Kim Stackhouse-Lawson recently spoke at Colorado State University’s Beef + Transparency = Trust Conference, an event focused on educating the public about where their beef comes from. Her speech was titled, “Beef Sustainability: Meeting Tomorrow’s Demand.” Stackhouse-Lawson is in charge of current research in the beef industry relative to sustainability. According to her, it is the pro-active and progressive management approaches that will allow producers to meet the future demands of beef and protein in the diet of our growing world’s population. Here’s a roundup of key points she made in her presentation.
“Climate change and the beef industry are hot topics right now,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve all heard of Meatless Mondays. There is a UN report that was released in 2006 called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” that said that the livestock industry contributes to 18 percent of all greenhouse gases – more than automobiles, trucks and all transportation. This resulted in folks giving up meat on Mondays, which wasn’t the UN’s intention. Instead, they set out to talk about the growing population. There will be 9 billion people on this planet by 2050, so the UN wanted to talk about our efficiency issues. The question then becomes, how do we grow more with less to feed a growing planet? We have a big job ahead of us.”
As a result of the study, the media really grabbed a hold of the livestock industry, blaming cows for global warming. TIME Magazine even suggested that eating a 16 ounce T-bone is like a hummer on a plate; however, Stackhouse-Lawson has worked for years to debunk this myth.
“According to a 2009 study conducted by the EPA, livestock production only contributes to 3.4 percent of all greenhouse gases, while the U.S. transportation industry is responsible for 28 percent,” she stated. “In graduate school, I contributed to a counter report called, ‘Clearing The Air On The Livestock Industry’s Longshadow.’ In it, we stated that 18 percent is questionable as it is a global average. In the U.S., livestock only contribute to 3.4 percent of greenhouse gases; in Paraguay that number is 50 percent, and in Ethiopia, it’s 90 percent. Why? Because they are less efficient and there are more people; they slaughter animals at 3-4 years old. In the U.S., we are very good at using our resources and using less to produce more.”
Another flaw in the study was the comparison between transportation and livestock production.
“We discovered that the comparison to transport was flawed,” she added. “In the livestock industry, they looked at everything from the energy used to build tires for tractors, to grain production, and in the transportation industry, they only looked at the exhaust.”
Stackhouse-Lawson is part of a beef checkoff effort to debunk these myths, define sustainability and make improvements in the U.S. beef industry’s efficiency.
“The beef industry is serious about sustainability and addressing these efficiency concerns. So, what is sustainable?” she asked. “What is the definition of sustainability? There are three pillars of sustainability – economic, environment and social. The checkoff is conducting a comprehensive sustainability assessment of the entire U.S. beef industry. This will be a cradle-to-grave assessment, everything from birth to the disposal of the package of the beef. We will equally compare the environmental impact with production costs, along with the social acceptance of the production method. This is important because we need to know where we are in order to get better in the future.
In addition to looking at greenhouse gases, there are other sustainability factors that have an impact, according to Stackhouse-Lawson. These considerations include environmental impact, social acceptance, health and nutrition, and efficient use of resources like land and water.
“In the beef industry, we understand numbers, but the social implications are harder to grasp,” she said.
Using the example of how ranchers are environmental stewards, caring for the land they farm and run their cattle on, she said, “Ultimately, farmers and ranchers care more for the land than anyone, including the government. Wide open space means something to folks, but we don’t know how to quantify that. But, that wide open space is a huge part of our sustainability. Do folks like seeing wildlife like deer passing over these wide open spaces? You bet they do. But, how do you measure that?”
Ultimately, the beef checkoff is up to the task of defining what is sustainble and feeding a growing nation, while protecting and preserving natural resources.
“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination,” she concluded. “The beef industry is looking for continuous improvement over time. We have a sustainable product, and we want a more sustainable one in the future. That’s what the beef checkoff and the beef industry will be focused on in the years to come.”