Raising responsible beef is a priority for farmers and ranchers, which includes a strong focus on environmental, social and economic efforts at feedyards and a commitment to continuous improvement. Watch this video to learn more.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about water and agriculture, specifically related to the California drought. Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.
Over the past several years, severe drought in states such as California, Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the number of beef cattle significantly, resulting in the smallest U.S. cowherd since the 1950s. At the same time, the beef community has been able to raise more beef per animal through improvements in feed efficiency and animal health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cites these two areas of improvement as the key to future reductions in use of water and other natural resources.
Cattle have a unique four-stomach digestive system called a rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from parts of fruit and vegetable plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest—like carrot tops and almond hulls. These “leftovers” are often mixed into their feed, along with grasses and grains like alfalfa and corn, ultimately resulting in high-quality beef.
Water used in producing beef
Taking into account all water from farm to fork—including water for cattle to drink as well as water used in irrigation of pasture land that cattle may graze on, growing crops (such as the carrot tops and almond hulls) that cattle may eat, harvesting and processing beef, water used for refrigeration units at the grocery store or at a restaurant to keep food cold, for transportation as well as in cooking, and even the water taken into account for food waste—it takes 617 gallons of water per one pound of boneless beef consumed, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment, funded by the Beef Checkoff.
Keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.
Sustainability is taken seriously by farmers and ranchers
Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do to be stewards of those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. The largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted on a food found that from 2005 to 2011 the beef community achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use and a 10 percent improvement in water quality.
Conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to reduce water use and improve water quality. Preserving farms and ranches for generations to come is a top priority.
This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Over the past year, there has been resurgence in discussion about the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in the food supply. Stuck in the middle are consumers trying to figure out whether they should be concerned about GMO food and if so, why.
People want to know that food is safe and wholesome and many don’t really understand what a GMO is and how it gets into their food. I don’t have room here to explain GMO technology, but www.gmoanswers.com is a great resource. For consumers, the important message is that GMO-derived foods and food ingredients taste, look and provide the same nutritional value as non-GMO foods. This has been well documented by the agency responsible for the safety of food: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
There is substantial scientific evidence that food and food ingredients derived from GMO technology are safe for human and animal consumption. The key words in that statement are ‘substantial’ and ‘scientific evidence’. The way science works is that many people carry out research to address a question or problem. These researchers will ask slightly different questions, use different approaches, study designs and models. Their results are then submitted for review by their peers and, if found worthy, published in journals – generating scientific evidence. One study is never considered definitive and a premise of science is that results must be repeated before concepts or ideas are widely accepted. Hence, in order for scientists to come to consensus on an issue, the body of scientific evidence is collected from a wide range of sources and evaluated for consistent results. This was the process used by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Science in the Public Interest that led each of these organizations to conclude that GMO food and food ingredients are safe for humans and animals based on substantial scientific evidence.
An additional tool that is used to demonstrate safety is through practice. GMO products have been in the US food supply since 1996 – hence we have years of practice that have shown no negative impact on animal or human health. Farm animals, the most carefully monitored animals on the planet, have been raised on GMO corn and soybeans over several generations and there is no evidence of negative effects on growth, reproduction or disease. And there has been no documented case of human illness or allergen associated with GMO foods.
A concern that I have heard raised by consumers is that GMO technology puts foreign DNA into food and that DNA will affect their body when eaten. My first response to this is to remind that all food has DNA – any living material, plant and animal, contains DNA. We eat carrot DNA and strawberry DNA and don’t worry that we will grow carrot noses or strawberry hair, so why would it be that GMO DNA is somehow handled differently? It is not – the DNA in food is broken down to elemental parts through the digestive process and cannot be transferred from the intestine to cells within the body. This is true for human digestion as well as animals. There is no evidence that DNA from food is taken up into the animal – so meat from animals fed GMO grain will not be different from meat from animals fed non-GMO grain – and it would be virtually impossible to distinguish these meat products even with the most sophisticated technologies. So consuming meat, milk and eggs from animals fed GMO grain is completely safe for humans.
Consumers that wish to avoid GMO foods—including if they would like to purchase beef from cattle that were not fed GMO’s—may purchase Organic or Non-GMO labeled foods.
We are fortunate to live in the US where we have the safest, most abundant and varied food supply in the world. We also have a healthy and open system of debate around technology and agriculture. With these gifts, we have the responsibility to ensure our food supply is well managed and can be sustained. Given the challenges ahead, we need all the tools we can get in our toolbox – but we must also use these tools carefully. GMO is one tool that has great potential to advance our food system when used thoughtfully and with oversight. We should not allow fear of scientific technology keep us from using the tools that will help us meet the challenges we face to produce enough safe and wholesome food for ourselves and our future generations.
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). These 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 (94% in 2014, the latest data available) and U.S. corn crops (93% in 2014, 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.