Playing offense

Jan 11, 2013

I can feel it coming. That word sustainability is coming around again and from what I can see, it may be getting more political, driving food policy in the U.S. Last week, I stumbled upon an article from an Israeli university that was promoted by Israel’s green party. The article claimed that the party is attempting to influence food policy and working to swing the policy away from meat consumption. It seems pretty farfetched to me. But, clearly, this global warming, carbon tax issue is still smoldering.


The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NC- BA), along with the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) and your checkoff dollars, have been working on a comprehensive beef sustainability study that they will release at the coming Beef Industry Sustainability Summit. NCBA has defined sustainability for the beef industry as, “raising cattle in a way that is environmentally, economically and socially responsible.”

Most everyone I know defines it as staying in business from year to year. But this study is to help NC- BA focus on their long range plan for the beef industry, and help the industry improve in key areas of the business that may need improvement.

NCBA said in a press release that accurately measuring sustainability using this holistic approach and developing practical sustainability tools along the entire value chain is challenging as the beef supply chain is one of the most complex biological, economic and social systems in the world.

They are making an effort to understand the sustainability of the beef industry. CBB has leveraged your checkoff dollars with BASF Corp., a global supplier of ingredients for human and animal nutrition.

Working with USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center, Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Center, they will use BASF’s Sustainability, Eco-Efficiency Traceability tool and USDA’s Integrated Farm System Model to evaluate the beef industry from top to bottom. With this multiyear project, they will quantify all system inputs and outputs and identify areas to improve sustainability along the entire system, from farm to table. They will establish benchmark data to measure the industry’s sustainability effort.

Sustainability is becoming an expectation for modern production systems. Increased demand for greater transparency, with respect to how food is produced, will result in sustainability, a major demand driver. This is the first and largest research project of its kind and the hoped outcome is to feed a growing population and gain consumer confidence at the same time.

Bo Regan and Kim Stackhouse at NCBA have been working on this project for quite some time and said there are three major areas that they are studying: Environment, Economic and Social ramifications of beef production. Regan said that Walmart has been asking for sustainability information on beef and was concerned about all the inputs that go into producing beef.

He also said that some of the most interesting data was from the packing industry and that they are using biogas from their waste lagoons to power their plants. They are recycling hot water from their rendering operations to use that water in areas of the plant that require hot water, which has reduced energy costs by 20 percent. He said that there could be big savings on case-ready beef and distribution to grocery stores through managing the waste and trim produced at case-ready operations.

I get the part about environment and economics, but not the social area of the study, and Regan said that part of the study deals with the impact of a beef operation on the local community as well as injury, death and health issues related to beef and cattle operations.

Regan said that this data will give us the information we need to make adjustments in all segments of the cattle and beef industries and they will have a computer model available for producers to measure their contribution to the sustainability effort. It will also provide information that we can use to take an offensive approach to marketing beef and how the industry manages and deals with various consumer concerns about the beef industry.


The beef industry has made big advances in production efficiencies over the past 30 years which have all been economically motivated. With the current debates about food production, the industry needs to manage its image more. NCBA will have more information about this monumental project at their annual convention in February and we will follow up on this study at that time, but they aren’t quite ready to spill all the beans yet.