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Tracking Beef’s Shrinking Footprint

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Date: Monday, December 19, 2011

New study in Journal of Animal Science documents shrinking environmental footprint of beef over past 30 years

A study published in this month’s Journal of Animal Science found that raising a pound of beef in the United States today uses significantly fewer natural resources, including land, water, feed and fuel than in the past. “The Environmental Impact of Beef Production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007” (Journal of Animal Science, December 18, 2011) by Jude Capper, Ph.D., Washington State University, documents that each pound of beef raised in 2007 used 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy than equivalent beef production in 1977. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, shrinking the carbon footprint of beef by 16.3 percent in 30 years.

According to Capper’s research, improvements in the way cattle are raised and fed in the United States between 1977 and 2007 yielded 13 percent more total beef from 30 percent fewer animals. Raising more beef from fewer animals maximizes natural resources while providing essential nutrients for the human diet. As the population increases, it is crucial to continue the improvements demonstrated over the past 30 years to meet demand for nutrient-rich beef while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact. Turning back the clock on these advancements is not the solution to feeding a world population that recently reached 7 billion and will grow to 10 billion by the year 2050, concludes the author.

“As the number of mouths to feed increases and the quality of diets in many areas around the world improves, the demand for nutrient-rich protein like beef will increase,” says Capper. “At the same time, resources like land, water and fossil fuels will become increasingly scarce. These realities are like two trains speeding toward each other on the same track. If we listen to alarmists shouting at us to slow down, we could face a head-on collision of epic proportions. The only way to avoid this disaster is to accelerate the pace of progress.”

Capper attributes much of the reduction in beef’s environmental footprint to raising cattle on grass pasture before finishing them on an optimal balanced diet of grasses, grains and other forages in a feedyard. According to previous research conducted by Capper, each pound of grain-finished beef requires 45 percent less land, 76 percent less water and 49 percent less feed and  at the same time generates 51 percent less manure and 42 percent fewer carbon emissions than grass-finished beef.

“As we work on solutions for the future it is important to understand how far the U.S. livestock industry has come in reducing its environmental footprint in the recent past and how this significant reduction was achieved,” says Capper. “The facts are in. Improved cattle diets in the feedyard and responsible use of science-based technologies to improve the ability of cattle to convert feed to pounds of beef, reduces the amount of land, water and fossil fuels it takes to raise beef. “

Capper says focusing resources to provide more nutrient rich foods like beef, which provides more than 10 percent of the daily recommended value of ten essential nutrients and vitamins for less than ten percent of daily calories (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet), is a critical success factor in meeting nutrition needs at home and abroad.

”Making the best use of resources like land, water and energy to raise nutrient-rich beef is the key to sustainability,” says Capper. “The result is delicious, healthful beef you can feel good about.”

This project was supported by the Beef Checkoff Program through a research grant from state beef councils in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington.

Learn more about your beef checkoff at MyBeefCheckoff.com.



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The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The checkoff assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which administers the national checkoff program, subject to USDA approval.
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