Environmental Protection

Beef Production More Sustainable Now, WSU Expert Says

Advances in productivity over the past 30 years have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of U.S. beef production, according to a new study presented by a Washington State University researcher.

In “Comparing the environmental impact of the US beef industry in 1977 to 2007,” assistant professor of animal science Jude L. Capper revealed that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights, have significantly reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production and improved its sustainability.

“These findings challenge the common misconception that historical methods of livestock production are more environmentally sustainable than modern beef production,” said Capper in a presentation on July 14 at the American Society of Animal Science meeting in Denver.

This project was supported by the Beef Checkoff Program through a research grant from state beef councils in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington.

“It’s important to note that all food production has an environmental impact, but significant improvements in efficiency have clearly reduced the greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact of beef production,” said Capper. “Contrary to the negative image often associated with modern farming, fulfilling the U.S. population’s requirement for high-quality, nutrient-rich protein while improving environmental stewardship can only be achieved by using contemporary agricultural technologies and practices.”

In 2007, there were 13 percent fewer animals slaughtered than in 1977 (33.8 million vs. 38.7 million), but those animals produced 13 percent more beef (26.3 billion lbs. of beef versus 23.3 billion lbs. in 1977). By producing more beef with fewer resources, Capper found that the total carbon footprint for beef production was reduced by 18 percent from 1977 to 2007.

“As the global and national population increases, consumer demand for beef is going to continue to increase,” Capper says. “The vital role of improved productivity and efficiency in reducing environmental impact must be conveyed to government, food retailers and consumers.”

When compared to beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced in modern systems used:

  • 10 percent less feed energy
  • 20 percent less feedstuffs
  • 30 percent less land
  • 14 percent less water
  • 9 percent less fossil fuel energy
  • 18 percent decrease in total carbon emissions (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide)

The study used a whole-system environmental model that integrated all resource inputs and waste outputs within the beef production system, from crop production to beef arriving at the slaughterhouse.

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