According to the UN, methane is more than 30 times more damaging to the environment than CO2. This danger is particularly acute in the beef industry since cows have (by far) the most animal livestock emissions per pound of protein. Amid the emerging evidence that the meat industry is a significant contributor to global warming, the UN has recommended reducing meat consumption worldwide.
Nevertheless, the demand for meat has grown and seems likely to continue. In the US, an increasing drive for sustainability has encouraged the US beef industry to become the most sustainable in the world - but not every part of the globe is following suit. Here are 5 areas of the world with the least sustainable beef production.
The FAO estimates that livestock produces 14.5% of global manmade GHG emissions. China is the world’s largest GHG emitter, and its agricultural sector pollutes more than any other. The sheer size of the Chinese beef industry and generally poor grazing management make it a severe sustainability issue.
However, the real danger lies in growth. The standard of living in China has risen over the last several decades, particularly in the middle class, and the demand for beef has outpaced domestic production. Therefore, China is the world’s largest beef importer, accounting for nearly 30% of global beef imports. Not only do the emissions from transportation come into play, but China is also stimulating increased production in countries like Brazil and Argentina, which also have unsustainable beef industries.
Brazil is the world's largest beef exporter, accounting for 20% of global exports. With the world's second-largest herd, the South American giant's beef industry faces the same challenges as any other nation. However, rampant deforestation makes Brazilian meat some of the most unsustainable on the planet. The country accounts for 1/3 of the world's tropical deforestation; 74% of it comes from the beef industry.
Population growth and rising incomes are the two main drivers of food demand. In Africa, where the population is likely to double by 2050, the FAO estimates beef consumption will increase 200% over 2015 levels in the same period. Ethiopia represents a strange confluence of factors that result in the expansion of large commercial farms (including beef) alongside populations unable to access them. While the government seeks to limit large feed lots, there are doubts about equitable access and whether traditional pastoralism can meet growing demand.
Argentina is one of the traditional powerhouses in global beef production, consumption, and export. Although the environmental issues of Argentine beef have not caught as much press as their Brazilian counterparts, beef-related deforestation is a massive sustainability problem in Argentina. The country's forests are threatened directly by the expansion of beef farming and indirectly by the growing demand for soy, which often feeds the herd.
Belarus has long been a beef exporter and seeks to increase its market share – especially in China. Unfortunately, the economic sustainability of their beef industry is threatened by falling feed imports as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. On the heels of a drought in 2021 that hampered domestic feed production, some experts fear the beef export sector could see a 40% contraction in 2022. In addition, Belarus has the worst animal cruelty record in the world, according to the Voiceless Animal Cruelty Index (VACI).
- Be Mindful – Remember that sustainability is not only about the environment. Economic and social equity are also important factors. For example, sourcing beef from countries with poor access and records of animal cruelty also impedes the sustainability movement.
- Be Active – Do what you can to spread awareness of the sustainability issues that plague beef industries worldwide. Social media and word of mouth can be powerful tools for change.
- Be Adaptable – Try to change your diet. Most other foods will be more sustainable regardless of where you get beef. Going vegan or vegetarian might not be for you, but reducing meat and heavily processed foods while increasing fresh vegetables will be good for you and the environment.