Grass-fed beef is best

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Cows grazing the grassy plain © David Levenson

Cows grazing the grassy plain

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Latest update 03.04.2013 11:48

Research reveals that grass-fed beef is better for people and the environment. Feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef, according to new research we've commissioned.

One of the biggest global challenges is how to increase food security whilst reducing the environmental impacts of food production. 

Livestock - like cattle and sheep - produce high levels of methane as part of the process of digesting grass.  This has led to suggestions that intensive production methods – where cattle are fed largely on cereals, producing less methane – should be preferred over more traditional grass fed livestock farming.

However, in a report issued today, research at 10 of our farms shows that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94 per cent, even resulting in a carbon 'net gain' in upland areas.  The farms that had recently converted to organic status showed even greater gains. 

Rob Macklin, National Agriculture and Food Adviser at the National Trust, said:

“The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population.” 

“Maximising carbon efficiency alone is too simplistic.  Many less intensive livestock systems would be classed ‘inefficient’ on the carbon emission scale, yet are much less reliant on artificial inputs and tend to have less impacts on water quality, loss of soil organic matter and reduced biodiversity.
 
“We believe that optimised beef production – deliberately accommodating less than maximum output in order to secure stronger and broader ecosystem protection – is the best sustainable use for the grasslands in our care.

“The debate about climate change and food often calls for a reduction of meat consumption and a more plant based diet, but this often overlooks the fact that many grasslands are unsuitable for continuous arable cropping. 

“Grasslands support a range of ecosystems services including water resources, biodiversity and carbon capture and storage.  Grazing livestock not only contributes to their maintenance but also turns grass into human-edible food.”  

Other recent research [3] found that the health benefits of beef (and lamb) are greater when animals are fed totally on grass – their natural food.  Omega 3 fatty acids – recognised as essential to good physical and mental health – are higher in meat from grass and the levels of saturated fat are a third of grain fed beef.

Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director at the National Trust, said: “This research is incredibly timely.  Policy makers across Europe and in the UK are having to tackle the issue of carbon-efficient food production right now.  The debate is all about bringing broader public benefits to the fore alongside food production and this research demonstrates how extensive, grass-fed beef should be at the heart of discussions.

“We need to find new market mechanisms which reward optimised rather than maximised beef production and as bodies like the Government's Ecosystem Markets Task Force gather their thoughts we think this research demonstrates an area which is due some real focus.  Current Common Agricultural Policy reform discussions can also benefit from understanding what this research is telling us and, as the reform drives towards even stronger 'greening' of the payments farmers receive, we think management that delivers quality, grass-fed beef should be encouraged even more through agri-environment measures.

"We'll be taking the findings forward with our tenants, policy makers and the industry to explore how we can develop a market advantage which supports a stronger grass-fed beef sector".