Food production dominates land, water and fertilizer use and is a greenhouse gas source. In the United States, beef production is the main agricultural resource user overall, as well as per kcal or g of protein. Here, we offer a possible, non-unique, definition of ‘sustainable’ beef as that subsisting exclusively on grass and by-products, and quantify its expected US production as a function of pastureland use. Assuming today’s pastureland characteristics, all of the pastureland that US beef currently use can sustainably deliver ≈45% of current production. Rewilding this pastureland’s less productive half (≈135 million ha) can still deliver ≈43% of current beef production. In all considered scenarios, the ≈32 million ha of high-quality cropland that beef currently use are reallocated for plant-based food production. These plant items deliver 2- to 20-fold more calories and protein than the replaced beef and increase the delivery of protective nutrients, but deliver no B12. Increased deployment of rapid rotational grazing or grassland multi-purposing may increase beef production capacity.
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R.M. and E.S. are supported by the European Research Council (project NOVCARBFIX 646827); the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 740/16); Beck-Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; Dana and Yossie Hollander; R.M. holds the Charles and Louise Gartner professional chair.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Shaket, T. et al. A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef production. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 81–85 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0390-5
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