Unveiling the Environmental Impact of Beef by leveraging Regional Data

Understand the factors considered when looking at GHG emissions of livestock farming and read the insights from our regional analysis on beef production in France.
Jul 4, 2023

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock farming accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this figure does not paint the full picture, as there are significant disparities that need to be investigated and clarified. The impact of raising different types of livestock and farming methods varies, so understanding these variations is crucial for effectively reducing emissions. Additionally, to fully grasp the impact of livestock farming, it is important to consider multiple indicators beyond carbon, and also look at impact on biodiversity, water resources, and animal welfare.

In this blog post, we first talk about the factors considered when looking at GHG emissions of livestock farming. Then we share a few insights from the regional analysis Carbon Maps has done on beef production in France and explain why a regionalized approach provides a better understanding of the environmental impact of livestock farming.

Important factors to account for GHGs of livestock farming

GHG emissions of livestock farming are largely attributed to two main factors. 45% is represented by feed production, which includes land use change, and 39% is represented by enteric fermentation by ruminants, which releases methane and nitrous oxide. Another factor is manure storage and processing (10%) with the remainder attributable to the processing and transportation of animal products.

Given that the two largest factors can have a lot of variation depending on the diet, such as whether cattle is fed with grass or fed with soy imported from Brazil, for example, it’s important to look at livestock GHG emissions depending on specific livestock production systems to arrive at a more accurate statistic.

A regional look at the impact of beef production

It has been made evident that not all methods of meat production contribute equally to climate change. Several studies conducted by public research organizations such as the Institut de l’élevage, Interbev, and INRAE have shed light on the varying levels of GHG emissions associated with different livestock production systems.

Following these findings, we at Carbon Maps have conducted further work with a territorialized focus and also looked at other environmental indicators such as biodiversity. To be able to do this, we collected and analyzed a wide range of public data on French livestock farming, along with scientific literature from IPCC, Cool Farm Tool, PBF, and WFN. Through this comprehensive and regional analysis of the environmental impact of French meat, we were able to gather specific insights.

For instance, we found that beef sourced from dairy basins in the Grand Ouest region of France, primarily from cull cows (cows at the end of their dairy production career), exhibits significantly lower GHG emissions compared to Charolais beef from basins in the Auvergne region, but have a far greater impact on biodiversity. This assessment, a first of its kind on the scale of French territories, paints a vivid picture of the country’s diverse livestock, animals, practices, and terroirs. We were able to successfully conduct the first mapping of the environmental footprint of beef according to its area of origin.

These findings emphasize the need to consider different indicators at various territorial scales and to move away from a narrow, carbon-focused perspective. Being able to understand the variations in environmental impact between different livestock farming practices reinforces the findings that indeed, not all meats have the same impact.

Unlocking new areas for collaboration

The value of this assessment extends beyond mere statistics. It facilitates collaboration among local stakeholders, enabling them to implement tailored decarbonization and regeneration solutions that align with the unique characteristics of each territory. By avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, local communities can address the environmental challenges associated with livestock farming in a more targeted and efficient way.

Understanding the diversity of the environmental impact of beef serves as a powerful tool for informed decision-making. Distributors, cooperatives, farmers, and consumers can leverage this knowledge to align their choices with their environmental values. At Carbon Maps, we have begun to expand our assessments to include other food types like wheat, milk, almonds, and cocoa. Through this comprehensive approach, we seek to help the agri-food sector and consumers alike understand the environmental implications of food supply chains and promote tangible, sustainable practices at the regional level.

In conclusion, the 14% figure representing the impact of livestock farming on global GHG emissions falls short as a comprehensive indicator. Part of our mission is to refine these assessments at a regional, more granular level, supplementing them with additional environmental indicators such as biodiversity impact, water consumption and animal welfare, to pave the way for a more sustainable future in livestock farming, and more broadly, a more sustainable food supply chain. By harmonizing local solutions with global efforts to combat climate change, we can collectively drive positive change in the industry.