ACCORDING to the beef industry's recently completed life cycle assessment (LCA) project, the sustainability of U.S. beef production improved significantly from 2005 to 2011.
Released during the Cattle Industry Summer Conference earlier this month in Denver, Colo., the checkoff-funded assessment took a comprehensive look at the social, economic and environmental impacts of producing beef.
"We examined all the inputs and outputs required to produce a pound of boneless, edible beef," said Richard Gebhart, a cow/calf producer from Claremore, Okla., who served on the project's sustainability advisory panel. "The results show that the beef industry is becoming more innovative and efficient while also doing an excellent job of protecting the resources with which they have been entrusted."
Gebhart said the beef LCA takes into account the entire spectrum of production — from growing the feed through the disposal of consumer packaging. Looking at the 1970s, 2005 and 2011, the assessment gauged present sustainability against eras known for different production practices.
According to Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., the assessment found that improvements in crop yields, irrigation, processing and animal performance have all yielded improvements in the overall sustainability of beef production.
"The completion of the LCA project provides the industry, for the first time, with the science-based evidence necessary to lead conversations about the sustainability of beef," she said. "We examined millions of individual data points and then created models to simulate specific aspects of beef production practices so that these data and these results are truly representative of beef production in the U.S."
From 2005 to 2011, the LCA found that beef producers:
* Reduced environmental impacts by 7%;
* Improved overall sustainability by 5%;
* Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2%;
* Reduced emissions to water by 10%;
* Decreased water use by 3%, and
* Reduced resource consumption by 2%.
Stackhouse-Lawson said the assessment was recently certified by the National Standards Foundation, a third-party, not-for-profit organization that provides standards development, product certification, auditing, education and risk management for public health and the environment.
"When we talk about the sustainability of an industry, that's what it's all about: getting better over time," she explained. "As an industry, beef is doing a good job at making progress on the path toward a more sustainable future. The certification of these results confirms that."
Sustainability has been a buzzword in food production for some time, but industry participants are becoming more aware of its real-world implications.
A recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund, for example, found that by adopting a commodity-based, or value chain, approach to beef production in southern Africa, beef production could become more sustainable from a wildlife conservation standpoint.
"By working proactively to improve the health and productivity of animals and people, recognizing up front that livestock and wildlife depend on a much more unified approach to land use management, we believe we're onto what had been an elusive but highly prized 'win-win' solution to the age-old problem of getting beef out of areas where wildlife is allowed to thrive," said Steve Osofsky, director of the society's animal and human health for the environment and development program. "That's a win for wildlife as well as for communities who have long relied on domestic animals both economically and culturally."