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White paper shows minimal footprint of U.S. beef

Only 3.7% of GHG emissions come directly from beef cattle in U.S. versus 6% globally.

A new white paper detailing the minimal environmental footprint of beef production in the U.S. was recently published by the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

The white paper, authored by Dr. Sara Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research at NCBA, highlights why and how the U.S. is the leader in sustainable beef production.

According to the paper, U.S. beef production, particularly when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is often misrepresented with global statistics that fuel inaccurate reports and misconceptions. The newly published paper addresses this issue by sharing the most recent data, which indicate that only 3.7% of U.S. GHG emissions come directly from beef cattle. By comparison, beef cattle account for 6% of GHG emissions globally.

To further put U.S. beef production into perspective, all of agriculture, including beef cattle and other animal and crop agriculture, accounts for 8.4% of U.S. GHG emissions. Comparatively, transportation accounts for 28% of GHG emissions in the U.S. On global scale, all livestock agriculture accounts for 14.5% of GHG emissions, which is often used inaccurately to represent U.S. beef emissions.

These variations can largely be attributed to different regional production practices. As the white paper notes, cattle production in the U.S. -- due to scientific advancements in beef cattle genetics, nutrition, husbandry practices and biotechnologies -- has one of the lowest beef GHG emission intensities in the world. In fact, GHG emission intensity in the U.S. is 10-50 times lower than in other parts of the world.

Improved efficiencies

The white paper also details the results of improved efficiencies in beef cattle production in the U.S. during the past several decades. For example, compared to the mid-1970s, the U.S. today produces the same amount of beef with one-third fewer cattle. Furthermore, the U.S. produces around 18% of the world's beef with only 8% of the world's cattle herd. These efficiencies are possible due to improved productivity practices, refined genetics, nutrition and scientific advancements.

In addition to more efficient cattle production, beef farmers and ranchers have dedicated themselves to being stewards of the land by focusing on preservation and enhancement of grassland ecosystems through responsible land management practices. As ruminants, cattle can convert plants with little to no nutritional value that are often found on these lands into a high-quality protein, the paper relays.

Room for improvement

Although the U.S. beef industry is the most sustainable in the world, there is still room for improvement, Place explained.

In addition to research and extension and adoption of new knowledge, beef farmers and ranchers have invested in a first-of-its kind life-cycle assessment to better evaluate sustainability achievements and opportunities across the entire beef life cycle.

The outcome of this rigorous assessment, conducted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and set to be released in the first half of 2020, will be economic, environmental and social benchmarks the beef industry can use to set new goals and measure continued improvement.

"It is clear the U.S. is leading the way when it comes to sustainable beef production," Place said. "Not only are we producing more beef with less resources, but we are able to raise a high-quality protein while still caring for the environment. The beef industry takes pride in raising cattle sustainably, which is evident in its dedication to continued improvement."

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