Cattle, sheep and sustainability

As caretakers of almost 50% of Australia's landmass, the meat and livestock industry recognises that it has a responsibility to sustainably manage the environment.

The cattle and sheep industry recognises that, like all industries, it has an environmental impact and it works hard to develop ways to minimise this effect.

Australian beef and sheep farmers make their living on the land and have done so for generations. It is in their best interest to ensure their practices are environmentally sustainable not just for their livelihood, but also for their families, the community and for generations to come.

Red meat producers remain committed to leading the way in developing world class practices to further reduce their environmental impact by:

  • Managing emissions and water use
  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Creating energy efficiencies
  • Reducing waste
  • Implementing environmentally sustainable land management practices

Useful facts

  • Australian beef and lamb is produced with one of the lowest carbon footprints of any major meat producing country in the world as tree clearing has been halted since around 2006 and a high proportion of our animals graze pasture dominant diets.
  • It takes between 103 to540 litres of water to produce a kilogram of red meat, according to a study by The University of New South Wales. Often a figure of 50,000 litres to produce a kilogram of red meat is quoted in the media, however this figure is an inappropriate measure.  It arises from ‘virtual water figures’ that attribute every drop of rain that falls on a farm to the production of red meat but does not take into account the fact that most of the water ends up in waterways, is used by trees and plants and in pastures not grazed by cattle.
  • The industry is committed to ongoing environmental improvements - each year the red meat industry in collaboration with the Australian Government, invests over $13 million in research and development to further reduce the industry’s environmental impact.

Common myths

Myth:  Eating red meat produced locally is better for the environment due to lower ‘food miles’.

Fact:  It is how your food is produced, rather than how far it has travelled, that is important when considering environmental impact.  Food miles as a concept is appealing due to its simplicity, however the idea that the further food travels between farm and plate the greater must be its harmful impact on the environment has been proven to be generally untrue123 and highlights the danger of looking only at a single impact category.

For example, the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit at New Zealand’s Lincoln University conducted a study in 2006 that compared the energy used and CO2 emissions between lamb produced in New Zealand and lamb produced in the United Kingdom.

The study found the energy used in producing lamb in the UK is four times higher than the energy used by New Zealand lamb producers, even after including the energy used in transporting New Zealand lamb to the UK.

Thus, NZ production system CO2 emissions are also considerably lower than those in the UK.

In Australia, cattle and sheep are mostly grazed on large areas of semi-arid rangelands, away from the coastal strip.  This land is often not suitable for cropping or other purposes.  However, by choosing appropriate breeds, cattle can be grazed in both.

Myth:  It is better for the environment to eat less red meat

Fact:  All food production has an environmental impact, which is important to understand when looking at how Australia can continue to feed a growing population in an environmentally sustainable way. By just looking at one environmental factor, such as emissions, it is impossible to get a complete view of sustainability.

Some Australian soils are unable to sustain cropping on a continuous basis.  Rotation with livestock provides an essential environmental break to renew soil productivity as well as an income for farmers throughout the year.

Additionally, by grazing semi-arid land, the livestock industry is able to produce food on land that is unsuitable for providing other food sources.

Myth:  Cattle are solely responsible for methane emissions

Fact:  While the livestock industry contributes to methane emissions, livestock emissions are only one contributor to methane levels in the past decade. Other contributors include waste in landfill, wetlands, termites, fossil fuel use and industrial processes.

It is also important to note that there have been only small increases in atmospheric methane concentrations since 2000, despite significant increases in livestock numbers globally.

Livestock production helps to absorb carbon emissions through sequestration - the ability of plants, shrubs, grass and soil to store carbon.

More information


1Saunders, C., Barber, A. and Taylor, G. (2006) Food Miles - Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry. Lincoln University, Research Report No. 285, July 2006.

2Ledgard, S.F., Lieffering, M., McDevitt, J., Boyes, M. and Kemp, R. (2010) A Greenhouse Gas Footprint Study for Exported New Zealand Lamb Report prepared for the Meat Industry Association, Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Landcorp and MAF.

3Kemp K, Insch A, Holdsworth DK, Knight JG (2010). Food miles: Do UK consumers actually care? Food Policy 35 (2010) 504–513

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