Some U.S. news outlets have reported on events, like the Golden Globe Awards, that are going “meatless” to shed light on climate change. In all likelihood, serving a nice, small cut of beef may have done more to reduce climate change than the entrée of king oyster mushroom scallops on top of wild mushroom risotto that was served at the event.
Beef production is sustainable, and there are many positive points for the beef industry to share with consumers regarding U.S. and global beef production.
For instance, raising cattle is a great example of upcycling.
Upcycling takes byproducts and unusable items and creates usable products – like cattle turn grass/forage, corn and byproducts into high quality protein, B vitamins and micronutrients for people to eat.
“Cattle don’t spend their whole life in front of a feed bunk. Ninety percent of the feed cattle are consuming is not in direct competition with human food,” said Sara Place with Elanco Animal Health. She spoke at the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association’s Beef Industry Convention, in Willmar, Minn., on Dec. 13.
Sara spends a lot of time talking about sustainability and how beef production is sustainable across the United States and North America. She offered some great information about cattle and beef production that producers can share with consumers for greater peace of mind.
Sustainable is an important word, and people want to feel they are living sustainable lives. A good place to start when talking with people about sustainability is with the definition. Sustainability, she says, is the “idea of trying to balance environmental issues, economic issues and social issues all at once.”
People tend to agree with this definition, but they have various priorities, Sara said. Finding points in common can help beef producers talk with people who have other backgrounds and beliefs.
This was recently demonstrated to Sara when visiting with a director of dining for a large university system in the eastern United States. Wanting to provide the best beef possible, they were sourcing Australian beef.
The Australians have done an excellent job of marketing their beef as superior, she conceded, but from a sustainability standpoint – purchasing U.S. or North American beef is better, she pointed out.
The U.S. is the largest producer of beef, and also raises cattle more sustainably than anywhere else in the world, she said. Eighty-two percent of what it takes in the life cycle of beef to produce grain-finished beef is forage – mostly grazed forage on western range lands. Another 7 percent is byproducts like distillers grains or cottonseed.
Only 11 percent of grain-finished cattle feed requirements are actually grain – mostly corn, wheat or barley. Due to the efficiency of U.S. agriculture, land requirements for raising grain for U.S. beef continue to decrease – about 8 million acres of corn are raised for beef cattle. The number of cattle in the U.S. continues to decrease too as efficiency rises.
Greenhouse gas emissions are over 30 percent lower per pound of beef produced in the U.S. as compared to Australia, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, she added.
Many people believe that beef cattle production is a big player when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s not true either. Beef cattle create about 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that includes all feed production, deforestation in other parts of the world, transportation, harvesting and more.
For the United States, beef and dairy production results in 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are slowly decreasing as the number of live cattle is decreasing, but mostly the percent stays quite even with calving and harvesting.
Cattle chew forages, swallow them, and erupt methane once every minute via their mouths. The methane, a greenhouse gas, breaks down into carbon dioxide in about 10-12 years and the amount stays fairly constant.
Fossil fuels, on the other hand, were produced millions of years ago and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean and into plants that make oxygen.
“Fossil fuels – they’re old forests, old photosynthetic organisms from 100-200 million years ago,” she said. “What we’ve done in the last, especially 40 years, is we’ve burned a whole lot of fossil fuels.
“When you look at the charts of CO2 going up in the atmosphere, it pretty well correlates with how much fossil fuels we’ve been burning,” she continued. “It’s very different than this situation where we have animals temporarily converting carbon.”
If there was one area where the beef industry could improve, it would be in helping to reduce food waste. About 30-40 percent of landfills are made up of discarded, wasted food. We can all work together to make a significant impact on the environment by reducing food waste. That’s a great topic to talk with consumers about.
“There’s a lot of effort from farmers and everybody in the whole supply chain to generate food that just gets thrown out,” she said. “It doesn’t nourish anybody, so from a sustainability standpoint, that’s one of our biggest issues that we have in terms of trying to solve it.”
Cattle producers have done an excellent job improving over time and have shown they are committed to further improvement in the future, she added.
Demonstrating this commitment to the consumer is essential.
“People should feel good about eating U.S. beef as a responsible and nutritious food choice,” Sara concluded.