How sustainable is your food?

In this Step you’ll explore the sustainability of our food production through the example of livestock management; in particular beef production in the UK. This provides you with opportunities to examine the sustainability of different agricultural methods, and to find out how consumers can tell the difference.

As the world’s population and level of income increases, there is a growing global demand for meat products [1]. All livestock production systems have their own sets of challenges, however, consumers are starting to want to buy meat products that have been produced to higher standards of environmental sustainability and animal welfare. But how can consumers find trustworthy information that describes the production methods used? And how are farmers innovating and adapting their farming methods to become more sustainable?

What factors could be addressed to create a more sustainable system?

There are many systems of livestock production [2,3]; including mixed systems (crops and livestock). In the UK approximately half of the beef animals come from the dairy industry but there are also some specialised beef producers who rear suckler herds where the animals are reared specifically for beef.

For this case study, a generic example of a ‘standard’ beef production system in the UK is used in the table below. It’s then compared with examples of ‘enhanced practice’ that have higher standards for environmental protection and animal welfare, and suggest the resulting improvements in the system.

Features of beef livestock farming in the UK Standard practice Enhanced practice Improvements resulting from the enhancement
Breeding/ genetics Cows are bred with beef bulls of unknown genetic merit or beef cows are bred with unknown genetic merit Animals are genetically screened and only those with characteristics of interest (such as longer life and efficient growth) are used for breeding This should reduce veterinary and medicine costs and reduce methane emissions from the animals (a key ‘greenhouse gas’)
Nutrition In intensive systems animals are fed on a high energy, high protein diet (eg cereals and soya). In extensive systems animals are grazed on grassland. A precise diet is created for animals in intensive systems that exactly meets their nutritional needs.
Animals in extensive systems are grazed on diverse forages that don’t require nitrogen fertiliser.
This should reduce methane emissions from the cows and reduce the chance that excess nitrogen will be excreted in manure or run off into water courses where it can cause pollution.
Disease management There is general use of medicines/ antimicrobials to treat disease. A herd health plan is created with the vet to prevent or reduce the need to use medicines and antimicrobials. This should lead to less calf mortality and better health and welfare of herd. It also reduces the risk of antimicrobial resistance.
Bedding Sand, wood shavings or straw are used for indoor-housed animals. Recycled materials are used that are non-edible. This reduces waste and ensures that the animals eat the correct diet.
Animal welfare The animals are given the five freedoms Animals are provided with a better environment (such as providing cow brushes), ensuring housing is well-designed for comfort, minimising stress during transport and keeping animals together in social groups where possible. This leads to higher levels of comfort and animal welfare.
Transport of live animals Journeys are kept as short as possible and animals are transported by licensed professionals who have undergone proper training. Livestock trailers are enhanced to meet higher welfare standards, they keep animals cool and only carry the right number of animals for their comfort. This ensures that the animals experience less stress prior to slaughter and arrive at the abattoir in better physical condition. This also improves meat quality.
Waste/slurry management Waste and slurry is stored and used according to current legislation. Waste is recycled or reused such as in anaerobic digesters to generate electricity. Slurry is kept in covered stores and spread responsibly to minimise any air/water pollution. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and prevents pollution of water courses. The waste can be reused to generate energy

This table only explores a few features of beef production on the farm. Ultimately farmers want to produce the highest amount of food while trying to balance environmental and welfare concerns. However, enhanced practices usually cost more and farmers are already being squeezed by the increasing costs of farming and lower farm gate prices.

Other parts of the beef supply chain are also considering how improve their operations to ensure sustainability of the food system. Many farming industries are already efficient and enhancement of one feature doesn’t always lead to benefits across the system. The only way to assess overall efficiency and sustainability of a system is to consider all the upstream and downstream activities using a ‘lifecycle analysis’ [4].

You’ve only explored livestock production, but all primary food production systems can be adapted and enhanced to ensure sustainable and ethical production methods are used.

If you chose to purchase meat, how many of these features of production would you consider important to know?

There is a debate around changing diets to reduce meat consumption as part of the efforts towards global food security. This is related to the fact that it requires significantly more land to raise livestock than to produce food for a vegetarian diet due to reduced energy conversion through the food chain. A recent study showed that the environmental impact of livestock systems can be reduced if consumers choose to just eat meat of a higher nutritional quality (meaning that less, lower quality meat is produced)[5].

This review “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People” explores the need for a global strategy to ensure sustainable and equitable food security and in the next Step you’ll consider some ethical aspects [5] of food production systems.


With thanks to Dr Anna Thomson, Dr Darren Juniper and Dr Caroline Rymer from the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading for their knowledge to complete the table.

For the full list of references please see under ‘Downloads’ and along with a list of further reading.

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food