Sustainability and beef: Beyond the headlines and towards the facts

Dr. Sara Place
Senior Director, Sustainable Beef Production Research, NCBA
Presentation at Mountaineer Cattlemen's College

Headlines are largely negative regarding beef and sustainability. Increased questions about beef's environmental impacts, animal welfare, and health/nutrition.

Many companies are using these concerns to market their products.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation regarding beef's impact.

Sustainability is a complex topic influencing environmental, social, and economic issues. Most of beef's opponents focus on environmental impact.
It is true that beef tends to have a larger biological impact, because they are ruminants and produce gas. They also have later maturity compared to other livestock species. However, there is a lot of variability across the world in terms of beef's environmental impact. United States beef production has some of the lowest environmental impacts of cattle production across the world.

Americans eat the same amount of beef in 2018 as in 1909. However, chicken consumption has increased 500%. Globally, we have seen beef consumption decrease slightly and pork and poultry consumption has grown. 

What often gets ignored is the positive aspects of livestock production and meat consumption.
Research shows that consumption of livestock-derived food in the first 1000 days of a child's life improves their growth, health and cognition.

Let's discuss beef cattle's upcycling superpower. Cattle are upcyclers, they upgrade plant proteins (including plant leftovers) into higher quality protein for people. People can't eat grass and get protein out. Eighty-one percent (81%) of cattle's diet is forgage. Another 18% comes from byproducts, such as distillers grains, which are plant use leftovers. Beef enhances the sustainability of other industries by taking their leftovers, their waste streams, and turning it into human edible food. Ninety percent (90%) of what cattle eat cannot be eaten by humans.

Chickens and pigs eat more human edible protein than they produce (net protein contribution of 0.85 for poultry and 0.70 for pork). However, beef are upcyclers and contribute 2.53 net protein (they make more high quality protein than they use). If there are no cattle, there is less protein available for society.

There is a trade-off. Cattle upcycle because they are ruminants, but they also produce methane because they are ruminants. Cattle that eat forages produce more methane compared to cattle that are feed grain.

Beef cattle allow us to produce food on land unsuitable for cultivation of crops, and they often enhance ecosystems.  Pasture and range land together is about 40% of the United States land space. This land cannot support human food consumption any other way. Only 2% of cropland acres goes towards feeding cattle.

The United States has the most efficient and environmentally friendly beef production across the entire world due to the adoption of technology. For example, Brazil has twice as many cattle at the United States, but produces less beef.

Beef production is responsible for about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture as a whole is responsible for about 9% of greenhouse gas emissions.

If every American went vegan, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced 2.6%. However, we would have to increase emissions from fertilizer, lagoons, etc. The study pointed out, "Overall, the removal of animals resulted in diets that are nonviable in the long or short term to support the nutritional needs of the US population without nutrient supplementation." A big driver of this is vitamin B12 that comes from animal protein.

For every 100 lbs. of human food that comes from crops, 37 lbs of byproducts are generated. These byproducts are being feed to animals to upcycle them. Plant-based meat would produce these byproducts, but they would also cause environmental impacts such as deforestation to produce coconut oil.

All systems can be sustainable- focus is on continuous improvement within all systems. It is hard to think of anyone who focuses on sustainability more than agriculture producers.


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