Sustainability defines U.S. beef production, expert says

Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Conventional beef production has made big advances in sustainability over the past 35 years, but the industry needs to get that message out to counter false claims by anti-animal ag- groups.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — The U.S. beef industry has made great strides in sustainability in the last 35 year and should arm itself with supportive facts and figures to relay its advances to the consuming public and defend itself against anti-animal-ag campaigns, a consultant says.

Every beef production system — regardless of breed, size or location — can be sustainable, but the beef industry faces challenges from groups that are intentionally — or unintentionally — trying to make animal agriculture look bad, said Jude Capper, a sustainability consultant for Merck Animal Health.

Capper, an affiliate at Montana State University and adjunct professor of animal sciences at Washington State University, was at the Idaho Cattle Association’s 100th annual convention in Sun Valley on Monday to give beef producers information to counter opponents’ false claims.

“As an industry, we have a fabulous success story,” she said.

To begin with, producers are turning forages and byproduct feed humans don’t eat into food, and they are utilizing pasture land that can’t support crop production, she said.

They are also faced with increasing productivity and efficiency to meet the needs of a growing population that will require 60 percent more food by 2050, she said.

Meat production today accounts for just 2.1 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, yet the Meatless Monday campaign promotes the notion that people can save the planet from global warming by not eating meat one day of the week, he said.

“It’s absolute nonsense,” Capper said.

If everyone in the U.S. went meatless every Monday for a year, it would only decrease the national carbon footprint by less than one-third of 1 percent, yet cattle are being blamed for global warming, she said.

The environmental impact of U.S. beef production has been improved over the years, with a 31 percent increase in beef per animal and the same beef production from four animals in 2007 as from five animals in 1977, she said.

Beef to slaughter time has been reduced from 609 days in 1977 to 485 days in 2007, and the same amount of production comparing 2007 to 1977 uses 30 percent fewer animals, 19 percent less feed, 12 percent less water, and 33 percent fewer acres, she said.

Over that same time period, the industry has reduced manure and methane by 18 percent each, nitrous oxide by 12 percent, and the carbon footprint by 16 percent.

“We should be publishing what a fabulous job we’ve done … because the consumer cares, the retailer cares and policy makers care,” Capper said.

Capper said she has nothing against organic, natural or grass-fed beef, but while consumers think that production is easier on the environment, the numbers prove otherwise.

If all U.S. beef production were grass-fed, it would demand another 64.6 million head of cattle, increase land use by 131 million acres (75 percent of the land in Texas), increase water use by 468 billion gallons (an annual use of 53.1 million U.S. households), and increase carbon dioxide emissions by 134.5 million tons (equal to 26.6 million cars annually).

Conventional beef production is sustainable, and the industry needs to get that message out to remain economically viable — which is the first factor in being sustainable, she said.


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