Not only is beef delicious and nutritious, but it’s also a highly sustainable food source. Numerous proven sustainability practices are utilized throughout each and every step of the “pasture-to-plate” process that contribute to the way beef is responsibly raised today.
Though the path to sustainability is never complete. It is a continuous journey being carried out by farmers and ranchers responsible for raising and supplying beef to the U.S. and across the world. To the beef community, sustainability comprises much more than environmental considerations. Today, a sustainable food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts.
THREE PILLARS OF SUSTAINABILITY
A sustainable food system is comprised of three different, but intersecting, pillars: social responsibility, economic viability and environmental stewardship. True sustainability is a balance of these three aspects. Beef farmers and ranchers are dedicated to producing beef in a way that prioritizes the planet, people, animals, and progress.
Perhaps the least explored of the three pillars is social sustainability. We define this as community and organizational resilience, based on principles such as equity, health, social capital, and well-being. For beef production, social sustainability includes worker safety, animal welfare, antibiotic and technology use, and the culture and traditions of beef producers.
The economic pillar of sustainability refers to practices that support economic success and equitability, without negatively impacting the social and environmental aspects of the community. This includes improving rural economies & livelihoods, affordability of beef to consumers, profitability of beef producers, and the value of ecosystem services. Beef farms and ranches represent over 30% of the farms in the U.S., making up the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture, and a significant component of the agricultural economy.1
This area is concerned with protecting and enhancing natural resources, ecosystem services, and ecological health. This pillar looks at biodiversity, carbon & water footprints, wildlife habitat, soil and rangeland health, and the ability of cattle to utilize human inedible feeds, among others.
Currently, emissions from cattle, including those that come from the feed production, fuel, and electricity only account for 3.7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. To better understand and optimize environmental sustainability across the entire beef lifecycle, from pasture-to-plate, cattlemen and women have recently invested in an updated environmental life cycle assessment (LCA). This in-depth assessment utilizes the most up-to-date and comprehensive methodology and includes data from seven different regions across the country. The LCA provides benchmarks on environmental contributions of the cattle industry in the U.S., and is a roadmap for the journey toward an even more environmentally sustainable approach to raising beef.
An economic impact assessment for the beef industry is also being completed. This economic impact report is one way to measure economic sustainability of the beef industry and is an area that will continue to develop and progress given the significant social and economic contributions of the beef industry to the U.S. and global community.
SUSTAINABILITY THROUGH THE BEEF LIFECYCLE
Cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, from the time they are born to when they are sent to the feedlot. During this time in the their diet consists primarily of grass, forages, and occasionally crop residues from grain production. By grazing, cattle expand the land available for food production by being able to consume forages on non-arable lands that are unsuitable for agriculture.
After the cow calf and backgrounding stages, cattle may spend the last 4-6 months of their life in a feedlot, where 50-85% of their diet is composed of grain from corn and other by-products, like distillers grains. By grain-finishing cattle, it shortens the time it takes to get from birth to harvest, thereby lessening their environmental impact, while increasing the total amount of beef produced per animal.
The beef production system works in harmony to produce the most sustainable product, balancing all of the trade offs that come with it. Each sector of the supply chain plays a critical role in doing so. When grazing, cattle are able to utilize their unique ruminant digestive system to upcycle, turning human inedible products, like grass, into high quality protein for human consumption. In doing so, the beef production system is not only a net contributor (meaning the beef production system produces more protein than it consumes) to the human edible protein supply, but the quality of human edible protein produced is enhanced throughout the beef value chain. However, a trade-off of this upcycling superpower is that cattle produce methane during the digestive process. This trade-off is balanced by feedlots, where cattle are fed grain. The higher-energy, grain-based diet consumed there produces less methane emissions than a high-forage diet. However, the net protein contribution is relatively less compared to when cattle consume a forage based diet. Overall, when considering livestock’s net protein contribution, beef and dairy cattle have the highest contribution, followed by poultry and swine. It is important to consider all trade-offs when evaluating sustainability, as each component of the supply chain plays a unique and important role in healthy, sustainable beef production.2
- Baber, JR et al. 2018. Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution, and enteric methane production from beef production in the United States. Translational Animal Science 2(4): 439-450.