The global population will increase by about 50% in 2050, from 7 billion people to 9.2 billion. According to the FAO, we will need 70% more food, but we will have less arable land person to produce it on.

Judith Capper, PhD, Washington State University, spoke about efficiency and sustainability in the beef industry at the 2011 American Meat Institute’s Animal Care and Handling Conference in Kansas City, and how that will make a positive contribution despite some efforts to reduce or abolish it.

Sustainability heads every agenda, Capper noted. “We all have to think about this as we move forward. It’s important to understand the challenge and the message and information the consumer receives every day.”

Some groups believe that adhering to a Meatless Monday diet will solve environmental ills, she said. “Anti-animal ag groups are out there with powerful images and they are sending messages to consumers every day saying we shouldn’t eat meat, pork, poultry and other animal  products.”

Capper said a Carnegie-Mellon study claims Meatless Mondays considerably reduce the carbon footprint. They say that shifting one day a week from meat achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally-sourced food. However, she noted, there was no quantification of how going meatless compares to driving a car or having a computer.

Before taking those types of studies to heart, Capper said, people need to check the math and look at other consequences those blanket recommendations can have.

“If everyone in the U.S. went meatless every Monday that would cut our total national carbon emission by .44%, which is not a very big impact. It cuts it by less than 1% and that assume every single person in the population goes meatless, and it assumes that everything we eat instead has no methane contribution.”

Capper says people need to think about other consequences of Meatless Mondays and ask: What happens to consumer choice if this was mandated? What replaces animal by-products such as tallow, skins, leather and pharmaceuticals? How do we replace those in the human system? What replaces meat and dairy? What is soy to the human digestive system in terms of methane output?

Efficiency has improved
Capper also noted the tremendous efficiencies the livestock industry, beef in particular, has made over the years and its ability to producer more product with fewer animals and on less land.

In 1977, it took five beef animals (606 days from birth to slaughter with a 603 lb slaughter weight) to produce the same amount of beef as it did with four animals in 2007 (482 days from birth to slaughter with a 773 pound slaughter weight), with less feed and less waste. “With improved efficiencies including growth rate and average daily gain, there is less maintenance, land, water and greenhouse gases,” Capper said.

 “The carbon footprint per unit of beef has come down 16% from 1977 to 2007,” Capper said, “just by the beef industry doing what it does best, improving productivity and efficiency.”

A comparison of 3 systems
A variety of cattle production systems are available to fit all types of consumer preferences, but Capper said the problem is that some of them are “mismarketed” to consumers and not always described accurately on their environmental impact.

“The notion that is out there is that conventional beef is bad and grass-fed beef is good,” Capper explained. “I’m not against grass-fed beef. There is a place for every single system if it has marketshare. What I am against is mismarketing and pseudo-science that implies grass-fed beef must be far better than corn fed beef on the environment.”

Capper said that three beef production systems were compared against each other:

Conventional: About 98% of U.S. beef production uses conventional systems. Calves are weaned at 7 months, 15% go as calves to feeders, others go into yearling systems. Production-enhancing technologies are often used (implants, etc.). Animals are slaughtered at 800 lb. carcass weight at about 453 days.

Natural beef: Identical to convention but production-enhancing technologies are not used. Animals are slaughtered at a 714 lb. carcass weight at about 464 days.

Grass-fed: Pasture-based system from birth to slaughter, production-enhancing technologies are not used. Animals are slaughtered at 615 lb. carcass weight at about 679 days.

“Comparing systems, for natural and grass-fed if they don’t grow as fast or as heavy we need more animals to produce the same amount of beef as conventional beef production systems,” Capper said. “Tomorrow if we move solely to a natural system we would need another 14.4 million animals. For grass-fed, we would need another 64 million animals.”