On March 14, Drovers/CattleNetwork hosted a Beef Sustainability webinar, providing scientific insights on modern beef production and its environmental impacts. The webinar, sponsored by Merck Animal Health, featured Washington State University animal scientist Jude Capper, PhD, and University of California-Davis atmospheric scientist Frank Mitloehner, PhD.  

The two scientists provided strong scientific evidence to refute some of the commonly quoted misinformation regarding greenhouse gas emissions and other aspects of beef’s “environmental footprint,” while demonstrating how improvements in efficiency and productivity contribute to the long-term sustainability of modern beef production.

The webinar is available for viewing from Drovers/CattleNework.

Webinar participants had an opportunity to ask questions, but the presenters did not have time to address all of them during the session, so we provide some of those questions and answers here.

Question: How sustainable are feedlots within the beef production system?

Answer from Dr. Jude Capper:  Evidence suggests that feedlots have the lowest carbon emissions, land use and water use per unit of beef compared to grass-finished production systems as a consequence of the faster growth rates and increased slaughter weights in the feedlot system. In terms of economic viability, production costs tend to be lower in the feedlot system and therefore savings are passed on to the consumer. The social responsibility aspect is more nebulous and I don't know of any published research on the subject, however, evidence suggests that the majority of consumers primarily choose products according to taste, price and nutrition, with only a small percentage (about 4 percent) choosing foods according to production system such as organic, natural or local. 

Question: What if we were to educate consumers to use what I will call "red veal" calves coming off grass and mothers milk, which would reduce resourced use?  

Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: You're right, "red veal" would potentially have a lower resource use, however I don't know of any studies that have specifically examined this at present. In addition to the improvements in growth rate and slaughter weight that reduced the environmental impact of the US beef industry between 1977 and 2007, the use of dairy calves for beef production in 2007 (vs. veal production in 1977) helped to reduce resource use and carbon emissions per unit of beef as we needed to maintain fewer beef cows in the cow-calf operations to support beef supply. Having said that, the relatively small consumer demand for veal nowadays may mean that it remains a relatively small component of overall animal protein supply.

Question: Can we have examples of how we are improving productivity to reduce the carbon footprint?.

Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: On the dairy side, the major gains have been seen in terms of increased milk yield per cow (for example, from 4,800 lb/cow annual yield in 1944 to over 20,000 lb/cow in 2007), improved milk composition (fat and protein yield) which therefore improves cheese and other dairy product yield, and in some cases, a reduction in cow mature weight (e.g. In a Jersey compared to a Holstein) while maintaining dairy production. On the beef side, the gains that we have seen have primarily been a result of increased slaughter weight and growth rates, conferred by improved nutrition, genetics, welfare, health and management. Use of technologies (e.g. rbST in dairy and growth-enhancers in beef) have also allowed us to produce more animal protein using fewer resources.

Question: Dr. Capper uses US production to refute the drastic waterfootprint of boneless beef. If international production averages are used, does it skew more towards her result of gallons per pound or the water footprint network's?"

Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: Great question. International production averages are always tricky as they don't represent any beef production system, however, it's certainly true that if data from South American systems (e.g. Argentina or Chile) were used, the results would skew far more towards the Water Footprint Network's estimate. As with many of the global examples that are used within the mainstream media, the challenge is to differentiate between global averages and regional numbers – the presentation and wording of the beef example in the Water Footprint Network's beef example (e.g. "In an industrial production system….) implies that data is representative of any industrial system, without regards to the efficiency of different regions, thus presenting a very skewed image of US beef to the consumer.

Question: There are two definitions of Sustainability.  How do we get the consumer to realize sustainability is what we just discussed, basically buying Conventional beef?"

Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: Great question – and not an easy one to answer. The fact that consumers have an increased interest in how their food is produced nowadays is a double-edged sword – it give us the ability to listen, learn and educate, but also means that the "other side" have an opportunity to do so. Unfortunately more extensive (higher environmental impact) systems seem intuitively more sustainable to consumers, and, as we all are, they are more likely to agree with concepts that play into their existing perceptions. I've seen a lot of progress being made through social media recently – not because people go onto Facebook to learn about beef, but simply because they place trust in their "friends" (regardless of professional affiliation) whereas they don't necessarily trust people who they see as speaking for the beef, dairy or other industries. Center for Food Integrity data suggests that farmers are extremely well-placed to educate consumers as they are perceived as being extremely trustworthy, thus one challenge is to get people confident with sharing and explaining why they do what they do and how food production works. This is one area where small, local, organic producers tend to be much better than larger conventional producers, thus it provides an area where we need to improve.

The webinar generated a number of positive comments, including the following:

“Thank you so much for coordinating this.  I sell local, grass-fed beef and want to understand how our niche fits in the larger industry.  Thank you!”

 “Thanks to you, Dr. Mitloehner and the team at Drovers/Vance for putting this seminar on. I found it very informative. Thanks also to all your organizations for all you do to bring good fact and sound science to the ongoing dialogue about our food and its origins.”

You can view the webinar in its entirety on the Drovers/CattleNetwork website. A quick registration process is required.