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Sustain / Food Facts

Where's the beef: A look at the environmental and social effects of beef production (1998)

BeefReport Summary

The crisis in the beef industry is an opportunity to move towards less damaging and more sustainable farming methods, argues a new report from the SAFE Alliance (now Sustain).

The emphasis on increased productivity in the beef industry is at a cost to both the environment and our health, with animal welfare, agrochemical, waste, transport and nutritional consequences.

In contrast, alternative production systems, such as organic and extensive grazing, can be vital to nature conservation and produce healthier beef.

Retail sales of organically-produced meat increased by nearly 200 per cent between 1992 and 1996. The expanding market for this type of food shows that concerns about food production and quality do influence the decisions made by more and more consumers. Among their concerns are the hidden costs of some forms of beef production - particularly intensive production.

Meat miles
In intensive beef rearing systems the cattle are fed diets rich in protein and energy including barley, wheat, soya beans and soya cake (soya beans with the oil extracted). It is estimated that in Britain 338,000 hectares are used for growing feed for beef cattle. In addition feed is also imported from overseas, where it is estimated that two acres are farmed for every acre in Europe in order to meet our requirements for animal feed, some of it for intensively raised beef. Such imports add to the environmental problems of transport pollution. Imported beef and beef products travelling distances such as 12,000 miles from Zimbabwe add to these food miles as well as undermining UK farmers.

The retailer’s cut
In early 1998 the BBC's Farming Today programme followed a bullock from farm to supermarket shelf to see who, if anyone, was making money out of beef. The farmer had taken three years to raise the bullock and lost £32 on the sale. Between the stages of abattoir and retail sale a margin of over £800 was made on the animal. The main supermarket chains have denied that they are making a profit on beef.

Intensive beef
Extensive systems of beef rearing are used by most UK beef producers, with herds of cattle mainly grazing on open grassland. 15-20% of the beef produced in the UK comes from intensive systems where animals are kept in crowded sheds for much of their lives, before slaughter at 12-16 months. Until the BSE ban on older cattle being used in the food chain, much of the beef used in processed products such as pies and burgers came from the dairy industry. Cows past their useful milking life were used. Now they are slaughtered and incinerated.

Beef with benefits
Traditional extensive grazing systems can be vital for maintaining the habitats of wildlife sites such as grasslands and moorlands. In many cases the environment has evolved with grazing. The case study of an organic beef farm below illustrates how traditional beef farming systems can be both of benefit to the environment and play their part in the local food economy.

The response to the BSE crisis has particularly threatened the survival of extensive beef farmers, as extensively grazing beef cattle are slow-growing and need extra feed in order to be ready for market by the statutory thirty months limit brought in under the BSE measures.

Case Study:

Beef from an organic system with benefits for butterflies
Bill Grayson produces beef within a certified organic conservation grazing system in South Cumbria and North Lancashire. Twenty-five cows and their calves graze 300 hectares of land of high scientific and nature conservation interest owned by a variety of owners. Most of the grazing regimes are targeted at conservation of the high brown fritillary butterfly which is usually associated with mosaics of bracken, bare limestone and herb-rich grassland. Cattle grazing creates and maintains this patchy habitat. The gaps in the bracken canopy where the cattle come to get water from mobile tanks become colonised by violets and become favourite egg-laying sites, creating butterfly glades. The calves are reared by natural suckling. At ten months the calves are weaned and move out onto the reserves to play their part in conservation. Prior to the 30 month BSE rules, the cattle took over three years to be ready for market. To be ready within 30 months, extra feeding is required and, to comply with the organic standards, the supplements must be largely organic and must not exceed a kilogram per day for each animal. At 24-28 months the cattle are brought back onto good pasture to enable them to put on weight and shape prior to slaughter. The beef is sold through 'farm-gate' sales where the organic production system combined with the conservation grazing and appreciation of good quality meat make marketing relatively straightforward. Obtaining the beef retail price rather than the wholesale price helps the farm's finances.

Bill Grayson is a member of the Elm Farm Reaseach Centre Organic Demonstration Farm Network. For more information about this network and demonstration farm events please visit the EFRC web site (now the Organic Research Centre).

Recommendations for consumers

  • Support extensive farmers whose beef cattle are important to areas of natural interest. Where possible, buy extensively reared beef with the Mature Assured Beef label.
  • Find out about local farmers' markets. Consider getting involved in setting one up.
  • Buy direct from the producer and ask about the systems used to produce your food. Contact the Soil Association for their directory of farm shops and delivery schemes.
  • Look for organic beef suppliers. A directory of where to buy organic food is available from the Soil Association and in The Shoppers Guide to Organic Food by Lynda Brown (Fourth Estate Ltd. 1998).
  • Reduce your consumption of saturated fat by choosing meat from extensively-reared animals.
  • Reduce overall fat consumption by buying the better quality cuts rather than processed meat products. The full report can be ordered below.

 Download 'Where's the beef' and other titles from the Food Facts series

Food Facts: A series of short reports on over a dozen different products, shows how people's shopping choices - as well as government policy - can protect the environment, enhance social justice and improve health.

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