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Examining Ag’s carbon footprint

Environmentalists and activists like to dramatize about global warming and create villains out of the planet’s land stewards – farmers and ranchers. Jude Capper, Ph.D., a self-employed livestock sustainability consultant located in Bozeman, MT, debunks some of the most common myths related to agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“What I want to make really clear is whatever sector of agriculture you’re involved in, productivity is going to be key in the next 20 years,” Capper said. “There is a place for every single food production system, provided it does three things – first, it’s economically viable; second, it’s environmentally responsible; and third, it’s got to be socially accepteable.”

Despite the importance of efficiency in order to feed a growing planet, the buzz word “sustainability” sometimes gets in the way. Everyone has a definition for what sustainability is, and sometimes that doesn’t align well with modern agriculture in the views of consumers. So, what is sustainable?

“Sustainable food doesn’t just mean organic, natural or grass-fed; what is does mean is producing nutritious, affordable food, caring for animals and land and giving back to the community – it’s why we have multi-generation sustainable farmers and ranchers,” defined Capper. “Sustainability is turning forages and by-product feeds into food we can eat.”

Capper warned that the word “sustainability” isn’t going to go away.

“Whether you read TIME or Cosmo, sustainability is making headlines,” Capper said.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book by food activist Michael Pollan, and Food, Inc., a documentary, both slam modern agriculture while appealing to a vast majority who don’t understand agriculture and take the statements made in this book and film at face value. Capper encouraged ranchers to check these out in order to understand what the consumer thinks, so as to better educate them.

A big myth portrayed against the beef industry is that red meat is to blame for huge amounts of carbon emissions. However, according to Capper, dairy and red meat consists of just 3.05 percent of carbon emissions. So, if everyone in the U.S. adopted Meatless Mondays, it would reduce carbon emissions by just 0.44 percent.

“The perception is out there if we give up meat once a week, we will save the planet,” said Capper. “Assuming we want to eat meat, why shouldn’t we have that choice? What happens to consumer choice? If it’s Monday, and we want a burger, we should be able to have one. And, if we give up meat, what replaces animal by-products that offer leather, tallow and other goods? What replaces meat and dairy? It’s not just as simple as opting for tofu instead of hamburger.”

Capper offered some numbers to make sense of it all.

“The majority of beef production’s environmental impact occurs on-farm. Any pound of beef that we buy, about 70-80 percent of the carbon associated with that steak comes on the farm – cow-calf, stocker and feedlot,” she said. “That means if we can improve efficiency in our operations, we can cut carbon, as well as land, feed and fertilizer. If we improve efficiency, we improve our bottom-line, but it also has the benefit of reducing the environmental impact.”

In 1977, a beef animal averaged a hot carcass weight of 603 pounds. In 2007, it was 774 pounds. At that rate, Capper said by 2027, the hot carcass weight could be 892 pounds. Is bigger better, however? Not necessarily. Instead, the growth rate of beef could be improved.

“The fewer days between birth to slaughter will reduce the amount of resources used,” Capper said. “In 1977, it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef as four animals in 2007. To make a pound of beef in 2007 compared to 1977, we needed 30 percent fewer animals in the U.S. beef herd.”

One of the charges against the beef industry is how much land it takes to produce beef. Because of the beef industry’s improved efficiencies, cattlemen use 33 percent less land than 30 years ago, and that land is usually rocky, hilly and unusable for development or crop production.

Capper explained a study comparing three types of beef – conventional, natural and grass-fed. Conventionally-raised beef takes 444 days to slaughter a 800 pound carcass; 464 days to harvest a 714 pound, naturally-raised beef; and 679 days to slaughter a 615 pound carcass. This would take an extra 14.4 million cows to raise beef using an all natural method, and 64.6 million all grass-fed animals.

“If all U.S. beef was grass-fed, it would increase land use by 131 million acres or 75 percent of the size of Texas,” Capper said. “Water use would increase by 468 billion gallons, which is the annual use of water by 53.1 million U.S. households. I’m not opposed to grass-fed beef, but we have to understand from an environmental point of view, that grass-fed beef comes at a cost of more resources.”

Capper said there are further opportunities to reduce the environmental impact through increased efficiencies, no matter what sector of the beef industry you’re a part of.

“Sustainability is not a race,” she concluded. “It’s about suiting your system to the animal, feed, land and labor resources available. When we make the best use of resources, we can feed a hungry world sustainability.”

Find Capper on Twitter at @bovidiva as well as her blog, http://www.bovidiva.com.