According to the National Beef Association (NBA), the main lobbying organization for the British beef industry, the longer a cow lives, the more carbon emissions they are responsible for, as cows become less efficient at turning food into saleable meat with age.
The NBA has proposed a solution to this problem: kill cows when they are younger—at 27 months instead of the current 30 months typical in the UK—and put a carbon tax on older animals.
To date, this appears to be the only climate action that the NBA has suggested for the British beef industry. And it comes despite the agricultural sector contributing 10 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions at last count, the majority of which comes in the form of methane from livestock, particularly cattle. But some farmers believe the proposal may do more harm than good and could even undermine the one type of cattle farming with potential climate benefits.
“My take on it is that this is bad science,” says Chris Jones, an organic farmer in Cornwall who rears cows for regenerative agriculture, the style of farming promoted in the recent Netflix documentary Kiss the Ground as a major tool in fighting the climate crisis. “It is complete carbon illiteracy and it’s complete ecological illiteracy. If we’re keeping [cows] on a grass-based system, where they are grazing on the product of perennial grassland, then the carbon that is sequestered through soil is greater than any methane effect coming from the animals themselves.”
Feeding cows exclusively on pasture is a slow, non-intensive process. By this method, it takes the cows around 30 months or more to be ready for slaughter. Fattening them up enough at a younger age would require intensifying the process. Jones and other farmers argue this would require supplementing their diets with concentrated feed such as imported grain and soya, which has its own environmental problems such as deforestation. This could undermine any carbon savings made by slaughtering them younger.
“[The industry] wants to be very highly productive but they don’t count all of the emissions that come along with the food they grow,” says Jones.
The NBA represents intensive cattle farms as well as grass-fed and free-range farms, where animals are reared on pasture at least some of the time. Its corporate sponsors include several manufacturers of cattle feed. The group claims that if the proposal goes through, farmers won’t necessarily need to introduce concentrated feed. On the BBC’s Farming Today radio program, NBA board member and livestock sustainability consultant Dr. Jude Capper said, “This isn’t about every cattle being finished on grain and soy, it’s about better pasture management, more carbon sequestration.”
But it is unclear what “better pasture management” would look like for Jones’ farm, which is free of pesticides and fertilizers and is managed for nature as well as food at a time when there is an increasing shift towards intensive indoor models of cattle farming. Some farmers have argued that the NBA proposal ignores the benefits of such production methods and could discourage farmers from taking up regenerative farming practices.
The proposal to put a carbon tax on less “efficient” older cows also strikes Jones as nonsensical. “You can’t have a carbon tax on an animal,” he says. “What you want is a carbon tax on a farm. So you look at the carbon audit on the farm, and if it’s sequestering, it gets paid, and if it’s emitting, it gets taxed. If we did that, you watch how fast farming would change.”
Environmental researcher Nicholas Carter also finds the proposed carbon tax odd. “That’s a very narrow, specific way of using a carbon tax just to suit [the industry’s] profitability instead of using a carbon tax, which can be useful, to help lower carbon,” he says.
In Carter’s view, the problem with the NBA proposal is that it simply won’t make enough of a difference to the climate and ecological impact of cattle farming. He does not share Jones’s positive views about regenerative agriculture and thinks the real climate solution in animal agriculture is for there to be less of it—a view held by many of the world’s leading climate scientists.
“You could compare this solution to cars,” says Carter. “This is essentially: you’re using an SUV and you’re proposing to drive less or reduce emissions in the SUV slightly instead of biking or driving a really small car. That’s the difference we’re talking about here.” The important thing, he says, is what you are comparing the emissions savings too. “If you’re comparing it to how [farming] was before, okay it could be a slight improvement—there’s a lot of variables—but if you’re comparing it to shifting diets and reducing herd sizes, then that’s where you get the real difference in terms of ecological impact.”
The NBA proposal, however, does not aim to reduce herd sizes but rather to cut the amount of beef imported to the UK. “[The proposal] will lower the carbon footprint because of the earlier slaughter age,” said Capper, “but also, importantly, if we slaughter animals earlier we free up feed and grazing resources so we can actually produce more [domestic] beef with a lower carbon footprint.”
The climate benefits of regenerative animal agriculture may still be up for debate, but it is clear that the farmers who practice it care a great deal about the climate and the environment. If the NBA actually wants to offer climate solutions, it seems that this time it has missed the mark. And perhaps that was intentional, a way to pay lip-service to climate action without making meaningful change where it’s really needed—in intensive cattle farming.
“Overall it’s just such a strange proposed solution,” says Carter. “This is just one industry that’s, of course, trying to prolong itself and to be relevant and trying to greenwash, so people think it’s a good solution, when any time you look at environmental metrics, you need to compare it to the most sustainable way of doing something.”
Claire is an Associate Editor at Sentient Media and a freelance writer focused on animals, climate and the environment.