Climate impact of beef: an analysis considering multiple time scales and production methods without use of global warming potentials

An analysis of the climate impact of various forms of beef production is carried out, with a particular eye to the comparison between systems relying primarily on grasses grown in pasture ('grass-fed' or 'pastured' beef) and systems involving substantial use of manufactured feed requiring significant external inputs in the form of synthetic fertilizer and mechanized agriculture ('feedlot' beef). The climate impact is evaluated without employing metrics such as ${\mathrm{CO}}_{2}{\rm{e}}$ or global warming potentials. The analysis evaluates the impact at all time scales out to 1000 years. It is concluded that certain forms of pastured beef production have substantially lower climate impact than feedlot systems. However, pastured systems that require significant synthetic fertilization, inputs from supplemental feed, or deforestation to create pasture, have substantially greater climate impact at all time scales than the feedlot and dairy-associated systems analyzed. Even the best pastured system analyzed has enough climate impact to justify efforts to limit future growth of beef production, which in any event would be necessary if climate and other ecological concerns were met by a transition to primarily pasture-based systems. Alternate mitigation options are discussed, but barring unforseen technological breakthroughs worldwide consumption at current North American per capita rates appears incompatible with a 2 °C warming target.

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