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.
Ashley Broocks, Emily Andreini, Megan Rolf, Ph.D., and Sara Place, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University
This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the US Department of Agriculture.
Many people have suggested that removing beef from the human diet could significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In reality, completely removing beef from the diet would likely not result in huge declines in GHG emissions and would have negative implications for the sustainability of the U.S. food system.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle production was responsible for 1.9 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2013. Comparing food production (essential for human life) to transportation and electricity (non-essential for human survival, but important to our modern lifestyles) is problematic. Electricity and transportation produce much of the GHG emissions in the United States, but most people do not call for the elimination of electricity or transportation. Instead, efforts are made to lower the GHG emissions produced to provide the same energy and transportation services (e.g. switching to renewable energy sources for electricity generation).
Studying the different ways resources like feed, water and land can be used more efficiently throughout the beef lifecycle to reduce GHG emissions per pound of beef would provide the means to maintain the same level of food production while reducing GHG emissions. Beef production has made impressive advances to meet the protein demands of a growing population while reducing the amount of natural resources required. For example, due to improved genetics, animal nutrition, management, and the use of growth promoting technologies, the U.S. beef community has decreased its GHG emissions per pound of beef 9-16 percent from the 1970s to today.
Another key component of reducing GHG emissions from the beef system is the role of the consumer. Over 20 percent of edible beef is wasted at grocery stores, restaurants and in the home. As with other foods, the amount of non-renewable resources used and the environmental impacts that went into producing the portions of beef that are being sent to a landfill are often overlooked. Consumers could improve beef sustainability by 10 percent if beef waste were reduced by half.
Additionally, cattle have the ability to utilize forages such as grass and hay, and by-products (e.g. distillers grains) that are unfit for human consumption. Cattle can utilize cellulose, one of the world’s most abundant organic molecules, that is indigestible by humans, and can also convert low-quality feeds into high-quality protein from land not suited for cultivation, thereby reducing soil erosion and enhancing soil carbon storage. U.S. beef farmers and ranchers feed their cattle feed sources that are not in direct competition with humans and/or would have gone to waste.
Beef is a valuable asset to the human diet. Along with being a significant source of lean protein, beef provides key nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. Removing beef from the food chain would result in consumers having to seek alternative protein and micronutrient sources. As with all foods, the production of beef has impacts, but direct emissions from the U.S. beef community are only estimated to be 1.9 percent of the total U.S. GHG emissions.
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.