Environmental impacts of beef production

Because of the industry's environmental impacts, it is imperative that beef is produced and processed in a way that is socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sustainable – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving and restoring critical habitats, protecting watersheds, enhancing carbon sequestration, and improving soil health and water quality.


The problems the beef industry causes are many and varied. The main environmental impacts are:
  1. Beef and deforestation. An area of the world’s rainforest larger than New York State is estimated to be removed each year to make room for cattle to graze land. Even more is razed to grow the crops cattle eat. This depletes and destroys plants and species’ habitats, not to mention driving people from their homes. Deforestation is also a major cause of global warming.
  2. Livestock, climate change and air pollution. Cattle create huge amounts of warming gases, contributing to climate change and air pollution. Research shows that methane produced by ruminant livestock accounts for between 7% and 18% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.
  3. As manure and artificial fertilizers decompose, the soil releases nitrous oxide too. Carbon dioxide from the machines and vehicles used to grow the crops to feed the cattle and transport the cows is another problem.
  4. Water pollution. When manure isn’t properly disposed of, its nutrients can seep into water resources, causing large-scale algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life. There have been serious problems with this in northwest Europe and off the US east coast. Ammonia released from manure and slurry can also contribute to acid rain. Tanneries, where leather is made, use chromium, a heavy metal which has been known to leak into water supplies, harming people and wildlife.
  5. Water intensity. For example, in the United States, it can take an astounding 3,682 litres of water to produce just one kilo of boneless beef.
  6. Soil erosion. Cattle’s grazing and hooves trampling the soil can cause erosion. This makes land less fertile and, over time, unusable. It also seriously damages fresh water supplies.

Be part of the solution

► Companies, financial sector leaders, policy makers and NGOs are already working with WWF to become part of the solution to making beef sustainable. Join them in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and do your part

► Eat smart – if you buy beef, buy sustainably-produced beef and let your retailer know that you prefer sustainably-produced beef. This will help catalyse action, inform the process and contribute to the development and uptake of standards and certification.

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