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Beef

Overview

Beef is raised in many of the most sensitive environmental areas around the world. Most of the world’s beef is produced in Australia, Brazil, Southern Africa and the United States. Unlike many other agricultural commodities, cattle have significant impacts on a wide range of ecosystems.

With the United Nations forecasting that global population will exceed 10 billion by the end of the century and income levels rising, demand for beef is increasing and only expected to get higher. It is thus essential to improve the sustainability of beef production globally.

There are many ways beef production—when sustainably managed—can benefit our environment. Grazing maintains the health of grasslands, improves soil quality with manure, and preserves open space and wildlife habitat. Additionally, carbon is sequestered in the grasses and soils of grazing lands. Beef is also important for health and economic development. As a nutrient-rich protein source, beef increases food security and nutrition, especially in developing countries. Beef production also provides social benefits, such as poverty alleviation and the promotion of community vibrancy.

WWF envisions a global marketplace in which all beef is sustainable. By working with producers as well as companies and their supply chains to improve the sustainability of beef production, WWF is helping ensure that consumers have choices for a safe, affordable and sustainable diet.

Impacts

Beef production has several distinct and significant impacts on the environment. More pasture is used for cattle than all other domesticated animals and crops combined. In addition, cattle eat an increasing proportion of grain produced from agriculture, are one of the most significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation, and are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, processing cattle into meat, meat by-products and leather is a major source of pollution in many countries.

Habitat conversion

Researchers estimate that each year an area of rainforest larger than New York state is destroyed to create grazing land. Currently over two-thirds of the world's agricultural land is used for maintaining livestock. One-third of the world's land is suffering desertification due in large part to deforestation, overgrazing, and poor agricultural practices. Up to 20% of the earth’s grasslands are suffering from some degree of degradation.

Cattle ranching and forest burning

Water pollution and usage

Disposal of organic cattle production waste without proper treatment leads to the pollution of water resources. Sediment resulting from poor grazing management contaminates surface water and groundwater. Heavy water use by the beef industry is also a major concern.

Industrial pollution

As the global cattle industry has expanded, the beef slaughter and leather industries have grown vigorously. The waste from both slaughterhouses and tanneries—rich in organic matter, heavy metals and caustic solutions—is highly polluting without appropriate treatment.

Soil degradation

Livestock farming is one of the main contributors to soil erosion around the world. Turning forests into pasture, overgrazing, and soil impaction from cattle’s hooves can lead to extreme loss of topsoil and organic matter that may take decades or centuries to replace.

Climate change

Beef production has a considerable effect on climate change due to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Research shows that methane produced by ruminant livestock accounts for between 7% and 18% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.

What WWF Is Doing

Cattle

WWF is committed to working with the global beef industry to address production issues in ways that are socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable.

Improving Management Practices

Initial research shows that there are a number of improved management practices that can measurably reduce environmental impacts. These include:

  • Maintaining vegetative cover
  • Avoiding overgrazing
  • Protecting riparian areas
  • Selecting for cattle that are more efficient
  • Reducing waste and disposing of waste in the least harmful ways
  • Using chemicals and antibiotics judiciously
  • Reducing wastewater
  • Improving water effluent quality
  • Reducing soil compaction

Catalyzing Global Action on Beef

WWF’s first major initiative related to this work was helping to convene the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, held in November 2010. Approximately 300 stakeholders from across the beef system met to address the environmental, economic and social impacts of beef production and determine if there was consensus for forming a coalition to improve the sustainability of the global beef system.

The message was loud and clear: a multi-stakeholder initiative was needed and with that, a foundation for the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) was laid. Formally launched in February 2012, the GRSB works to engage local efforts to improve the sustainability of the beef industry in North America, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Southern Africa.

Promoting Sustainable Ranching

Through the Sustainable Livestock Initiative, WWF collaborates with farmers and ranchers around the world to identify and accelerate the use of more ecologically and economically sustainable management practices. The Initiative is working in key beef production areas such as the Northern Great Plains, the Chihuahua Desert, Australia, Argentina, and southern Africa to increase the uptake of best practices.

Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project (FRESP)

In the Northern Everglades region of Florida, WWF worked with ranchers to establish the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project (FRESP) in 2005. This collaborative, entrepreneurial endeavor designed a “payment for environmental services” (PES) approach to improving water retention and reducing nutrient loads on ranchlands. FRESP is now coming to a close after successfully informing the launch of the Northern Everglades-Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) project of the South Florida Water Management District.

Projects

  • Sustainable Ranching Initiative

    WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative works with farmers and ranchers around the world to identify and accelerate the use of more ecologically and economically sustainable management practices

     

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