of global land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are driven by beef production, including conversion of forests in the Brazilian Amazon.

Beef is raised in many of the most sensitive and important ecosystems around the world, including the North America’s great plains, the Brazilian Amazon, the savannahs of Southern Africa and the Great Barrier Reef watershed of Australia.

With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 and income levels rising, demand for beef is increasing and will only grow. Yet beef production requires a lot of land, water and energy, and generates considerable waste. It is thus essential to improve its sustainability globally.

There are many ways beef production—when sustainably managed—can achieve conservation benefits. 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 production also provides social benefits by sustaining livelihoods and community vibrancy in rural areas where grasslands dominate. In the Northern Great Plains, for example, WWF is partnering with ranchers, recognizing that their viability is key to keeping grasslands intact. When ranchers manage land for long-term health, wildlife and people, everyone wins.

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.

In the Northern Great Plains, partnerships with ranchers protect vulnerable grasslands

Our “Common Ground” feature took us to the Northern Great Plains, where 32 million acres of grassland habitat have been destroyed over the past decade, primarily for row crop agriculture.
Rancher on horseback watching cattle


Beef production has several distinct and significant impacts on the environment. More agricultural land is used to raise 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 the state of New York is destroyed to create grazing land. Other important habitats, such as the grasslands of the Northern Great Plains, are threatened by expansion of crops for livestock and human consumption. 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.

Cattle ranching and forest burning

Water pollution and usage

Disposal of cattle production waste without proper treatment leads to the pollution of water resources. Sediment resulting from poor grazing management contaminates surface water and groundwater. Beef production also requires a significant amount of water, most of which is used to grow feed for cattle.

Industrial pollution

As the global cattle industry has expanded, the beef slaughter and leather industries have grown vigorously. When it is not properly treated, waste from 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 and overgrazing, or using marginal lands to grow feed, 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 ruminant livestock account for between 7% and 18% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.

What WWF Is Doing


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 best management practices that, if adopted broadly, 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. WWF is a founding member of the GRSB, which formally launched in February 2012. It overwhelmingly approved global principles and criteria in November 2014, and WWF is actively involved in the newly established U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef as well as related pilot projects to develop key sustainability indicators and methods to verify sustainable beef. Other national roundtables have been created in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, with more to come.

Promoting Sustainable Ranching

Through the Sustainable Ranching 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” 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 project of the South Florida Water Management District.

Click here to read more about why WWF cares about the production of meat, poultry, dairy and seafood.


  • 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