Red meat has been under the spotlight in recent years for its high environmental footprint.
This comes from the amount of land, water and other resources given to rearing or growing food to feed cattle. It also comes from methane emissions emitted by cows during their lifetime.
While the debate over veganism and animal welfare has attracted media interest and industry discussion, the resources used by beef cattle is arguably a bigger challenge for the sector to overcome.
The biggest potential for reduction of both resources and climate emissions could come from improving production efficiencies: making more with less.
This could include the use of better quality feed, improved breeding and animal health to reduce unproductive cattle. It is also about manure management practices which ensure recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy contained in manure, for example through a biogas plant.
This process is already taking place, to an extent, in the UK. Steady improvements in production efficiency have taken place over recent years, with 5 per cent fewer prime cattle required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998, according to AHDB Beef and Lamb. That said, AHDB says the genetic potential for progress in beef breeds for improvements in feed efficiency is largely undeveloped.
AHDB runs Farmbench, an online benchmarking tool which helps identify improvements which can be made by farm businesses. An analysis of this data, published last year, found eight key factors which the top 25 per cent of farms are performing well on, including minimising overhead costs, compiling budgets and comparing yourself to others and past performance.
AHDB strategy director for beef and lamb Will Jackson says: “If you are improving things in the best possible way, you are giving yourself the best chance of being sustainable and minimising your environmental footprint.”
Away from the farm, the NFU has flagged up other improvements in efficiencies which can be made in the beef sector.
Tom Dracup, NFU livestock adviser, says another solution being proposed which could drive sustainability is pasture-fed beef systems.
Alex Brewster, a beef farmer near Dunkeld, Perthshire, explains: “Cattle are important as they complete the ecosystem of soil, plants and animals. If you graze them, we are harvesting soil energy and nutrients from plants.
“With high stock density while grazing, we either eat the grass, or trample it in, to benefit mineral cycling by feeding soil biology.
“We are harvesting the animal to give us energy and the by-product is then put back into soil.”
Mr Brewster farms in partnership with his parents and recently completed a Nuffield scholarship on the profitability of pasture-based farming.
He says his system benefits the environment and his own financial sustainability.
“While we have been facing a wave of commodity price increases, the profitability of my farm has increased because we are spending less on feed, so producing more for less cost. Our system utilises as much grass down the throats of our animals as possible. So if I am buying less, that is less raw materials being shipped globally around the world.”
Clare Hill, farm manager at FAI farms, says while there are concerns around extended finishing periods from switching away from grain, pasture-fed systems could make sense to some farmers.
She says: “It will only take grain prices to go up a bit to become unsustainable to feed beef animals with it, so if you have a model based on feeding large amounts of grain that may become less viable.
“I would not suggest everyone should switch, but farmers should be asking themselves, if prices went up £50/tonne how much would it affect profitability?”
Mrs Hill says the beef sector has catching up to do on utilising grass in systems to improve financial sustainability.
“We know most farmers could get 50 per cent more grass with intensively managed rotation. If you can do that, it is free. Dairy tends to be good at that, but beef less so. Every week there is an article in the farming press about someone growing more grass. If you can do that, it is better for the planet and your bottom line.”
According to the FAO, as much as 70 per cent of all agricultural land globally can only be utilised as grazing land for ruminant livestock.
Mrs Hill says: “Nothing else aside from ruminants can turn grass into food which humans can eat and be such a highly nutritious protein.”
Mr Brewster says the climate and grazing land available in the UK presents a huge potential for many more farmers to switch to a pasture-fed production model.
He says: “There is probably no mistaking that herbivores have grazed the planet for millions of years and evolved and developed with our grasslands, so the smart thing is to understand how they work together and mimic that in our business. I am sure they did not evolve on a grain-based diet or buying-in soy from Brazil. A bright future for the beef sector has to look at a system that works with the environment.
“If we, as a primary producer, can stabilise emissions and put them back into soil through growing pasture and sequestering carbon, it is a benefit to our business and society too and that is the key function of well-managed beef cattle.”
While cattle raised mainly on pasture may have a positive image among consumers, their superior sustainability has been questioned.
Researchers from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at Oxford University have concluded if you look at the amount of land used and greenhouse gas emissions produced per kilogram of meat, pasture-based cattle actually have a greater impact in terms of greenhouse gases they are responsible for than animals fed grains and soy.
Animals in more intensive, grain-fed systems, the researchers conclude, reach slaughter weight faster than grass-fed animals do, so emissions over the animal’s entire lifetime are lower.
The downside to narrow focus on feed efficiency and climate emissions is that it could drive people away from beef production altogether.
Mrs Hill says: “There is sense to the argument that we should stop feeding grains to animals when it could be feeding humans. But if we just look at efficiency, then beef would be bottom of the pile with a feed conversion rate of 12:1, compared to 2:1 for chicken.”
The FCRN report authors admit their analysis was based solely on the role of grazing animals in the net greenhouse gas balance.
Lead author Dr Tara Garnett says: “We do not ask if they are better for biodiversity or whether these systems are more humane, or whether feeding human-edible grains to animals is a bad idea.
“Grazing ruminants has historically driven deforestation and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with it. But today, demand for soy and grains to feed pigs, poultry and intensively reared cattle poses a new threat. This drives the conversion of grassland to grow such grains and the release of carbon stored in it.”
For now, more research on the issue is needed to establish the environmental trade-offs between different beef farming systems, including pasture-based ones. But, Mr Dracup, says the diversity of beef enterprises in the UK actually provides an advantage when it comes to delivering sustainability outputs.
He says: “[We have] intensive beef finishing units with low conversion ratios and reduced time to slaughter. Grazing systems linking with other metrics, such as grazing for environment schemes, for example meadows or carbon storage. Different systems suit different farm settings.”
Through their Farm Forward programme, McDonald’s aims to help farmers run thriving sustainable businesses, able to invest with confidence in the future. By undertaking research, sharing knowledge and tools and actively investing in the future of farming McDonald's is helping beef farmers tackle the ‘three Es’ of sustainability: economics; ethics; and environment.