Week 2: What are the impacts of eating beef?

beef cattle cows farming

Welcome to the beginning of your journey! It’s only week 2, but we are proud of you for opting in to learn more about how our meal choices impact the world around us. This week we will be exploring the impacts of eating beef from an ethical perspective, looking at the animals and the industry, an environmental perspective, and health perspective.

As children we are taught that red meat is “good” for us, and without much more thought about it, beef becomes a staple part of our diet. As a result, we tend to not think about where our burger patties, spaghetti mince, or steaks come from, or the impact they are having on the planet. 

Cows

Cows, like all animals, are sentient beings. They have complex thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and can feel pain – just like us! They also have unique personalities, likes, and dislikes. If you have ever approached a paddock of cows or visited a sanctuary, you would likely have seen this for yourself. There are the brave ones that inch closer to you, the shy ones who come close, but not too close, the ones that flee, and some who take no notice of you whatsoever. Some like to run around and others prefer to rest. If you think about it, cows are kind of like big, grass puppies. The main difference when comparing them to dogs (apart from their size), is that they are prey animals, making them a little more scared of the unknown.

Other interesting things you may not know about cows:

They can live for over 20 years

The Guinness World Record for the oldest cow was Big Bertha, who died 3-months before her 49th birthday [1]! On average, cows can live for 18-22 years, but it is not economically viable to keep them around for this long [2]. As a result, the industry typically kills them at just 18-months-old for beef and any age under 10-months for veal [3].

Cows have best friends

Cows are incredibly social animals and form close bonds with their herd. Each herd has it’s own complex social structure, and the individuals choose who they want to spend time with and who they stay away from. A study in the UK found that when they were isolated from the herd with their friend, their heart rate accelerated and then reduced. When they were isolated with a different individual, their heart rate remained accelerated, and they displayed signs of stress. They also exhibited signs of stress when they could not see their best friend or were separated for long periods of time – this changed once they were reunited. This study demonstrated that cows are reliant on social support from each other [4 PDF].

They enjoy lovely music

Not only are cows attracted to music, but they also stick around, listen, and seem to be absorbed by it. Some of their favourite genres seem to be jazz and pop [5].

They become stressed in new situations

Being a prey animal, cows prefer to stay with their herd and remain comfortable in their surroundings [6]. The life on a farm is far from stress-free – particularly when they undergo painful procedures, or are rounded up into trucks, and forced into slaughterhouses. Cows experience fear up until their last breath.

Cows lick each other as a coping mechanism to stressful situations.

Although cows lick each other for various reasons, studies found that licking has a calming effect on cows after they have been disturbed or stressed [7].

cows licking

The industry

Every year around the world, more than 300,000,000 cows are slaughtered for human consumption [8]. Australia accounts for approximately 9,000,000 of them [9, 10]. Unless we change our demands, these numbers will only rise.

Australia is the 8th biggest producer. We export 62% of total production – through both live export and processed products [11]. Cattle farmers raise cows on both grass-fed and grain-fed farms, also known as feedlots. The beef industry accounts for roughly 55% of Australian agricultural farms, with over 25,000,000 individuals [12].

Standard procedures

Australia claims to have some of the highest standards of animal welfare, however, our laws allow for some horrendous routine procedures:

Dehorning

Dehorning involves using either a hot iron, knife, or dehorning cup or scoop, to remove the horn and keratin-producing cells from the base of the horn [13]. In all states, it is legal to remove the horns without anesthetic or a veterinarian present, if they are under 6-months and 12-months of age in certain circumstances [14 PDF]

“Roll the hot iron over the horn bud several times so that a ring of tissue around the bud is burnt through the full thickness of the skin. Heat must be transferred evenly all the way around the horn bud to ensure that the horn growth tissue is destroyed. In due course, the horn bud will drop off.”

