How your burger choice could have a massive environmental impact

·Environment Editor
·4-min read

“Do you want fries with that?,” may no longer be the biggest dilemma burger lovers face when ordering their next meal.

New research from the CSIRO indicates consumers of beef may want to consider how the cow they’re about to eat was raised before it was butchered.

It's a choice which won't impact taste as much as it will the environment.

Scientists from the CSIRO compared meat sliced from grass-fed cattle to that taken from grain-fed animals. Source: Getty - File Image
Scientists from the CSIRO compared meat sliced from grass-fed cattle to that taken from grain-fed animals. Source: Getty - File Image

Between 30 and 40 per cent of cattle raised for human consumption in Australia spend the the last 90 to 150 days in a feedlot being fattened up on grain.

The CSIRO's livestock systems scientist Dr Dean Thomas examined how much more human-edible protein (HEP) they require than animals raised in grassy paddocks.

The research found that once butchered, an animal which was “grain finished” provided twice the amount of HEP to human diners as it consumed in its lifetime.

Cows which spent their entire lives wandering about in paddocks and were given just a small amount of supplementary grain contributed 1597 times the amount.

Producing protein to feed to cattle consumes resources including land, water and fuel, so at first glance, it may seem that choosing grass-fed beef is more environmentally sustainable.

Sadly, scientific findings are never that simple and Dr Thomas has shared a number of details in his report that may complicate the choices of those wishing to eat beef.

A number of other factors including greenhouse gas emissions produced by the two systems must be taken into account.

Almost half of global crops fed to animals

With almost half of the world's crops grown for animal food, Dr Thomas's study could aid in the reduction of agricultural land use.

“Globally about 40 per cent of crops are grown specifically to feed to animals,” he told Yahoo News.

“A lot of that is soybean or maize and it’s human edible.”

The amount of human edible protein required in two systems of production were compared. Source: CSIRO
The amount of human edible protein required in two systems of production were compared. Source: CSIRO

In Australia, it's a much different story, with cattle mostly fed low quality proteins which are not suitable for human consumption.

“The feedlot sector increasingly uses locally available by-products such as spent grain from bio-alcohol, feed-grade grain and cottonseed, while still meeting nutritional requirements for cattle,” he said.

This means buying grain-fed beef may not have the same detrimental impact if you're living in Australia as it would in many other nations.

Does grass-fed or grain-fed produce more methane emissions?

Another layer of complication presents when you consider that grass-fed cattle are believed to produce more methane than those raised in feedlots.

The greenhouse gas has been found to be many more times as potent than carbon dioxide.

“Lower digestible, more fibrous diets will produce more methane per unit of production,” Dr Thomas said.

“Because the feedlot diet is higher quality, the animals will grow faster, so the amount of product that you get per unit of emissions was about overall 20 per cent lower in the feedlot finished animals.”

Around 40 per cent of the world's crops are fed to animals. Source: Getty - File Image
Around 40 per cent of the world's crops are fed to animals. Source: Getty - File Image

Improved pastures that are more easily digestible could reduce the amount of emissions grass-fed cattle produce.

Dr Thomas is working on another project that examines whether high quality grasses will make livestock "more efficient" and grow faster.

Global meat consumption expected to rise by staggering amount

For many environmentalists, the simplest dietary solution to help the planet is to cut out meat altogether.

The carbon footprint of animal agriculture was widely discussed by activists ahead of the COP26 climate crisis talks, with many advocating for a plant-based diet.

Dr Thomas said his research shows meat production can actually be an efficient way to create protein for humans.

“Cattle are efficient up-cyclers of grass and other feedstuffs not just in terms of the quality of protein they create,” Dr Thomas said.

“They contribute a greater amount of protein to our food system than is used in their production as well.”

CSIRO research aims to help consumers make sustainable choices

No matter the dietary choices we make as individuals meat consumption is expected to increase by 76 per cent between 2015 and 2050.

This is largely because the world’s population will continue to grow.

Dr Thomas's research is part of the CSIRO's Future Protein Mission which is working to improve the sustainability of food systems through science, innovation and technology.

While the study may not reveal any simple answers for Australian consumers today, it aims to help guide efficiencies in both grass-fed and grain-finished systems.

By calculating benchmark feed conversion figures, farmers and scientists will be able to track improvements they make.

The work will also give consumers better access to information regarding the sustainability of their food choices into the future.

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