Environment and Sustainability
Lifecycle Assessment Overview
- The beef industry defines sustainable beef as meeting growing global demand by balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social diligence throughout the supply chain.
- Beef farmers and ranchers go to great lengths to be good stewards of the environment. The average beef farmer and rancher has 13 environmental and social improvement practices in place, such as soil nutrient management programs, rotational grazing and monitoring, managing wildlife habitat and improving animal care and handling.
- The beef community recently completed a first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment to document current status and identify areas for continuous improvement. This research showed an overall improvement in sustainability by 5 percent from 2005-2011, and the environmental and social sustainability of beef improved 7 percent.
- Beef production involves more complex biological processes than any other food system. Improving the sustainability of beef production requires efforts at every stage of beef production. This is certainly true for the slaughter process, where many improvements have already been made and opportunities exist for continuous improvement.
- By 2050, 70 percent more food will be required to feed the growing population and all agriculture production will be needed to meet the increasing demand. The beef community recognizes the important role it plays in contributing to more sustainable food and has committed to a journey toward more sustainable beef.
- Environmental efforts by cattle farmers and ranchers help manage and protect more than 500 million acres of permanent grassland. Farms and ranches provide habitat for 75 percent of America’s wildlife, including a number of endangered species. Cattle grazing also provides a number of ecosystem services such as improvement in water quality and the uptake of carbon from the atmosphere to help offset carbon emissions.
- One of the greatest opportunities for improvement with regard to sustainability is a reduction of food waste. An estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted, costing the average American family approximately $2,500 annually. Food waste also has an environmental impact, contributing to greenhouse gases from solid waste landfills.
- According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted commodities, with 20 percent spoiled or not eaten at the consumer level. It is still a significant burden and represents a major opportunity to improve beef industry sustainability.
- The reduction in occupational illnesses and hazards and the reduction in E.coli O157:H7 contamination has also contributed to the improvement in beef’s social sustainability.
- There are many environmental benefits to grazing cattle including providing wildlife habitat, helping prevent the invasion of noxious weeds, decreasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and encouraging robust forage growth and healthy root systems.
- More than 85 percent of the land where cattle are grazed in the U.S. is not suitable for crop production either due to soil type, rainfall, topography or other factors. The best use of this land is to allow animals to graze it.
- Specific to the feedyard segment, improvements are due to crop yields, animal performance, animal nutrition, resource use efficiency, responsible use of technology and improved manure management.
- Feedyards allow for cattle to reach market weight at an earlier age which reduces the amount of land, water, feed and fuel per pound of beef produced. Because of the more confined nature of feedyards, they also allow for management of manure by agriculture engineers that reduces leaching and allows for manure to be used to fertilize crops. In addition, water and air quality are monitored and managed in compliance with the strict U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that govern concentrated animal feeding operations.
- Beef has lowered its environmental foot print, specifically when dealing with water, through improvements in packing plant water efficiency, the installation of gray water recycling equipment in slaughter facilities and the increased use of recovered biogas from wastewater lagoons at slaughter facilities, which lowers the need for fossil fuels.
- Major innovations and investments in infrastructure by the packing sector contributed heavily to the recent improvements in beef industry sustainability. These include the installation of covered lagoons, which lowers community nuisance odors and reduces packing plant dependence on fossil fuels, the conversion of boilers from diesel to natural gas and reduced packaging requirements through the use of right-size packaging.
- According to a 2013 study from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), “Wider adoption of existing best practices and technologies in feeding, health and husbandry, and manure management … could help the global livestock sector cut its outputs of global warming gases as much as 30 percent by becoming more efficient and reducing energy waste.”
- Today’s feedyards are helping continuously improve the sustainability of beef by focusing on the key areas identified by the FAO report: “For ruminants – cows, mainly -- the greatest promise involves improving animal and herd efficiency. This includes using better feeds and feeding techniques, which can reduce methane (CH4) generated during digestion as well as the amount of CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure.”1
- America’s cattle producers have safely used growth promotants for more than 60 years to produce the lean beef consumers demand while using fewer resources, like land, water and feed.
- Growth promotants, sometimes referred to as hormones or steroids, help cattle efficiently convert feed into more lean muscle. Most growth promotants are used to supplement existing hormones or compensate for missing hormones in an animal’s body.
- Although these products vary in active ingredients and dose, they generally work by discouraging protein depletion and encouraging protein synthesis in cattle so they can gain more lean muscle from less feed.
- According to research, the judicious and safe use of growth promotants improves the average daily gain of cattle by approximately 15 to 25 percent.
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