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.

The 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.

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