NSW DPI
dehorning cattle cows
Dehorning using hot iron and dehorning cup (NSW DPI)

De-sexing

Males are castrated by having their testicles removed with a sharp blade or with a rubber ring. Castration can be performed without anaesthetic and a veterinary present if the animal is under 6 months old or 12 months if at their first yarding [15]

Females are spayed to prevent unwanted pregnancies. There are three methods, all of which can be done without pain relief:

  1. A veterinarian enters the vagina to cut the ovaries away from their attachments in the abdomen, leaving them to remain within the cow’s body cavity.
  2. A cut is made through the skin and tissues on the cow’s flank and her ovaries are cut out.
  3. A portion of her fallopian tubes are removed – this is called webbing [16].

Branding

Branding is the permanent identification on a cows skin. In some states, it is a legal requirement to have cows branded as a form of “ownership”. They are marked using either a hot iron or freeze branding, which damages the hair follicles, preventing hair from growing back, and in some cases damage the cells that create skin pigmentation [17].

branding cows cattle australia
Branding with a hot iron

Artificial insemination

Females are artificially impregnated, which involves a worker placing their arm inside her anus, holding her cervix in place, and having a sperm rod inserted inside of her. For semen collection, bulls are made to ejaculate, often with an electric rod pushed inside of their anus [18].

Housing and Food

Across Australia, it is legal for cows to not be provided with any shelter – this includes in Queensland, where temperatures can reach above 50 degrees celsius, resulting in heat stress. Cows also try to hide from driving rain [19].

Allowing cows to be grass-fed for their entire lives is heavily dependent on climate and is land-intensive. For this reason, approximately 35% of cows are sent to feedlots to be “finished” with grains [20], which is to fatten them up in a shorter time frame. In Australia, cows can spend months in these confined conditions.

Feedlots are fenced, outdoor areas, that cows are crammed into to ensure that they cannot exercise and thereby obstruct the fattening process. There are often no trees for the cows to seek shade beneath and no grass for the cows to eat. The lots are covered in manure, which turns to muddy sludge when it rains. During drought, the lots are dry and dusty. There is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide shelter to cows in feedlots.

Cows stomachs are not designed to digest grains, and some can become ill or die after eating it [21]. Slowly introducing grain into their diet reduces the chances, however, it is unnatural and unhealthy for them. Its sole purpose is to reach slaughter weight faster.

feedlot australia cows cattle
Feedlots in QLD
Credit: Animal Liberation QLD

Live export

Live export causes intense suffering before and during the export journey, and on arriving at the destination for slaughter. In 2019 alone, Australia forced almost 1,300,000 cows onto the cramped, filthy, and hot death ships [22].

Before boarding the ships, the animals may be deprived of food and water, as they make the journey to the boats, which can be up to 50 hours. The cramped trucks and freight trains can cause dehydration, bruising, and respiratory disease.

Once loaded onto the ships, they are subject to further stressful transport conditions, from high stocking densities, inability to reach food, and poor ventilation. Thousands of animals die onboard the ships, many due to heat stroke. Their confinement can last up to a month – around 744 consecutive hours – living in their own filth [23]. At the other end, they face unregulated and cruel slaughter practices which can fall outside Australia’s “welfare” standards.

live export cattle
Dr Lynn Simpson
Credit: Animals Australia

The environment

Farming cattle is damaging the environment. Globally, animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction, species extinction, water pollution, and ocean dead zones. These issues are caused by clearing native habitats for grazing and growing feed crops, and involve killing native predator species (dingoes), and the use of pesticides and herbicides [24].

Land use

In Australia, most land is cleared to make room for more farmed animals – cows, in particular [25].  Farmed animals graze on both native and modified pastures on almost 56% of the continent [26], and 79% of this land is used for beef farming [27]. Clearing land for farmed animals is undoubtedly not just an Australian issue. Of Earth’s inhabitable land, 50% is used for agriculture, and just 1% is used for infrastructure. Of agriculture’s 50%, 77% is used for meat and dairy production (the animals and their food) and only creates 18% of the world’s calorie supply [28].

