South Dakota beef checkoff studies beefs carbon footprint

Jan 29, 2010
by WLJ

A beef checkoff-funded study is looking to debunk the myth that beef consumption is a key contributor to climate change. The study, supported by the South Dakota Beef Industry Council along with four other state beef councils, compares the carbon footprint of 2007’s U.S. beef production to that of 1975, the year the highest number of beef animals was harvested in the U.S.

According to Washington State University dairy science professor Jude Capper, lead researcher of the carbon footprint study, consumers today are trying to make food choices that are earth-friendly. Capper believes many people are misinterpreting the science, leading to myths and assumptions about America’s food supply. The beef carbon footprint study strives to set the record straight using sound science to interpret the findings.

Capper conducted a similar study over a year ago evaluating the carbon footprint of U.S. dairy production. The study concluded the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk fell by two-thirds from 1944 to 2007 as a result of modern efficiencies in the U.S. dairy industry. Capper explains, “So we’re looking to apply similar models to the beef industry and see if the advances we’ve made will also have the same effect on the carbon footprint of a pound of beef.” It’s important to evaluate carbon emissions on a per pound of beef basis. This measure allows researchers to accurately compare beef production and carbon emissions.

In 1975, the U.S. produced 24 billion pounds of beef from nearly 41 million head of cattle. By 2007, U.S. beef production rose 23 percent with 7 million fewer animals. Capper believes her research will show the rise in the beef industry’s efficiencies will confirm beef’s minimal impact. “Productivity really is key. We’ve made some really great advances in cattle nutrition, genetics and management over the last 20, 30 and even 40 years in the American beef industry. We should continue to move ahead in these areas.”

Conventional livestock production is often targeted for leaving a large carbon footprint. This impression may be the result of a 2006 report endorsed by the United Nations called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The main conclusion of this report was that global livestock production accounts for 18 percent of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. Capper explains that U.S. livestock production differs greatly from livestock systems in less advanced countries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that U.S. livestock production contributes less than 3 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s precisely the efficiencies we have in the U.S. that allows our beef to have a smaller impact on the global environment,” predicts Capper. — WLJ