Beef is sustainable, improving rapidly

Aug 16, 2013

That beef production is sustainable isn’t a surprise. That the beef industry is improving its sustainability likely isn’t a surprise either. But what might come as a bit of a shock is how fast it’s improving. How fast? Really fast.

Among the many items and positions voted on and reports given at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) summer conference, Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D—director of sustainability for NCBA, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program—presented the findings of the life cycle assessment (LCA) portion of the U.S. Beef Sustainability Project. Together with Richard Gebhart, a cow/calf producer from Claremore, OK, who served on the sustainability advisory panel, Stackhouse-Lawson explained that the improvements in beef’s environmental footprint and sustainability have improved greatly over a short period of time.

Between 2005 and 2011, when the data was collected for the LCA, the uses of resources and release of environment-impacting emissions declined. Some of the reductions highlighted are as follows:

• Emissions into soil declined by 7 percent

• Emissions into water declined by 10 percent

• Greenhouse gas emissions declined by 2 percent

• Emissions which could result in acid rain declined by 3 percent

• Water use decreased 3 percent • Land use decreased 4 percent

• Resource/Energy use decreased 2 percent

The various individual reductions in resource consumption and emissions represent a 7 percent overall decline in beef’s “environmental fingerprint” and its overall sustainability improved 5 percent.

This achievement came from a host of causes, but primary among these were improvements in crop yields, better irrigation, innovations in the packing sector, improvements in technology and better animal performance, according to Stackouse-Lawson.

“The completion of the life cycle assessment project provides the industry, for the first time, the science-based evidence necessary to lead conversations about the sustainability of beef,” says Stackhouse-Lawson. “The Beef Checkoff and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee had the foresight three years ago to see the importance of this work and make it a priority for the industry. By completing the LCA, the checkoff positioned beef as a leader on the topic of sustainability.”

The most extensive and holistic of its kind, the LCA portion of the U.S. Beef Sustainability Project sought to examine the full magnitude of beef production’s environmental impact and sustainability. As covered in WLJ in the past, the LCA portion of the project looked at extensive details of countless factors within the production chain beginning prior to a steer’s birth to after the beef has been consumed.

“We examined millions of individual data points and then created models to simulate specific aspects of beef production practices so that this data and these results are truly representative of beef production in the United States,” said Stackhouse- Lawson.

The pair also agreed the completion of the project represents an outstanding opportunity for producers to tell their own stories of sustainable beef production, rather than letting those outside the industry do it.

The LCA portion of the U.S. Beef Sustainability Project was certified by the National Standards Foundation (NSF), which was also announced at the conference. Stackhouse-Lawson explained that the certification by NSF lends third-party credibility to the work, making it more acceptable to non-governmental organizations and other potential partners in the sustainability arena.

“When we talk about the sustainability of an industry, that’s what it’s all about, getting better over time. As an industry, beef is doing a good job at making progress on the path toward a more sustainable future. The certification of these results confirms that,” she said.

The future for the U.S.

Beef Sustainability Project, which is now moving into Phase 2, is an exciting one.

“We’ve just finished Phase 1 and Phase 1 gave us two things,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. “It gave us a benchmark from which to start, but also a way to accurately measure our progress over time.”

She spoke of the next steps of the project which will involve looking at regional data so that the unique differences presented to producers based on their area can be documented and included in the project’s simulation efforts. It is crucial that all different types of cattle and beef production be included.

“We will go to every state in the country to develop these data sets,” she said.

Other important areas of attention for the future will involve gathering primary data from the retail sector, as well as looking at how open spaces and wildlife contribute to beef’s overall sustainability. —Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor