Raising Beef Isn’t Sustainable? It’s More Sustainable Than You Think

Myth: Raising beef isn’t sustainable.

The Facts:  To the beef community, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, social diligence and economic opportunity while meeting the growing global demand for beef.  Improving the sustainability of beef is of the utmost importance to the cattlemen and women who are working to ensure the longevity of the industry and are committed to continually improve how beef is responsibly raised. The strides made by one generation will continue to be carried out and improved upon by the next because we recognize that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

Sustainable_Beef_InfographicThe beef industry completed a first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment (LCA) — certified by NSF International — that provides benchmarks on economic, environmental and social contributions in the United States and a roadmap for the journey toward more sustainable beef.  After two years of data collection and research, the beef community has proven it’s on the right path forward with a 7 percent improvement in environmental and social sustainability from 2005 to 2011.

This research examined the sustainability of the entire beef supply chain from pasture to plate and beyond, also examining the impact of food waste on sustainability.  Innovation and enhancements in management and practices have led to some major improvements in sustainability, such as:

  • 32 percent reduction in occupational illnesses and accidents
  • 10 percent improvement in water quality
  • 7 percent reduction in landfill contributions
  • 3 percent reduction in water use
  • 2 percent reduction in resource consumption and energy use
  • 2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Cow-calf Operations, Feedlots and Feed Production

From 2005 to 2011, improvements in crop yields, machinery technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance have resulted in lowering the environmental footprint of the beef production process and improving on-farm sustainability. Increased adoption of Beef Quality Assurance protocols and other industry-led animal handling programs have improved our social sustainability. As greater efficiencies in crop production and animal handling become available, on-farm sustainability will continue to improve.

Packing and Case-ready Sectors

Recent advances in the capture of biogas from lagoons and the conversion of that biogas to energy has reduced the environmental fingerprint of the packing sector. By converting a byproduct of the beef harvesting process into a replacement for energy, the packing sector has decreased use of electricity, natural gas and diesel. Additionally, the installation of closed-loop cooling water systems and wastewater recycling has greatly reduced water usage and improved water quality. “Case-ready” products have dramatically reduced their fingerprint with advances in “right-size” packaging, improved water use, increased plant utilization optimization and a reduction in the pre-chain impacts of cardboard manufacturing. Opportunities exist to expand this technology into more packing plants moving forward and to continue optimizing packaging.

What is My Role?

Consumers also have opportunities to contribute to more sustainable beef, and together with the beef community, can make continuous improvements of their own. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. In addition to food security issues, food waste has environmental impacts as well, contributing to greenhouse gases from solid waste landfills. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted commodities, with 20 percent spoiled or not eaten at the consumer level. That still leaves a lot of room for improvement. Consumers can help reduce the environmental fingerprint of the beef industry up to 10 percent by cutting plate waste and spoilage in half and by upgrading to energy-efficient appliances.

Safety First: The Role of GMO’s in Cattle Feed

Myth: Feeding cattle genetically modified (GMO) crops is unhealthy for the animals and results in unsafe beef.

The Facts:  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or biotechnology in plant agriculture is the process of taking a desirable trait in one plant or organism and placing it into another.  Biotechnology is used to create traits that make crops more tolerable or resistant to plant disease, pests and environmental conditions such as drought and crop protection (herbicides).

cattle_feedThese advancements in breeding and seed technologies often allow farmers to use less crop protection tools such as plant fertilizers, pesticides, as well as less natural resources such as the water required to grow crops..

Crops from biotechnology seeds are studied extensively to make sure they are safe for people, animals and the environment before they reach the farm or ranch.  All biotechnologies in agriculture must go through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make sure that they are safe to grow, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review to make sure that they’re safe for the environment and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to make sure the meat from cattle fed GMO crops, such as corn and soybeans, is safe to eat.

Learn more about GMO crops:

1. How and why do livestock producers use GMO crops? For 10,000 years, farmers have intentionally changed the genetic makeup of all the crops they grow to produce hardier crops that taste better, resist disease and are easier to grow all while taking up less land. As selective breeding and cross-breeding of crops evolved, more U.S. soybean crops (87% in 2005, the latest data available) and U.S. corn crops (52% in 2005, the latest data available) were grown from GMO seed. Today, eight crops – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash – are available from biotech seeds for commercial use in the U.S.

Today, farmers and ranchers that raise meat, milk and eggs depend on crops like soybeans and corn as part of the balanced diet for their livestock. So, some of them choose to use GMO crops as critical components in their animal’s feed—others may choose not to use them.

2. How do I know that GMO crops are safe for the animals and safe for humans?  Crops from biotech seeds are studied extensively to make sure they are safe for people, animals and the environment before they can be sold.

According to FDA, “FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

3. Are there any nutritional differences between GMO crops and non-GMO crops? More than 100 studies have examined the effect of feeding GMO crops to various food-producing animals, including cattle.  One such study is from the University of California, Davis titled Genetic Engineering and Animal Feed [PDF]. The results of this study and the others revealed no significant differences in the nutritional value of feed from GMO and non-GMO fed cattle.  Genetically modified GMO crops are digested and processed by cattle in the same way as conventional crops. In addition, the nutrients from cattle fed GMO feed have been found to be the same as cattle fed non-GMO feeds.

4. Why isn’t my meat labeled as “Fed GMO feed”? According to the USDA, labeling is required when the genetically modified food products have a detectible difference in nutritional composition and safety from their non-GMO counterparts.  Since there is no difference, there is no labeling requirement.

5. Can I purchase beef from cattle not fed genetically modified food? Yes, you can.  When shopping, look for beef labeled USDA Organic. The USDA National Organic Program standards prohibit the use of feeding genetically modified crops, although hundreds of studies have confirmed there are no adverse effects on the animal or the resulting meat from cattle fed GMO crops including corn and soybeans, so regardless of whether you choose organic, natural or conventional beef, all beef is safe to consume, delicious and nutritious. 

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