Sustainable: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.
That’s how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sustainable, and I am willing to place a bet that many of you have your own ways to define a term that is being widely discussed throughout the entire agricultural industry, including the cattle sector, and was the subject of a recent Upson Lecture Series event on the campus of Kansas State University.
Livestock sustainability consultant Jude Capper was on K-State’s campus to discuss her research efforts focused on beef sustainability and about the importance of the beef industry engaging in a conversation with consumers about modern beef production practices.
Capper’s research compared the environmental profile of the U.S. beef industry in 2007 to production practices in 1977. Her research revealed that improvements in nutrition, management and use of technologies have improved the industry’s sustainability.
“The conventional industry has been sustainable and will continue to be sustainable, because we know now far better how to treat our cattle, how to feed them, how to breed them, how to calve them, than our parents and grandparents did,” Capper said. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve used 12 percent less water per pound of beef. We use 33 percent less land per pound of beef, and the carbon footprint per pound has come down by 16 percent. It’s a huge achievement on behalf of the industry.”
In addition, her research found that with modern production practices, the beef industry uses 10 percent less energy, 20 percent less feedstuffs and 9 percent less fossil fuel. Further, according to Capper’s research there were 13 percent fewer animals in 2007 compared to 1977, but those animals produced 13 percent more beef.
Capper said regardless of production methods used, any production system can be sustainable if economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability are in place.
“It doesn’t matter if you have 20 cows, 200 cows or 2,000 cows, whether you have Angus, Hereford, Limousin or Belted Galloway, any system can be sustainable providing these three things are in place,” Capper said.
While the use of technologies, including growth-promoting technologies, have enabled beef farmers and ranchers to be more efficient, Capper said they can be “frightening” to consumers who may not understand how and why the technologies are used. She said it is important to explain beef production practices in a way that allows consumers to relate to raising cattle.
“By the year 2050, we’re going to have about 9.5 billion people on the planet,” she said. “At the moment, one in seven kids don’t have enough food. So, if we can express the benefits of improved efficiency and improved productivity in terms of feeding more hungry kids every single day, that should resonate with the consumer.”
Sustainability is also an issue the Beef Checkoff Program has worked on with its industry sustainability assessment, which was certified by the National Standards Foundation earlier in 2013. The assessment reveals that between 2005 and 2011 the beef industry has reduced sold waste emissions by 7 percent; reduced emissions to water by 10 percent; reduced occupational illnesses and accidents by 32 percent; and reduced its total environmental fingerprint by 7 percent.
So what’s the bottom line?
Whether it’s Jude Capper presenting her research findings on campuses across the country and to other stakeholder audiences, the Beef Checkoff Program conducting research and developing plans for continued improvement, or individual cattle producers and beef lovers engaging in conversations about the positive attributes of the industry, the fact is that the beef industry has a big job in coming years. Not only does the number of mouths to feed around the world grow each minute, but at the same time, individuals, organizations and some businesses are willing to mislead consumers about beef production and all animal agriculture. This means, like Capper says, the industry must be willing to tell its story, listen to consumer concerns and engage in a conversation about modern beef production.
More information about Capper’s research is available at www.bovidiva.com.
What are your thoughts on sustainability in the beef industry? Let me know by leaving a comment to this article.