Knowledge for better food systems


Grazed and Confused

Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question – and what it all means for greenhouse gas emissions.

This project aims to dissect claims made by different stakeholders in the debate on grazing systems and their greenhouse gas emissions and evaluate them against the best available science, providing an authoritative and unbiased answer to the question: Is grass-fed beef good or bad for the climate?

Project information

Farm animals, and the consumption of meat and dairy, are a major contributor to the problem of climate change. It is well-established that the livestock sector contributes some 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but there is less agreement on the specific climate impact of different types of animals and production systems. Most controversy surrounds the debate on ‘grass-fed’ beef and how its climate impact compares with other types of meat or meat produced in more intensive systems.

Some have argued that grazing animals can actually stimulate grass to be more productive and put down deeper roots, drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in soils. Others go even further, arguing that this carbon sequestration can, in fact, offset all other emissions from ruminants, and in doing so solve our climate problems.

It is safe to say that this debate has left people either polarised or confused. Is grass-fed better or is it worse for the climate? What’s actually true?

Report findings
This report finds that better management of grass-fed livestock, while worthwhile in and of itself, does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon. This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate. The report concludes that although there can be other benefits to grazing livestock - solving climate change isn’t one of them.

The project is led by FCRN’s coordinator and lead researcher Dr Tara Garnett in collaboration with Cécile Godde and a team of experts drawn from research institutes all over the world. 

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Press contact

Please contact Marie Persson if you have any further questions or wish to book an interview with Tara Garnett. Contact details are:, Skype: Marie.Persson3 and phone: +46730579099

We acknowledge with thanks, the huge support in the form of staff time received from all the participating institutions: Universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Cambridge, and Wageningen; the Centre for Organic Food and Farming (EPOK) at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland; and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia. Nevertheless, the views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of of the participating organisations. 

Authors and affiliations

Professor Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change at the University of Aberdeen and Science Director of Scotland's Climate Change Centre of Expertise. Research Focus: modelling greenhouse gas and carbon mitigation, bioenergy, biological carbon sequestration, global food systems modelling, and greenhouse gas removal technologies.

Erasmus zu Ermgassen, PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge. Research focus: reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, environmental impacts of alternative animal feed sources, the environmental and economic trade-offs incurred in different meat and dairy production systems, and the economics and environmental accounting of livestock farming and food waste.

Cécile Godde, PhD Candidate at CSIRO, Australia - Global Food and Nutrition Security at the University of Queensland. Research focus: Grazing systems modelling, drivers and socio-economic and environmental trade-offs of agricultural intensification; land use dynamics; climate change and variability.

Dr Mario Herrero, Chief Research Scientist and OCE Science Leader at CSIRO, Australia. Research focus: agriculture, food security and global change, targeting agricultural investments in the developing world, sustainable development pathways for smallholder systems, ex-ante impact assessment, climate change (impacts, adaptation and mitigation), development of scenarios of livelihoods and nutrition futures, and multi-scale integrated assessment.

Dr Adrian Muller, Department of Socio-Economic Sciences at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and at the Institute for Environmental Decisions IED, Federal Institutes of Technology Zurich (ETHZ). Research focus: climate change and agriculture (mitigation and adaptation), climate policy in agriculture, modelling of global land use and global food systems and productivity of agricultural production systems.

Dr Christian Schader, Head of Sustainability Assessment at FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture). Research focus: sustainability assessment, life cycle assessment, policy evaluation of technologies and innovations in agriculture and the food system.

Dr Tara Garnett, Coordinator and lead researcher at the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. Investigator on the University of Oxford’s Wellcome Trust-funded Livestock, Environment and People programme (LEAP), and Fellow of theOxford Martin School. Research focus: Interactions among food, climate, health and broader sustainability issues - particularly livestock as a sector where many of these converge, how knowledge is communicated to and interpreted by policy makers, civil society and industry, and in the values that these different stakeholders bring to food problems and possible solutions.

Dr Elin Röös, Associate Senior Lecturer at the Department of Energy and Technology; Division o f Agricultural Engineering at the Swedish Unive rsity of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Research focus: sustainable food production , and sustainable land use from a system perspective

Professor Imke de Boer, Professor of Animal Production Systems at Wageningen University & Research. Research Interests: the role of livestock in future food systems across the world, with a special focus on the impact of interventions in food systems on the environment, the welfare of animals, and the livelihood of people.

Dr Corina van Middelaar, Researcher at the Animal Production Systems group, Wageningen University & Research. Research interests: sustainable animal production systems, dairy farming, environmental analysis, greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, and water footprints.

Dr Hannah van Zanten, Researcher at the Animal Production Systems group, Wageningen University & Research. Research interests: sustainable food production with a focus on animal production systems using a life cycle assessment or food systems approach.

Below is a list of content on the FCRN site related to this project.

Research library