Modern beef production more sustainable

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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DENVER – A new scientific study published by Washington State University researchers that provides a historical analysis on the environmental footprint of the production of a pound of beef yielded striking results: modern beef production not only produces a more environmentally-friendly product using fewer natural resources, but yields more food with those fewer resources.

This study, which was funded by the Beef Checkoff Program through a grant from the Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington State Beef Councils, was presented for the first time July 15 at the American Society of Animal Science annual meeting. “Comparing the environmental impact of the U.S. beef industry in 1977 to 2007” looked at the environmental profile of the current U.S. beef industry (2007) compared to its historical production practices (1977).

Although U.S. agriculture is feeding more mouths, the beef industry is able to accomplish this task through environmentally sustainable practices. Dr. Jude L. Capper, Washington State University assistant professor and an expert on the environmental impact of beef and dairy systems, conducted a historical analysis on the environmental footprint of the production of a pound of beef. Historical livestock production is commonly perceived to be more environmentally sustainable than modern agricultural practices.

This study modeled the environmental impact of the 1977 U.S. beef industry, which produced 23.3 billion lbs. beef from 38.7 million head slaughtered, compared to that of 2007, which produced 26.3 billion lbs. beef from 33.8 million head slaughtered.

Key findings include environmental sustainability of beef production has improved over time. The analysis demonstrates the improvements in the U.S. beef industry productivity have considerably reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production. This translates to 13% more beef with 13% fewer animals due to advances in production practices, according to the study.

When compared to beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced in modern systems used an 18% decrease in total carbon emissions (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide), 30% less land, 20% less feedstuffs, 14% less water, 10% less feed energy and 9% less fossil fuel energy.

The study demonstrates improvement in the U.S. beef industry’s productivity has considerably reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production, thus improving the sustainability of livestock production, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (N.C.B.A.).

The study’s deterministic environmental impact model integrated resource inputs and waste outputs from animal nutrition and metabolism, herd population dynamics and cropping parameters using a life cycle assessment approach. Resource inputs included feedstuffs, water, land, fertilizers and fossil fuels. Waste outputs included manure and greenhouse gas emissions.
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