suppliers to meet, agreeing to voluntary GHG reduction targets with suppliers, investing in specific projects that reduce on-farm emissions, scoring systems that induce competition between suppliers, and partnering with other buyers.

One difficult aspect of reducing emissions from beef supply chains is that retailers or food service providers may source from intermediaries, who source from meat processors, who source from farmers and ranchers. Complex supply chains hinder traceability and make it hard to determine the extent to which supply chain investments or purchasing decisions lead to actual GHG reductions. A company would ideally have supplier-specific emissions data to link a purchased beef product with an emissions reduction. However, companies often need to start with “industry-average” greenhouse gas emission factors and work with their suppliers to refine the data, sometimes using a hybrid of supplier-specific and industry-average data.

A graphic depicting how companies can assess their supply chain emissions, ranging from the least accurate to the most accurate.

To most accurately measure emissions reductions, supplier engagement may therefore need to go beyond efforts that incentivize improved production practices. Companies should also enable suppliers to improve their transparency and GHG emissions calculation and reporting. As food and agriculture companies increasingly set science-based targets to reduce GHG emissions, emissions data across beef supply chains should improve as well.

2. Shift suppliers.

Although it is preferable to work with current beef suppliers to improve production methods and emissions data, companies can also shift procurement toward suppliers that have already credibly demonstrated emissions reductions. However, the immediate benefit to the climate from shifting suppliers may be minimal. Simply changing sourcing to suppliers who already have improved emissions data readily available does not change the global demand for beef. Therefore, while a shift in suppliers would allow purchasing companies to report fewer Scope 3 emissions as a result of their supply chains, it does not greatly affect the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in a given year. That said, this approach can incentivize better production practices and data availability over time, as it sends a market signal that companies wish to purchase beef production with reduced emissions.

3. Shift toward lower-carbon foods.

While companies can incentivize improved production practices that reduce their beef-related scope 3 emissions, it is not the only option they have. Because beef is a relatively emissions-intensive food, simply purchasing less beef and shifting procurement and offerings in a plant-rich direction can reduce emissions. Companies have a range of strategies to shift toward lower-carbon foods, such as modifying products to include lower-carbon ingredients while maintaining flavor, using alternative proteins that mimic the taste and experience of eating beef, and improving marketing and display for climate-friendly products. These strategies can enable their diners and shoppers to make more climate-friendly choices.

Toward Beef Production with Reduced Emissions

Beef production is relatively resource-intensive and accounts for a significant amount of global food system emissions. With the need to achieve net-zero food and land use systems by 2050 while feeding a growing population, it is important to reduce emissions and land use from beef production as much as possible — while also moderating beef consumption and shifting toward plant-rich diets in high-income countries.

Beef producers and buyers alike have a range of strategies to reduce emissions from beef production. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Land Sector and Removals Guidance, which is currently under development, will provide additional guidance on accounting for changes in beef production emissions. Additionally, the Science Based Targets Initiative’s Forest, Land, and Agriculture project will help companies set targets for reducing beef production emissions in line with global climate goals.

Combining today’s best practices with future tools and technologies will enable everyone involved in beef supply chains to make beef less emissions-intensive and work toward a sustainable food future.