Beef's 'Sustainability' Involves More Than Greenhouse Gases

Fodder for Thought

Good carbon footprint research on beef is useful but doesn't tell the whole sustainability story.

Published on: June 21, 2012

Sustainability, while a very important topic in agriculture, has become a buzz word used all too often these days.

The sustainability of the beef industry is one that particularly has attracted much speculation and negative publicity. An example is the United Nations 2006 Report Livestock’s Long Shadow. There also have been countless claims by environmental and animal rights groups.

Research by experts such as Frank Mitloehner and Jude Capper has sought to correct these misrepresentations of the livestock industry’s carbon footprint, providing us with valuable scientific insight.

Mitloehner debunked the 2006 UN report showing that livestock account for only about 3% of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, compared to the inaccurate 18% estimated by a flawed comparison in the UN report.

Capper’s research compared the environmental impact of the U.S. beef industry in 1977 to 2007. The research findings showed that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights, have caused a significant reduction in beef’s environmental impact and ultimately has improved sustainability.

While this research has proven a valuable tool in gauging the success of the beef community’s sustainability initiatives, it can sometimes be interpreted the wrong way. An example of this came to me recently in the form of a Facebook post featuring an artist’s live scribe drawn during Frank Mitloehner’s talk at the Alltech Symposium recently held in May of this year.

The graphic in question included such statements as:

  • “Intensification is the key to GHG mitigation.”
  • “Grass-fed leads to more…because more roughage = more methane.”

Reading these statements from the graphic (which was an artist’s interpretation) it would lead one to believe that intensive livestock production is the only environmentally sound method to produce beef (i.e. feedlot = good; grass-fed = bad).

Let me make it clear I am not taking issue with the scientific research of either Mitloehner or Capper, but instead this particular artist’s interpretation. The issue of sustainability in beef production is one that involves many factors, not just GHG emissions and carbon footprint. While these are important factors to consider in environmental impact of the beef industry, we must understand that a combination of analyses on land, water, energy, waste and nutrient excrement, in addition to carbon, were conducted in order to understand the bigger picture.

Factors such as forage species consumed, grazing management, and ruminant gut microflora also play a key role in an animal’s final carbon output. Varied grazing strategies such as holistic and rotational methods are also known to increase plant diversity and soil organic matter, which in turn leads to higher levels of carbon sequestration in soils. Properly managed grazing in turn also leads to a more even distribution of soil carbon which decreases the need for synthetic fertilizers.

In Capper’s latest publication, she says the use of well-managed rotational grazing systems have the potential to lesson carbon emissions in grass-based operations.

In the end we must remember the take-home message of such research, that the beef industry has made tremendous improvements in efficiency of production leading to a decreased environmental impact and improved sustainability. This includes both grain- and grass-fed systems.

One form of beef production is not superior to the other. We all know that every beef calf spends nearly 2/3 of its life on grass anyway. What matters is we need both production systems to continue to provide our customers with the food choices they desire.

While carbon footprint is a major player in the future of agricultural sustainability, production systems that meet the facets of environmental responsibility, economic viability, and social acceptability all have a place within the industry. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all for agriculture.