Reaching a balance is key to sustainability

Jan 13, 2012

Sustainability is the big buzz word in the industry and was one of the main topics at last week’s International Livestock Congress. According to Jude Capper, Ph. D., Washington State University, sustainability heads every agenda within the industry, even the antiagriculture groups who work diligently to point out the flaws within the agricultural systems.

A growing movement has emerged that questions the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute to social problems. Today, this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policymakers and many others within the entire food system.

Sustainability does not only refer to environmental issues but is defined around three pillars: environmental, economic and social— that all have to balance to achieve true system sustainability. Structured around panel discussions and break-out sessions, the conference provided an opportunity for stakeholders to engage in constructive dialogue relating to key topics in the industry.

Like moral values, problems arise when different stakeholders place more importance on one particular pillar. The balance then becomes lost.

By the end of 2050, our population is expected to grow by 30 percent, and we will need 70 percent more food to feed this growing population, according to Capper. “As income grows, demand grows,” she said.

With the decline in production land, the global livestock industry is under threat, she added.

Caper discussed environmental groups and their growing concerns of the carbon footprint beef is leaving behind. In her calculations, of the Meatless Monday madness, green house gas reduction is not achieved through the plan. “The impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint or less than one-half of 1 percent,” she said.

Capper says the U.S. livestock industry has come a long way in reducing its carbon footprint with improved productivity. “Improved milk yield conferred by advances in nutrition, management, welfare and genetics means that compared to 1944, the carbon footprint of a modern gallon of milk is reduced by 63 percent. Despite the greater amount of milk produced nowadays, this has helped the dairy industry to reduce its entire carbon footprint by 41 percent between 1944 and 2007. The beef industry has also improved productivity, with cattle growing faster and being finished at heavier weights. Between 1977 and 2007, this reduced the carbon footprint of a pound of beef by 18 percent, with concomitant reductions in land use, water use and energy use.” finger at certain foods is not the answer to reducing the carbon footprint on the earth. “Forget demonizing specific foods, or suggesting that one single action can save the planet. We need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences—and act accordingly.” In other words, sustainability.

“Mismarketing and playing to the consumer is the problem,” she said.

With three main systems, conventional, natural and grass fed, there should be room for growth in all. But when the agricultural industry begins to fight each other through false advertising, industry sustainability becomes questionable.

Conventional methods cover 70 percent of the industry, and include pasture to feedlot production, with production enhancing technology. Natural is identical to conventional, minus the production enhancement, according to Capper. And grassfed is a pasture-based system from birth to slaughter and FDA regulated.

To go to a primarily grassfed system is not only impossible, but it increases green house gas emissions by 134.5 million, according to Capper. That is equal to 26.6 million cars. “We would have to increase land use to 131 million acres,” she said. Water use would increase by 468 billion gallons, equal to 53.1 million U.S. households.

Production would also decrease, as grass-fed beef take 679 average days to get a 615-pound carcass weight, compared to 453 days for an 800-pound carcass with conventional methods.

While each system has its niche, Capper was not placing more importance on one over the other. She was simply pointing out the importance of finding a balance to reach sustainability.

Initiatives, such as Meatless Mondays, present a number of challenges to the meat industry, as they often include inaccurate claims about the environmental impact of raising meat and meat’s impact on human health, while also calling into question many of the social issues (animal welfare and animal rights) that are associated with meat consumption.

“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,” she said. “The facts are in. Improved cattle diets in the feedyard, and responsible use of sciencebased technologies to improve the ability of cattle to convert feed to pounds of beef, reduce the amount of land, water and fossil fuels it takes to raise beef.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor