Examining animal agriculture, alternative proteins amid climate change concerns

Michigan State University is working with the beef industry and stakeholders to help ensure that producers are equipped to face the future of alternative proteins and other food trends.

As meat alternatives quickly grow in appeal — especially for those 40 and under (MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll) — and climate change continues to be a heated topic of debate, those working in the beef industry face growing questions about how to adapt, how to be sustainable and how to address greenhouse gas concerns.

Michigan State University (MSU) is working with the industry and stakeholders to help ensure that producers, especially, are equipped to face the evolving future and the next food trends.

“This is a food landscape that’s not going to go away anytime soon. Consumers want choices,” said George Smith, associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and associate director of MSU AgBioResearch. “To help our agricultural industries continue to survive and thrive, we need to be even better connected in doing research that impacts their bottom line.”

Emergence of meat alternatives

Jason Rowntree, an associate professor of animal science at MSU and Extension educator focused on grazing and grass-finishing education, said the beef industry is unquestionably becoming more complex.

“The most prominent aspect, I think, that we all can acknowledge is this entry of plant-based proteins and potentially laboratory-based proteins that are coming into the equation,” he said.

Jason Rowntree
Jason Rowntree

Plant-based proteins, commonly referred to as plant-based meat, are emerging as an alternative to beef. According to the MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, a national survey on consumer knowledge, opinions and attitudes conducted by MSU AgBioResearch, 35% of Americans consumed plant-based meat in the past year.

Cell-cultured proteins, created in a lab and derived from animal cells, aren’t yet widely available. The MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll indicates, however, that 35% of Americans say they are likely to buy them once they are.

George Quackenbush, executive director for the Michigan Cattleman’s Association and Michigan Beef Industry Commission, views consumer interest in alternative proteins as a positive challenge, particularly among millennials.

“There’s certainly a market there by people who realize the value that protein has in their diet and the nutritional benefits that they receive from it,” he said. “Our goal, however, is to make beef the top protein choice.”

Environmental concerns

Among others, the belief that cattle contribute to climate change is one potential reason why consumers would choose alternative proteins over beef. Cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

“There are a lot of conversations about climate change all over the media, and awareness is being raised about the potential impact of animal agriculture or beef production on climate change,” Smith said. “There’s been a lot of work conducted at Michigan State University that objectively asks that question.”

Rowntree is among those examining the beef production process and how it affects soil health at the MSU Lake City Research Center. A particular focus is analyzing how grazing systems contribute to what he calls “regenerative agriculture.”

“When I talk about regenerative ag, it’s that you’re actually producing food in a way that’s building and improving land,” he said. “That land is actually improving and regenerating versus being sustained, which can often be just another misnomer for efficiency - output over input.” 

Rowntree has found that taking advantage of the natural cycle created from cow’s methane emissions can help offset the environmental impact.

"You can't get a free lunch in agriculture."Jason Rowntree, associate professor, MSU Department of Animal Science


Methane, or CH4, is a byproduct created in a cow’s digestive system. When a cow emits methane, it interacts with air and is broken down into carbon dioxide and water. Plants use the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and the cycle begins again when a cow eats grass.

“If we manage animals and mimic how migrating ruminants (cattle, buffalo, etc.) graze in a domesticated setting and then allow those plants to recover, what we’re finding is that the carbon is building belowground and improving soil health,” Rowntree said.

When land is plowed, carbon is emitted, plus there is a level of erosion that goes along with the plowing. By using perennial grasses instead of annual crops and employing no-till practices, more carbon can be stored belowground.

The increase in carbon belowground also improves water infiltration and overall land productivity.

Rowntree said the impact of beef cattle is comparatively low, accounting for approximately 2% to 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The regenerative practices used in his research are helping to further mitigate that impact.

“We’re actually finding that what we’re building can help offset the entire carbon footprint of the animal,” he said. “At minimal, it can offset the methane.”

Grass vs. grain

Methods of raising cattle for beef production refer to the diets that the animals consume.

Grain-finished cattle spend most their lives eating grass or forage but also spend four to six months consuming a balanced diet of grains, forages and other local feed ingredients.

Grass-finished cattle spend their entire lives consuming only grass or forages.

Grazing cows
Cows grazing at MSU's Lake City Research Center

Grass-fed models can reduce the carbon footprint, but they require more land, which isn’t always an option.

“You can’t get a free lunch in agriculture. It takes energy to make food,” Rowntree said. “Though we can raise cattle without fossil fuel energy, it takes almost twice the land to produce the same amount of beef.”

Gary Voogt is past chairman of the Michigan Cattleman’s Association and Michigan Beef Industry Commission and a current member of the MSU AgBioResearch/Extension State Advisory Council.

“Grazing cattle can represent one of the solutions for climate change, but grass-finishing is limited by available land,” he said. “To be meaningful, much urban land would have to be converted back to grass, and that is unlikely to happen with the growing world population.”

Beef from cattle consuming mostly grass and forage tends to be marginally lower in overall fats, namely monounsaturated fats – the heart-healthy type found in olive oil. Grass-finished beef also has less marbling, which adversely affects flavor.

Rowntree’s data suggest little difference between grass- or grain-finished beef, but he notes that many others disagree. 

Either way, Quackenbush acknowledges the importance of giving consumers choices.

“I think that, as an industry, we’re learning a lot about the impact of different production methods, and we’re trying to capture the best of all these different methods so we can continually improve our models,” Quackenbush said. “We’re producing a real high-quality product, we’re doing it in an environmentally responsible way, and ultimately, consumers benefit with increased choices.”

Looking toward the future

George Smith
George Smith

Smith recognizes both industry and consumer concerns and believes that research and education from Michigan State University and its partners will help consumers in making informed beef choices.

“There’s reason to be concerned, but there is a big tent under which agriculture operates and is continually expanding,” he said. “Our goal is to listen and understand concerns from consumers and industry partners alike and identify gaps in knowledge. Hopefully then, at the end of the day, research, data, the facts will help frame these difficult questions and provide consumers with information to make objective choices.” 

Meeting the needs of consumers while maintaining economic growth and sustainability for producers is optimal, Smith said.

“Success means our industries continue to evolve to meet the needs of consumers,” he said. “I think being diligent in promoting the health benefits of beef and beef products and helping our producers develop new ways to remain profitable and secure is critical to their livelihood."

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