Not only do cows require a lot of land, but they also damage the soil structure, leaving the environment barren. In wetter areas, cattle hooves sink into the mud, causing plugging or compaction. The dense soil layer significantly reduces the ability to grow pastures, as water, air, and roots are unable to move through the soil [29, 30]. This is why cows are often standing in mud and dirt on feedlots. The industry’s solution for this is to clear more land, to be able to rotate the cows, and reduce stocking densities.

Cow waste can also reduce the plant diversity in the area, kill the plants beneath the dung, and cause higher concentrations of nutrients in the topsoil, resulting in pathogens and polluting waterways [31].

Emissions

Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants. Their excrement also contains nitrogen, another harmful gas in copious quantities. Globally, farmed animals are responsible for 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions [32]. Broken down, they are responsible for 9% of total carbon dioxide emissions, 37% methane, 65% nitrous oxide, and also 68% of total ammonia emissions [33]. In Australia, animal agriculture equates to roughly 54% of our total emissions [11].

Food

All animals bred into the agricultural industry require food. This means, as the demand for animal flesh rises with population growth, the demand for crops to feed the animals also increases, resulting in more land being cleared [34]. As an example, around 80% of the world’s soybean crops are fed to farmed animals, predominantly cows (for beef and dairy), pigs, and chickens (bred for poultry and eggs). Land is being cleared to produce this soy, endangering species and habitats like the Amazon, Cerrado, and the Northern Great Plains of the US [35]. If more people reduced or ceased their consumption of meat, then less land would need to be cleared for animal feed, and we could better feed the growing human population.

land clearing cattle soy agriculture
Amazon land clearing for soy and cattle.
Credit: AP Photo/Andre Penner

Water

Cows have an extremely large water footprint. This means that the cows and their food require large amounts of water. Studies found that to produce just 1kg of beef, 25kg of grains, and around 15,000L of water were needed [36]! These figures are a global estimate and vary depending on what housing system the cow is kept in, the age they are killed, and what they are fed.

Not only are cows water-intensive, but they are also polluting the water and causing ocean dead zones. Land clearing removes the vegetation, making it easier for soil to enter waterways. When it rains, the water carries with it animal excreta, which contains nutrients, antibiotics and hormones, as well as fertilizers and pesticides, into the local waterways, polluting them [37]. This water can also flow into the ocean, creating dead zones. The excess nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen) enter the ocean and feed cyanobacteria or blue-green algae. The algae prevents light from penetrating the water surface and oxygen from being absorbed by organisms beneath them, killing the plants and organisms [38].

Health impacts

The consumption of red meat has been linked to heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart attacks. Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is a chemical that is derived in part from nutrients that are abundant in red meat. Studies found that TMAO interacts with platelets (blood cells that are responsible for normal clotting), increasing the risk of clot-related events, like heart attacks and strokes [39, 40]. Other research has found that the heme-iron content in red meat could be accountable for the increased risk of diabetes [41]. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. It was mainly observed for colorectal cancer, but also found associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer [42 PDF].

Doctors around the world are encouraging people to reduce their meat and dairy intakes, replacing them with whole-foods, like legumes, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables [43]. If you would like more information regarding health studies, visit NutritionFacts.org, founded by Dr Michael Greger.

Please note that we are not nutritionists. If you would like more nutritional advice, please reach out to us and we can find someone in your area.

vegan doctor health
Dr Garth Davis

How can you make a difference?

With a growing population, it is more important than ever before to address our food habits and start making changes. By reducing our demand for beef products, fewer cows will be bred, and less land will need to be cleared. In turn, less animals will be killed (directly and indirectly), native animals can regain natural habitats, pollution (both air and water) will be reduced, and there will be less food-related illnesses.

Eating vegan for just one day can save 4,164 litres of water, 20 kg of crops, 2.8 m2 of forested land, 10 kg of CO2, and the life of one animal!

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Now that you’ve beefed up your knowledge on beef, try leaving it off your plate by experimenting with a variety of plant-based proteins! You can still enjoy burgers, spaghetti bolognese, curries, stir fries, and more, by swapping out beef for beans, tofu, tempeh, or faux meats.

If you have any questions, feel free to pop them in the comments section below, or post it in the Conscious Consumer Facebook group!