by Marion Nestle
Jan 16 2024

Is pasture-raised beef better for the environment? It sure could be.

A reader, Kris, sent me this query:

I hope in a future writing you can help sort out the mixed statements I’m reading  about how pasture-raised meat lines up in terms of environmental/climate change concerns, (particularly if it doesn’t involve extensive shipping). I’ve seen statements and studies on both sides of the argument and I’m having a hard time determining what is supported science vs wishful thinking or greenwashing marketing hype. (Links to 2 difference examples below).

I looked at her sources. Grass-finished beef operations found to have higher carbon footprint, study reveals. 

In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the Breakthrough Institute in the United States, led by Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, present findings challenging the common belief that beef operations with lifelong grass-based diets have a lower carbon footprint than those incorporating grain-based diets, reported.  Cattle raised on lifelong grass diets, termed “pasture finished,” have been traditionally thought to be more environmentally friendly. But the study delves into a more comprehensive analysis, considering factors beyond direct greenhouse gas emissions.

This took me to the PLoS ONE article:  Carbon opportunity cost increases carbon footprint advantage of grain-finished beef.

We assess the carbon footprint of 100 beef production systems in 16 countries, including production emissions, soil carbon sequestration from grazing, and carbon opportunity cost—the potential carbon sequestration that could occur on land if it were not used for production. We conduct a pairwise comparison of pasture-finished operations in which cattle almost exclusively consume grasses and forage, and grain-finished operations in which cattle are first grazed and then fed a grain-based diet. We find that pasture-finished operations have 20% higher production emissions and 42% higher carbon footprint than grain-finished systems.

Agricltural Systems: Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.

We used on-farm data collected from the Michigan State University Lake City AgBioResearch Center for AMP [adaptive multi-paddock] grazing. Impact scope included GHG emissions from enteric methane, feed production and mineral supplement manufacture, manure, and on-farm energy use and transportation, as well as the potential C sink arising from SOC [soil organic carbon] sequestration…This research suggests that AMP grazing can contribute to climate change mitigation through SOC sequestration and challenges existing conclusions that only feedlot-intensification reduces the overall beef GHG footprint through greater productivity.


I can understand Kris’s confusion.  The arguments about the environmental impact of grazing methods depend on assumptions about what needs to be measured.   There should be no argument, however, that pasture-raised animals are treated better and have better lives.  They enrich soil rather than polluting it, air, and water, as do animals raised in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  When raised in a regenerative system, pastured animals replenish soil, cause carbon to be sequestered, and do other good things.  The downside?  Lower yields (but we overproduce meat anyway).  So, I’m all for pasture grazing.

The climate-change arguments depend on decisions about what gets counted; these vary depending on who is doing the counting.

Until everyone can agree on what has to be measured and included in climate-change assessments—and I see no sign of a movement to forge such an agreement—I’m voting for pasture-raised,.  Animal welfare and soil health are reasons enough.

Thanks Kris, for raising the issue so thoughtfully.