Tracking beef’s shrinking footprint

Dec 23, 2011

A new study in the Journal of Animal Science documents the shrinking environmental footprint of beef over the past 30 years.

Over five years ago, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report claiming that livestock production increased greenhouse gas emissions by as much 18 percent.

The study was challenged by scientists, but the news was already out. Producers and industry advocates have spent the last five years working to get out a new message: The report was wrong.

Anti-animal agriculture activists took the report and used it to set up campaigns against agriculture; some, such as the Meatless Monday, have been very successful.

The target has shifted over the years, with the main focus leaning towards the meat industry, as opposed to livestock in general. The Meatless Monday campaign says: “The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.”

Scientists, like Jude Capper, Ph.D., Washington State University, and other industry experts, five years later, are still working to counter the original damaging UN report.

The study found that raising a pound of beef in the U.S. today uses significantly fewer natural resources, including land, water, feed and fuel, than in the past.

“The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007” (Journal of Animal Science, Dec. 18, 2011) by Capper documents that each pound of beef raised in 2007 used 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy than equivalent beef production in 1977. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, shrinking the carbon footprint of beef by 16.3 percent in 30 years.

According to Capper’s research, improvements in the way cattle are raised and fed in the U.S. between 1977 and 2007 yielded 13 percent more total beef from 30 percent fewer animals. Raising more beef from fewer animals maximizes natural resources while providing essential nutrients for the human diet. As the population increases, it is crucial to continue the improvements demonstrated over the past 30 years to meet demand for nutrient-rich beef while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact. Turning back the clock on these advancements is not the solution to feeding a world population that recently reached 7 billion and will grow to 10 billion by the year 2050, concludes the author.

“As the number of mouths to feed increases and the quality of diets in many areas around the world improves, the demand for nutrient-rich protein like beef will increase,” says Capper. “At the same time, resources like land, water and fossil fuels will become increasingly scarce. These realities are like two trains speeding toward each other on the same track. If we listen to alarmists shouting at us to slow down, we could face a head-on collision of epic proportions. The only way to avoid this disaster is to accelerate the pace of progress.”

Capper attributes much of the reduction in beef’s environmental footprint to raising cattle on grass pasture before finishing them on an optimal balanced diet of grasses, grains and other forages in a feed yard. According to previous research conducted by Capper, each pound of grain-finished beef requires 45 percent less land, 76 percent less water and 49 percent less feed and, at the same time, gen erates 51 percent less manure and 42 percent fewer carbon emissions than grass-finished beef.

“As we work on solutions for the future it is important to understand how far the U.S. livestock industry has come in reducing its environmental footprint in the recent past and how this significant reduction was achieved,” says Capper. “The facts are in. Improved cattle diets in the feed yard and responsible use of science-based technologies to improve the ability of cattle to convert feed to pounds of beef, reduces the amount of land, water and fossil fuels it takes to raise beef. “ Capper says focusing resources to provide more nutrient-rich foods like beef, which provides more than 10 percent of the daily recommended value of 10 essential nutrients and vitamins for less than 10 percent of daily calories (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet), is a critical success factor in meeting nutrition needs at home and abroad.

“Making the best use of resources like land, water and energy to raise nutrient-rich beef is the key to sustainability,” says Capper. “The result is delicious, healthful beef you can feel good about.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor