Great British Beef Week: Sustainability in the Beef Industry

This week is Great British Beef Week. Originally started by the Ladies in Beef, a grassroots agricultural collective, this year marks the 11th celebration of British beef. While last year’s celebrations were greatly curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, the focus is on sustainability in the beef industry.

What is the problem?

When assessing sustainability in an agricultural industry, there are three main areas that are usually focussed on. These are water use, environment, and greenhouse gasses. Beef farming faces many challenges on these fronts.

A popular statistic on the water footprint of beef is that it takes on average 15,000 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of beef. Compared to around 300 litres for a kilo of vegetables, that seems enormous. We’ve all heard how forests are cleared for grazing land and how damaging that is for the environment and the native species that live there. Livestock are responsible for 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with 60% of that from cattle. To put that into perspective, that’s more than 7 times as much as all air traffic in the world.

How is the UK beef industry managing it?

On average, each person in the UK consumes over 4kg of beef a year.
On average, each person in the UK consumes around 5kg of beef a year.

While these statistics all seem pretty bleak, as always, there’s a lot more to the situation than first meets the eye. In the UK, we eat about 280.5 million tonnes of beef a year. This equates to around 5 kilos per person per year. Of that, over 75% is produced in Britain. So what is the UK beef industry doing as part of their ongoing commitment to sustainability? For Great British Beef Week, we took a look at what UK beef producers are doing and their plans for the future.

Water use

Whilst the volume of water used to produce a single kilo of beef is above the global average at 17,000 litres, when you drill down a bit into this, the vast majority of that is rainwater. In the UK, only 0.4% of the water used in beef is ‘blue water’ or tap water. This is 10 times less than the global average. British beef is well ahead of the curve on that front, making use of our somewhat damp climate to significant advantage!

The more rainwater used, and subsequently the less tap water, the better. Rainwater doesn’t require huge energy inputs to produce and is much cheaper for producers. Simultaneously, many animals much prefer rainwater over chlorinated tap water, and it can have great health benefits.

Often land used for grazing is not suitable for other purposes, such as growing crops.
Often land used for grazing is not suitable for other purposes, such as growing crops.


Cattle have been grazing on pasture land for centuries. In the UK, traditional management systems for hay meadows often use cattle as a key part of the system. Many farms still use pasture rotation and hay meadow management to look after their cows, which is a far less damaging system that more intense farming. In recent years, more and more producers are taking up regenerative agriculture. This is actively beneficial for the environment and helps to build biodiversity.

As pasture management is so important for cattle, wildflower meadows are often a crucial aspect of a farm system. Currently, beef farms manage over 19,000 hectares of wildflower meadows, which are helping to protect and increase the bee population.

Greenhouse gasses

While decreasing the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by individual cows is a challenge, various strategies are in place to mitigate emissions. Single cows are now more productive than ever, due to better welfare standards and selective breeding. This means that per kilo, beef production produces less emissions.

Simultaneously, investments of time and money have implemented measure to offset carbon. Many of these measures revolve around land use changes. These can be anything from planting more trees, or protecting hedgerows and existing woodlands. In the past 40 years, the beef industry has increased the amount of woodland in the UK by an area four times the size of Greater London. This provides habitats for native species and takes in carbon dioxide though photosynthesis.

What more is the beef industry going to do?

Beef cattle are a valuable part of the British economy, culture, and food industry.
Beef cattle are a valuable part of the British economy, culture, and food industry.

The agricultural industry has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040. While this may sound like a big challenge, there are many strategies that are being pursued. The NFU have reduced these into three main themes:

  • Improving efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Carbon storage and capture
  • Renewable energy and the wider bio-economy

There are many groups raising awareness of these issues and helping educate farmers on how they can be more sustainable. Across the country, government subsidiaries and schemes help to promote green energy and protecting the environment. Lots of farmers are taking up the challenge and using regenerative principals on their farms.

While there may be a long way to go yet, the British beef industry is one of the most sustainable beef industries in the world. It produces 52% lower greenhouse gas emissions than the global average and protects and manages vast areas of the British countryside.