Feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef, according to new research for the National Trust.
One of the biggest global challenges is how to increase food security whilst reducing the environmental impacts of food production.
Livestock – like cattle and sheep – produce high levels of methane as part of the process of digesting grass. This has led to suggestions that intensive production methods – where cattle are fed largely on cereals, producing less methane – should be preferred over more traditional grass fed livestock farming.
However, in a report  issued today, research at 10 Trust farms shows that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture  on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94 per cent, even resulting in a carbon ‘net gain’ in upland areas. The farms that had recently converted to organic status showed even greater gains.
Rob Macklin, National Agriculture and Food Adviser at the National Trust, said: “The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population.”
“Maximising carbon efficiency alone is too simplistic. Many less intensive livestock systems would be classed ‘inefficient’ on the carbon emission scale, yet are much less reliant on artificial inputs and tend to have less impacts on water quality, loss of soil organic matter and reduced biodiversity.
“We believe that optimised beef production – deliberately accommodating less than maximum output in order to secure stronger and broader ecosystem protection – is the best sustainable use for the grasslands in our care.
“The debate about climate change and food often calls for a reduction of meat consumption and a more plant based diet, but this often overlooks the fact that many grasslands are unsuitable for continuous arable cropping.
“Grasslands support a range of ecosystems services including water resources, biodiversity and carbon capture and storage. Grazing livestock not only contributes to their maintenance but also turns grass into human-edible food.”
Other recent research  found that the health benefits of beef (and lamb) are greater when animals are fed totally on grass – their natural food. Omega 3 fatty acids – recognised as essential to good physical and mental health – are higher in meat from grass and the levels of saturated fat are a third of grain fed beef.
Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director at the National Trust, said: “This research is incredibly timely. Policy makers across Europe and in the UK are having to tackle the issue of carbon-efficient food production right now. The debate is all about bringing broader public benefits to the fore alongside food production and this research demonstrates how extensive, grass-fed beef should be at the heart of discussions.
“We need to find new market mechanisms which reward optimised rather than maximised beef production and as bodies like the Government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force gather their thoughts we think this research demonstrates an area which is due some real focus. Current Common Agricultural Policy reform discussions can also benefit from understanding what this research is telling us and, as the reform drives towards even stronger ‘greening’ of the payments farmers receive, we think management that delivers quality, grass-fed beef should be encouraged even more through agri-environment measures.
“We’ll be taking the findings forward with our tenants, policy makers and the industry to explore how we can develop a market advantage which supports a stronger grass-fed beef sector”.
 The research was carried out by sustainability consultants, Best Foot Forward and farm business consultants, the Laurence Gould Partnership in Autumn 2010.
The two assessors used PAS 2050 (PAS 2050 incorporates the greenhouse gas emissions potency of methane and nitrous oxide emissions using the carbon accounting unit of CO2 equivalent per live weight of beef produced) as well as developing additional scenarios to account for carbon sequestration by grassland and organic conversion and compared with other published life cycle studies on UK, US and Brazilian production methods.
They compared the carbon footprints of beef cattle raised on ten of the charity’s livestock farms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; four organic, four conventional and two semi-intensive conventional in both upland and lowland areas.
The results show the average carbon footprint across the Trust farms was 21.5 kg CO2 equivalent per kg live weight of beef which were comparable with those from other studies in the UK. See:
Taylor, RC et al (2010) ‘Measuring holistic carbon footprints for lamb and beef farms in the Cambrian Mountains’ Report for Countryside Council of Wales.
EBLEX (2010) ‘Test the Water – The English Beef and Sheep Production Environmental Roadmap – Phase 2.
Williams, AG Audsley E and Sandars, DL (2006) ‘Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultrual and horticultural commodities. Main Report. Defra Research Project ISO 20. Bedford: Cranfield University and Defra.
 Carbon sequestration is the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2). All crops absorb CO2 during growth and release it after harvest. The goal of agricultural carbon removal is to use the crop and its relation to the carbon cycle to permanently sequester carbon within the soil. This is done by selecting farming methods that return biomass to the soil and enhance the conditions in which the carbon within the plants will be stored in a stable state.
 See: Wyness, L et al (2011) ‘Red meat in the diet: an update’ Nutrition Bulletin 36,1 pp.34-77.
Rule, DC et al (2002) ‘Comparison of muscle fatty acid profiles and cholesterol concentrations of bison, beef, cattle, elk and chicken’ J ANIM SCI 80 pp. 1202-1211.
Duckett, SK et al (1993) Effects of time on feed on beef nutrient composition J ANIM SCI 71pp. 2079-2088.