The Big Beef Debate

18 Feb

I had originally written this at the bottom of my Kranksy and Roast Veggies post, but decided to make it a stand alone post. I would love to say that the meal in question was ethical, but I don’t think the Kranskys were. Although the company itself was ethical, the ingredients list “meat including pork”. I can only assume that there is beef in the mix, which for us is highly unethical. This is not a meat source we would normally purchase, however, it was left over from the party and I decided to use it rather than waste it. So why is beef bad, Rhianna? Let me explain why as simply as I can. For simplicity, I am only sticking to three main issues; Water, land degradation and air pollution. I assure you, there are five times as many issues associated with cattle production, but I don’t want to write a paper on such a gorgeous day as today!

This photo I took in 2006 on the bank of a river in Candelo, NSW. I call it the three judges.
This photo I took in 2006 on the bank of a river in Candelo, NSW. I call it the three judges.


Climate change and land use issues are starting to impact on the availability of clean water used for drinking, cooking and bathing. Of all sources utilising water resources (people, industry, agriculture ect), the beef farming industry is the largest water consumer. Although global estimates vary largely, it is internationally accepted that the water used to produce one kilo of beef is roughly 20,000 litres of water (2500 gallons per pound). Think about it; the cattle raised for human consumption must be fed and watered. The feed they eat (soy, hay ect ect) must be watered to grow just like any crop. There is a lot of water involved in the slaughtering and  butchering processes. In fact, every aspect of bringing you a piece of meat to the table has involved large quantities of water. This water is now unavailable to people for consumption, and as a result, people in may countries dehydrate while cattle drink.

Furthermore, the use of underground water stores (such as the Great Artesian Basin) have been depleted to near exhaustion all over the world to (directly or indirectly) water cattle. While this doesn’t initially seem like a bad thing, the geology and water infiltration rates result in these aquifers requiring centuries to refill. Current extraction rates are exceeding recharge rates, and this gap is only increasing. The natural flow of water within the GAB is estimated at just one to five meters annually. That is exceptionally slow for an aquifer that is estimated to cover some 64,900 cubic kilometres (or a quarter of the Australian land mass).

Land Degradation:

In the USA, approximately 50% of agricultural lands are used in beef production. Similarly, beef production in Australia extends to approximately half (yes, half!) of the entire continental landmass. Once forestry and natural land cover is cleared for agricultural purposes, it leaves it exposed to degradation. Degradation is a generalised term to describe many forms of declining land quality which has far reaching effects for humans and indigenous fauna and flora. I have chosen just three to speak about here at the moment, however, you should be aware that there are MANY more complications that arise directly from land clearing such as biodiversity issues (flora and fauna survival and extinction complications), land use competition (shortage of land for other forms of agriculture and housing) and direct soil issues (nutrient loading, exhaustion and shifts).

    • Salinity: Naturally occurring  soils and their sediments containing iron sulfides (principally pyrite) are known as Acid Sulphite Soils. When these soils are exposure to oxygen (for example, by drainage or excavation to use as pasture lands) Sulfuric Acid is generated through natural, unavoidable chemical reactions. The land degrades to a point where it is unable to sustain organic life. The reversal of this effect is timely and costly. It many be centuries before the damage is undone, and until it has been reversed, the land is unusable for any purpose.
    • Compaction: Over time, the heavy traffic of cattle compacts the soil on which they graze. This compression of soil results in a reduced rate of water infiltration (ie: the ability and rate which the land absorbs water) and makes it more difficult for flora to establish. This has a trickle down effect; i) plants have a hard time growing in the hardened, condensed soil and less water is available to them, ii) fauna has reduced amounts of food available to them, increasing competition and loss of biodiversity and iii) more land is required to produce crops to feed cattle, as it is less likely to grow naturally in their pasture lots.
    • Run Off: Farming and agricultural activities requiring the removal or disturbance of ground cover predisposing the site to erosion. This results in a wicked cycle of events, all linked to this clearing;  i) loss of sedimentation through water run off which eventually travels through storm water drains ending up in rivers or the sea, ii) nutrient loading in water ways and the sea results in algal blooms (blue green algae) which deplete the water of oxygen, eventually result in fish kills and iii) the lost nutrients need to be replaced so that the crops (that support the cattle) grow – enter fertilisers.

