5 surprising facts about beef and sustainability

(BPT) - Beef is a staple in cuisines worldwide, valued for its flavor and nutrition. However, recent conversations about sustainability and the beef industry’s commitment to continued improvement have led to research on the issue — which has only served to demonstrate that the beef industry does in fact employ sustainability practices throughout each stage of the production process.

Today's farmers and ranchers supplying beef to the U.S. and around the world have been engaging in more sustainable practices than ever before. Studies conducted in recent years offer a bigger picture of the actual impact of beef production in the U.S., and how it compares to environmental challenges around the world.

Here are five surprising facts about beef production in the U.S. you may not know.

1. Far lower greenhouse gas emissions than other sources

Greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle only represent 2% of total emissions in the U.S., according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. By contrast, transportation accounts for 29% of GHG emissions, and electricity accounts for nearly 28% of GHG emissions in the United States. Beef cattle production as a whole, including production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.7% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Sources:

  • EPA. 2019. Inventory of U. S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2017. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.
  • C. Alan Rotz, S. Asem-Hiablie, S. Place, G. Thoma., 2018. Environmental footprints of beef cattle production in the United States. Agricultural Systems Vol. 169, Feb. 2019. doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2018.11.005.

2. Lower global carbon footprint

The U.S. is a leader in sustainable beef production, with a carbon footprint 10-50 times lower than in other regions worldwide, despite being the third largest producer of beef globally. The U.S. produces 18% of the world’s beef — with only 6% of the world’s cattle.

Sources:

  • Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home.
  • Herrero M., et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2013. 110: 20888-20893.

3. Reduced emissions over 30 years

Between 1977 and 2007, the U.S. beef industry has reduced the carbon footprint of beef cattle by more than 16% while producing slightly more beef, thanks to continued improvement in sustainability practices and more effective use of resources.

Sources:

4. Increased carbon storage

Today, U.S. grasslands utilized by the beef industry sequester and store 7.4 Pg carbon — which is the equivalent of taking 5.76 billion cars off the road. By 2050, grasslands are projected to sequester 8.2 Pg carbon, which is equivalent to removing 6.383 billion cars each year (average car emissions of 4.6 CO2e metric tons per year).

Sources:

  • Using EPA’s GHG Equivalency Calculator and this study for the carbon stocks estimates: Total grassland carbon stocks in the conterminous U.S., estimated to be about 7.4 petagrams of carbon (Pg C) in 2005, are projected to increase to about 8.2 Pg C by 2050. Pendall, E., D. Bachelet, R.T. Conant, B. El Masri, L.B. Flanagan, A.K. Knapp, J. Liu, S. Liu and S.M. Schaeffer, 2018: Chapter 10: Grasslands. In Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2): A Sustained Assessment Report [Cavallaro, N., G. Shrestha, R. Birdsey, M.A. Mayes, R.G. Najjar, S.C. Reed, P. Romero-Lankao, and Z. Zhu (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, D.C., pp. 399-427.
  • Carbon2018.GlobalChange.gov: https://doi.org/10.7930/SOCCR2.2018.Ch10.

5. Plants converted to protein

Cattle not only upcycle, they recycle. Beef cattle generate more protein for the human food supply than would exist without them, because their unique digestive system allows them to convert human-inedible plants into high-quality protein. In the face of growing global population, animals like beef cattle are needed to help make more protein with less.

In addition, approximately 35% of the land in the contiguous U.S. is pasture and range land that is too rocky, steep or arid to support cultivated agriculture, yet this land supports cattle, sheep and goats — leading to protein upcycling.

Sources:

  • Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. 1999. Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply. Task force report N. 135 July 1999, Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis. http://agrienvarchive.ca/bioenergy/download/anag.pdf.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle: Eighth Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/19014.

"In the face of a growing global population, we need ruminant animals, like beef cattle, to help make more protein with less, and we’ve proven in the U.S. that beef can be raised sustainably," said Myriah Johnson, Senior Director of Sustainability Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

The U.S. industry leads the world in sustainable beef production while serving as a pillar of rural economies and providing a nutrient-rich source of protein for U.S. and worldwide consumers.

Learn more about beef and sustainability at BeefItsWhatsforDinner.com.

Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

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