We know that pharmaceutical technologies provide economic benefits to beef producers, and research increasingly shows they also help conserve resources and protect the environment by improving production efficiency. Adding to the body of evidence, the peer-reviewed Journal of Animal Science this month published an article titled “The environmental and economic impact of removing productivity-enhancing technologies from U.S. beef production,” co-authored by Jude Capper, Ph.D., of Washington State University, and Dermot Hayes, Ph.D., of Iowa State University.

Watch our video interview with Dr. Capper, outlining this research prior to its publication.

As the agricultural community strives to become more “sustainable” in its efforts to feed the world’s growing populations, while using fewer resources and reducing environmental impacts, some individuals and groups advocate a return to simpler, low-tech production methods as part of the solution. But while those production systems, including avoidance of performance-enhancing technologies such as growth implants, beta agonists and ionophores, can fit some situations and meet consumer-demand niches, the loss of efficiency can result in unintended consequences.

For their study, the researchers developed a model based on the metabolism and nutrient requirements of the beef population to quantify resource inputs and waste outputs per unit of beef. They compared two production systems, one using hormones, ionophores, beta agonists at current adoption rates, and the other without the use of those technologies. Both systems were modeled using characteristic management practices, population dynamics and production data from U.S. beef systems.

The researchers found that removal of those growth-enhancing technologies from U.S. beef production, and the resulting reduction in production efficiency would have dramatic consequences. Assuming the same volume of beef production, increased resource use and environmental impacts due to the loss of technology would include:

  • Ten million more cattle annually — double the number of beef cattle in Iowa and Kansas.
  • Eighty-one million more tons of feed annually — enough to fill 1,010 Rose Bowl stadiums.
  • Seventeen million more acres of land for grazing and growing feed — an amount similar to all the land in Scotland.
  • One hundred and thirty-eight billion more gallons of water annually — the amount used each year by 1.36 million households.
  • Four additional packing plants with 10,000-head per-day total capacity to harvest additional cattle.
  • Eighteen million more metric tons of CO2eq — equal to the emissions from 3 million U.S. cars — would be released in the United States annually.

If U.S. beef farmers and ranchers did not use productivity-enhancing technologies and global demand for beef remained the same, Brazil would increase beef exports, losing 16.9 million acres of Amazon Rainforest and West Central Cerrado forests.

For more, watch out video interview with Dr. Capper, outlining this research prior to its publication.

The research abstract is available online from the Journal of Animal Science. You can obtain free reprints of the complete article by emailing a request to info@sustainablebeef.org or purchase short-term access to the article from the Journal’s website for $15.

More information on this research and other issues related to sustainable beef production are available at SustainableBeef.org.