While searching for an image for this article, I rediscovered this photo which I presumed had been lost. This is my father with his pet cows on his property at Candelo, NSW, in 2006. I think this is the last image I have of him before he died.

Green House Gasses:

Our understanding of the green house gas effect is that certain gasses act to form an atmospheric canopy that trap solar energy near to the earth’s surface. This in turn causing a change in the air closest to the earth’s surface, gradually increasing surface temperature through a processes commonly refereed to as global warming. In a United Nations paper released in 2006, beef production was named as the number one producer of green house gasses. It specifically named carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. It estimated that beef production accounts for up to 22% of the worlds entire green house gas omissions directly related to climate change. That is a whole hell of a lot of climate change attributed solely to cattle! 

So, what’s it all mean? Generally speaking for the environmentally concious, the negative impacts of cattle farming outweigh the tasty steak on your plate. One study reported by the University of Chicago suggested switching from the average meat-based diet to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet will reduce your personal carbon footprint by 0.97 tons. I am not suggesting that everyone becomes vegetarians over night. Small steps is what we need; start Meat Free Monday’s in your home. Once you are comfortable with having a totally vegetarian day in your regular diet, introduce Pulses Thursday. Just reducing your meat consumption to zero two days a week will have a huge positive result on the environment in which we live.

By-Note: I started to list my sources, but most of it comes from my undergraduate studies as an Environmental Sciences student. I am sure that there are dozens of papers that would verify what I’ve said, and if pushed, Ill get to the text books and fine them for you. Sing out if you need clarification.


Bell, A.W., Charmley, E., Hunter, R.A. and Archer, J.A, (2011). “The Australasian beef industries—Challenges and opportunities in the 21st century.” Animal Frontiers, Inc. Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Dunn, C. (2012). “Measure your food’s water footprint.” Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (2006). “Livestocks role in water depletion and pollution.” Conference papers presented at Rome, Italy. Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (2006). “Livestock in geographic transition.” Conference papers presented at Rome, Italy. Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (2006). “Livestocks impact on biodiversity.” Conference papers presented at Rome, Italy. Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (2006). “Livestocks role in climate change and air pollution.” Conference papers presented at Rome, Italy. Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

Hoekstra, A.Y, Prof., and Chapagain, A.K, Dr. (2012). Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

McDermott, M., (2009). “From Lettuce to Beef, What’s the water footprint of your food?” Retrieved 18 Feb 2012 from

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5 responses to “The Big Beef Debate

  1. DR Quantum's Blog

    March 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    This is a really excellent piece. It puts the case against beef most adequately indeed. Well written and well researched – it seems you are quite familiar with your material. Thanks for giving us a most valuable tool in the much needed campaign for a sustainable society, world and system.

    • mizrhi

      March 4, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind comments! I really appreciate it, as yours is the first feedback I have had regarding this article. Keep an eye out on my environmental site today (, as I am about to post an article that may interest you. It is regarding the kangaroo harvesting / meat industry.

  2. DR Quantum's Blog

    March 6, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Rhianna I did try to reply to your previous but computer said no so i have popped in through the worm hole. Might I suggest that the beef piece is so excellently well written that you could probably attract some interest via various vegetarian and similar sites. Also the Hindus – who account for a good proportion of world population and who speak English in the main and are getting online in increasing numbers . . .certain among their number may well appreciate this piece. It definitely deserves a wider audience. The dance between Newtonian-Catesian Science and what may be called integrative spirituality is concerned with consciousness as being PRIMARY. Christine at 350 or Bust has a beautiful photo of people holding candles spelling out 350. here > It is interesting that Marketing and advertising is primarily about reaching people at the level of consciousness, but i reckon that with new forms of social media – like this one – people, like you & me, can produce far more exciting and REAL results when people feel that what is being communicated, symbolised, represented and promoted is actually genuine, sincere and points to a THRIVing future for all. Please let me know what you think about the idea of candle power – as exhibited in Christine’s post – as part of a strategy to reach people and leverage consciousness for change. Woo woo indeed.

  3. Jeremy

    June 25, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Nutritionally the 1st world consumes far more red meat than is healthy or necessary and environmentally the rate of cattle production required to meet the rising rate of global meat consumption is unsustainable. It’s not really much of a debate at all, it’s lose-lose for everyone unless people start changing their ways and education/awareness is the first step in that process.

    Great article Rhi!


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