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A model for ‘sustainable’ US beef production

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages8185 (2018) | Download Citation


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.

Author information


  1. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 10 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA

    • Gidon Eshel
  2. Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 12504-5000, USA

    • Gidon Eshel
  3. Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science, 76100, Rehovot, Israel

    • Alon Shepon
    • , Taga Shaket
    •  & Ron Milo
  4. Brown University Undergraduate College, Providence, RI, 02912, USA

    • Brett D. Cotler
  5. School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, NY, 10027, USA

    • Stav Gilutz
    •  & Daniel Giddings
  6. Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, 10964-1000, USA

    • Maureen E. Raymo


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G.E., A.S., R.M., S.G., D.G. and M.E.R. initiated the study. G.E. compiled the data, conducted all analyses, produced the graphics and wrote the paper. R.M. edited an initial draft. G.E., A.S., T.S., B.D.C., S.G., D.G., M.E.R. and R.M. edited and commented on subsequent drafts and discussed the results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Gidon Eshel or Ron Milo.

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