Research compares impact of cattle production from 1977 to 2007
Jude L. Capper, Ph.D., Washington State University (WSU) recently presented her research, “The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 Compared with 2007,” which has been published in the Journal of Animal Science, in a Webinar hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) for alumni of the beef checkoff-funded Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program. Get your MBA at http://www.beef.org/mastersofbeefadvocacy.aspx.
According to Capper’s findings, “Consumers often perceive that the modern beef production system has an environmental impact far greater than that of historical systems, with improved efficiency being achieved at the expense of greenhouse gas emissions. The objective of this study was to compare the environmental impact of modern (2007) U.S. beef production with production practices characteristic of the U.S. beef system in 1977.”
Capper’s research shows that each pound of beef raised in 2007 (compared to 1977) used 19 percent less feed, 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy. Overall, the carbon footprint of beef was reduced by 16 percent from 1977 to 2007.
“We are going to need more beef, poultry and pork in the years to come,” said Capper. “By the year 2050, we will have 9.5 billion people on the planet, compared to the 7 billion we have today. However, we face challenges. We need to make more meat using less land because there is less available.”
The environment continues to be a major focus for consumers, and the Meatless Mondays campaign has gained huge momentum.
“When people participate in Meatless Mondays, they think that they can solve climate change issues with the simple switch of their diet; however, Meatless Mondays have negligible environmental benefits and leads to further questions,” she added. “According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dairy and red meat production contributes only 3.05 percent carbon emissions. So, if everyone goes meatless on Mondays, that would cut our national carbon footprint by 0.44 percent. The assumption that if we just don’t eat meat on Monday has an impact on the environment is simply not true. Meatless Mondays are a valid lifestyle choice to make, but we have to look at the bigger picture.”
Capper questioned what happens when we eliminate the use of animals. What replaces animal by-products, for example?
“The beef industry doesn’t just make beef; we have tallow, leather, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals and more,” Capper pointed out. “All of these things would have to be replaced in some other way with something synthetic. What replaces meat and dairy? What do we eat? Do we all eat tofu? Do we eat beans? What are the consequences of that?”
From her research, Capper concluded that beef’s carbon footprint can be reduced by improving our efficiencies and practices.
“I think we have hit that plateau of beef harvest weight per animal,” Capper added. “However, we do have a great opportunity to improve productivity, efficiency and growth rates of the animal. In 1977, it took 606 days to get an animal from birth to harvest. In 2007, it took 482 days to finish a steer. We need to look at all of the inputs and all of the outputs. We can’t just look at feedlots. We must look at the backgrounder and the cow-calf operation, too, and make improvements. We must continually improve through the chain.”
Ultimately, efficiency will be king, Capper concluded.
“We need to reduce time to reach target weights, increase growth rate and feed efficiency,” she said. “We need to use beef performance technologies, optimize diet formulation, minimize losses within the system, reduce morbidity and mortality, reduce parasite infection, improve reproductive efficiency, aim for one calf per cow, per year, increase land carrying capacity and improve pastures. All types of beef – from natural, to grass-fed, to organic and conventional – are viable options, but we must market using facts, not scare tactics. We must share the information with consumers that they need to know.”
Most importantly, the beef industry needs positive publicity. By sharing some of Capper’s findings, consumers will be reassured that beef production is wholesome for the planet and healthy for their diets.