Once merely a buzzword, sustainability has become increasingly central to the way US meat and poultry companies conduct business. Moreover, sustainability initiatives now extend all the way from the farm to the retail store.

The beef industry has attracted the most public attention in recent years, and the most criticism for its environmental impact. Much of this criticism is misinformed but it has forced the industry to become more proactive in addressing key issues from animal welfare to nutrition. The irony is that cattle producers say they have been practicing sustainability for much of the industry’s history.

Various segments of the industry have slightly different views as to the key sustainability issues. But everyone agrees that any definition of sustainability must include environmental matters, animal welfare, food safety, nutrition, people and economics. One of the most inclusive defi nitions comes from Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest red meat and poultry processor. In a 2008 report on its sustainability initiatives, it states: “We believe our triple bottom-line success, including social progress, environmental excellence and economic growth, will continue as we strive to do the right thing with respect to people, planet and profit. Sustainability touches every aspect of our company and our operations. Accordingly, we define sustainability in a way that brings responsibility and accountability into every business activity and process.”

At the producer level, NCBA identifies five key areas regarding the environment and cattle production. These are cattle grazing and the land, positive effects on wildlife, environmental stewardship and water and air quality.

The efficiency of American agriculture is another way in which NCBA examines the industry’s sustainability. The increase in productivity over many years is a key way the industry reduces the environmental impact of beef production, says NCBA. Through science-based improvements in breeding and animal nutrition, beef production per cow increased from about 400 lbs. in the mid-1960s to 637 lbs. in 2008, it says.

The US calf crop, in the meantime, decreased from 43 million head in 1964 to 36.1 million head in 2008, yet the amount of beef produced increased from 18 billion lbs. to 26.7 billion lbs., says NCBA. It also notes that there are now 29 cuts of beef that meet USDA’s criteria for lean, vs. only seven in 1990. Nearly half of all US beef producers generate and/or use some type of alternative energy on their operations, according to a survey of beef producers, it says.

Today’s American farmer feeds about 144 people worldwide, says NCBA. In 1960, that number was 25.8, according to the Agriculture Council of America (ACA). If the beef production practices from 1955 were used today, 165 million more acres of land (an area almost the size of Texas) still could not equal today’s beef production, it says.

A Washington State Univ. study reinforces the significant improvement in productivity. The study notes that the industry in 2007 produced 11.9 billion kg. of beef from 33.7 million head slaughtered, a 28 percent increase in beef yield per animal compared to 1977. Yet, modern agricultural practices are often demonized, with the popular perception that beef production was more environmentally friendly in the “good old days,” it says. The study concludes that productivity is a key factor in reducing the environmental impact of US beef production. Improved genetics, nutrition and management have considerably reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production, it says.

Taking the lead
Meanwhile, several major meat and poultry companies have taken the lead in sustainability initiatives because of their public exposure. These companies include Tyson Foods, Cargill Inc., JBS USA and Smithfi eld Foods. Tyson and Smithfield annually produce sustainability and/or corporate social responsibility reports that exceed 100 pages in length. The American Meat Institute has also played a prominent role. It has created a special website devoted toexplaining where the meat and poultry industry stands on a number of areas that come under the sustainability umbrella.

AMI’s explanations include the following: caring for the environment; caring for animals; benefi ting communities; ensuring safe, nutritious meat and poultry. AMI says a sustainable meat industry is one that takes a longterm view of a business’s impact on natural resources, animal welfare, employees, consumers and the communities in which we work and live.

The association launched its own sustainability initiative in 2009. A key component was an assessment of what sustainability practices were already in place in the industry. By benchmarking the industry’s efforts, AMI can measure progress in the future, it says.

AMI also generated a web-based sustainability survey to gather information from the industry. The survey requested specific data on a variety of topics, including water and energy use, recycling, worker safety statistics, food safety, animal welfare practices and community outreach. AMI compiled the data to calculate an industry average, which can now serve as a sustainability benchmark. When the survey is repeated in the future, says AMI, the 2009 information will enable the industry to measure how the industry has changed over time and note progress in the various subject areas.

The American Meat Institute also offers a 12-page sustainability inventory to help meat and poultry companies determine what they are already doing in the various areas of sustainability, what they might do in this area and what practices simply are not feasible in their operations and communities. Each question includes links to information about potential programs and practices under way within the industry.

Quantifying sustainability
On a broader level, 60 stakeholders from the global beef system gathered in Washington, DC, last June at the first Beef Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) Working Group. As noted earlier, the group identifi ed seven key impacts. It also listed seven key “takeaways” that resulted from its discussions about LCAs. To further their utility, beef LCAs should include all relevant impacts in addition to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), said the group. LCAs should also be able to access a common database that is unique to the beef supply system and readily accessible to multiple stakeholders. They should have equally transparent input assumptions and sensitivity/confidence level of outputs.

The group offered seven other points about sustainability. Relatively few beef LCAs have been developed and significant variations in LCA methodology exist, it said. So there is a need to identify and close the significant gap in open-sourced data. The identification and prioritization of impacts of beef should be highlighted in an LCA. A scan of
LCAs can provide insights for use by the beef industry to highlight the positive impacts and address negatives. Consistent allocation of impacts across beef and the resulting co-products is needed to provide the users of LCAs with clear expectations of how the output was created. Approximately 80 percent of emissions originate before harvesting the animal. Finally, other tools are available and may be more appropriate to answer questions, the group said.

The initial meeting set the stage for a tour of the US beef industry by some of the meeting’s participants. The tour included a retail distribution center, a beef processing plant, a cattle feedlot, a gasifi er operation and a seedstock ranch. The group listed five key takeaways from the tour, including: understanding the challenges and trade-offs that exist in sustainability efforts (e.g. food safety vs. water use); the drive for improved sustainability creates opportunities for innovation; pre-competitive collaboration by industry to find solutions; critical nature of the beef system being aligned in its focus; genetic improvements in cattle breeding to improve effi ciency, animal health and beef quality take many years and significant investment.

The Global Conference on Sustainable Beef in November convened all elements of the global beef supply chain and a diverse array of other key stakeholders, including academics, scientists and NGO leaders for a dialogue about the current state of sustainability in the beef industry. The conference, according to reports, produced robust feedback centered on the “triple bottom line”, to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. At the conference’s conclusion, its hosts challenged participants to incorporate this feedback to develop on-the-ground programs that enhance sustainable beef, driven by new relationships developed at the conference.

One important takeaway was identification of key issues. When participants were asked what is the most important sustainability issue for the global beef supply chain, the responses broke down as follows: food nutrition and food safety, 25 percent; land management, 21 percent; water access and quality, 20 percent; greenhouse gas emission, 13 percent; bio-diverse populations, 9 percent; community, 6 percent; labor and business, 3 percent; and energy, 2 percent.

Three issues thus accounted for two-thirds of the responses. These impact every part of the global beef supply chain and the US meat and poultry industry. The responses provide important guidelines as to what the industry will focus on to further improve its sustainability.

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Petaluma, Calif.-based Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com).